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Book Review: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

April 14, 2010

I have not yet had the time to read this one from cover to cover, but from what I’ve skimmed, I look forward to really burying myself in this.

The reason I bought it in the first place, though, is for the chapter on Neutral Milk Hotel, one of Merge’s flagship bands. I sat down with it yesterday with a pen, expecting to annotate it and highlight any bits I thought might be worth including in my project (or at least stuff to ask others about), and I quickly found myself underlining just about every sentence. There’s a lot of great stuff in here.

Lately, I’ve tried reading a lot of rock bios, to see how other writers are tackling the subject. But most of them are pretty terrible, and while it maybe bodes well for my odds of getting a book published, none of them provide much of a paragon.

If the Neutral Milk Hotel chapter is any indication, Our Noise makes for a solid model.

The book is mostly an oral history, broken up by some detached prose to provide context. This chapter in particular weaves the Neutral Milk Hotel story primarily through anecdotes from Robert Schneider, Julian Koster, lawyer Brian McPherson, booking agent Jim Romeo, and a bunch of Merge folks. Notably if a bit predictably, it doesn’t include any contribution from Jeff Mangum but for a quick e-mail at the end in which he declines to participate in the book (though it does crib from earlier interviews). I’m still not sure if I’ll get a chance to talk to Mangum for my book, but this is more evidence that it’ll be possible to write about him capably without talking to him (though, obviously, I’d prefer to talk to him, all things being equal).

The structure of this chapter is, roughly, what I’m striving toward. Because dates are tough to come by with these folks — author John Cook concedes “it’s best not to try to pin anyone down to dates when dealing with Mangum and his friends — an encyclopedically toned chronology is impossible (not that it would be necessarily fun to read anyway). Instead, I plan to string together a bunch of anecdotes, such that a narrative can emerge.

Cook includes details and quotes like how Mangum got fired from a telemarketing gig, how Neutral Milk Hotel got so wrapped up in a game of wiffleball that they missed a soundcheck, and how Merge only originally pressed 5,500 copies of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (it would go on to sell 254,000 copies by the time this book was written). I’m certainly not alone in thinking these bits of color, when taken together, paint a much more vivid picture than one strung together by basic boring facts. It’s been a while since “Impressionism” was a pejorative term, and I think I can reconcile this plan with my desire to write an exhaustive, comprehensive history.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 5:06 AM

    Holy crap, sir. I just found your blog. I’m a big E6-enthusiast as well, and look forward to digging through your archives.

  2. alec permalink
    April 20, 2010 11:05 AM

    it’s a solid read. prepare to lose track of time.

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