Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Notes From The West Coast, Part One - Books & Music

The Selected Ballads spent some time in the Golden West during the holiday season. Here's the first batch of my notes from the trip:

1. One Fast Move

If you're planning to drive any of the more scenic stretches of California's Hwy. 1, allow me to recommend some driving music: Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard's One Fast Move Or I'm Gone. Some might consider it a bit too obvious or literal to listen to songs about the California coast while driving along it, but I'm not that sort. I've listened to the Beach Boys driving around L.A., and I'd do it again (oops). I've fallen behind with my Farrar fandom in the last few years, missing his recent NYC appearances after being underwhelmed by The Search and the last Son Volt show I saw at Irving Plaza. He's given me so much pleasure in his career, though, that I'm very glad to be able to enthusiastically endorse One Fast Move.

Like the rest of Farrar's fans, I would've never predicted that he would team up with Ben Gibbard or that the pairing would work as well as it does. Although he wrote almost all of the songs on the album (taking the words from Kerouac's Big Sur), Farrar only sings half of them, and I wonder if his voice, one of my all-time favorites, sounds better when he's contrasted with another, very different, type of singer (like Gibbard, or Jeff Tweedy). Maybe part of the ho-humness I've felt about some of Farrar's albums and live shows has come from a kind of fatigue with that voice, like having too much of a rich food all by itself.

The melodies are simple and beautiful in a way that the best Farrar songs are, and they seem to suit both singers. The experience of hearing some of Farrar's characteristic melodic moves coming out of another singer's mouth is jarring for a second before it becomes refreshing. Gibbard pulls his weight. The lyrics at times seem shoehorned into the melodies (weird scansion?) - this is a trait typical of later Farrar, but it somehow works with the Kerouac text, calling attention to words that can stand up to the scrutiny. I'm looking forward to listening to this album in a less awe-inspiring setting to see if it can give me chills on its own. I've also got the One Fast Move documentary at #1 in my Netflix queue, so maybe I'll report on that soon.

2. City Lights (plus: a ride on my bookstore hobby horse)

Speaking of Beats on the West Coast, I was glad to finally get to the famous City Lights Books. It was a blast to browse, but I'm a little ashamed to admit that I didn't buy anything. I tried to justify this to myself on the grounds of limited space in my carry-on baggage, but I ended up buying books later in the trip (see below) and squeezing them in. The truth is, I have a hard time paying list price for books in a world with the Internet and the Strand, and I continue to question the business model of shops that sell nothing but new books at full price.

I think, and hope, that City Lights will get by on the basis of its amazing selection (you're not gonna find those small run poetry chapbooks and zines on Amazon) and, of course, its reputation, but I wonder about the future of places like the lovely Three Lives in the West Village (same deal: all new, all full price, and I've rarely bought anything from them). By contrast, the almost-as-historic Moe's Books in Berkeley has a nice mix of used and new. St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village is all new books, but it has a secret weapon: a killer sale table almost hidden away in the back of the store (the genius of the sale table is that people with sick brains like mine can convince themselves that buying one book for $10 off list and one at full price is the same as getting each of them for $5 off - a variation on "the more you buy, the more you save" - thereby justifying the purchase).

3. Treehorn Books, Santa Rosa, CA

As much as I enjoyed City Lights and Moe's, this is the kind of bookstore I really love to find - one that sells used books, has a great selection, and is located in a small or out-of-the-way town, with the type of pricing that's possible with low overhead. Here is the thrill of the hunt - you see a couple of titles you wouldn't expect, you check a few prices, and you know the game is on. My best find here was a 1st edition of Rock and the Pop Narcotic, the notorious critical screed by Joe Carducci. My traveling companion struck gold in the art & architecture section, coming away with an armful of well-illustrated suitcase busters. With this store and the Russian River Brewery (to be covered in Part Two), Santa Rosa made a strong case for itself as my future place of retirement.

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