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Culture: Andrew Cowen's Big World of Rock - A treasure hunt through time and classy records.

Byline: Andrew Cowen

There are few greater pleasures in life than sitting in a quiet room with a chunky rock reference book. This week I've been compulsively whiling away the hours with The Mojo Collection.

Billed as the ultimate music companion (although I'd argue that having Avril Lavigne along on your pub crawl would be more entertaining), The Mojo Collection is a compulsive slab of 900 pages.

Kicking off in 1953 and ending earlier this year, the book attempts to pick the best albums over a 50-year period and give each a page of prose written by a respected journalist. Coming from the house of Mojo -the monthly magazine which caters for exhippies of the Saga generation -you can assume that the project will be tackled with taste, style and a modicum of fustiness.

It's an interesting read. Each album comes with a sidebar listing vital details such as producer, track list, catalogue number and whether it is currently available on CD. However, it's a simple device at the end of the column which lifts the book into the realms of the compulsive. A line reads 'like this?' and then refers you to another page with an album that's a sonic or thematic cousin.

This approach creates a matrix of cross references and means it's impossible to read the book in a linear fashion. It's an approach that's as frustrating as it is fascinating, and frequently had me shaking my head in pompous disagreement.

The major flaw with the book is the writing itself which is often aloof and technical rather than passionate and exciting. Very rarely do the writers get under the skin of an album.

The best music writing should make you want to rush out and buy the album, believing there's a hole in your life that can only be filled with the likes of, say, Bridget St John's Songs for the Gentle Man -an unsung slip of a record from 1971. The other problem is that it makes it transparently obvious that music's getting worse. Compare the selection of albums from 1972 to those with 2002 and the standard of achievement has dropped off considerably. Although time gives a patina of value to music, most of the albums selected for last year don't hold a candle to those released ten or 20 years before.

Being from the Mojo stable, the book probably assumes that we all own these albums and the purpose, rather than introduce us to new delights, is to divert us back into the dusty corners of our record collections and dig out that long-forgotten gem.

Nonetheless, it's great fun following the links to other albums. Here's what I did last night: Starting with one of my most-played discs, Robert Wyatt's 1974 masterpiece Rock Bottom, I began my treasure hunt. Wyatt's album, a brave and harrowing response to an accidental fall which left him paraplegic, is very much a one-off in the art-rock canon. Wyatt's voice is plaintive and heartbreaking, the songs deceptively simple. The accumulation of mood and amazing bending of language is simply astounding, as I'm sure anyone who knows the album will agree.

The review is dry though, setting out the album's historical context but doing nothing to describe the music within. But never mind, I'm sent off to page 406 where 1978's landmark Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich is waiting for me. This minimalist classic is probably Reich's most enjoyable and accessible work; a 12-part composition based on an undulating rhythmic pulse which constrains the musicians yet allows subtle shifts of tone by gentle predetermined tweaking. As an album it's great for drifting off to a dreamstate and an obvious blueprint for the experimental ambient techno of the 1990s.

I like it, so turn back 350 pages to see Eric Dolphy's 1964 album Out to Lunch described. I've never heard this so anything that marries the sound sculptures of Steve Reich with free jazz ought to be worth a listen.

The review has more passion than the others and describes how Dolphy used his rhythm section to provide momentum rather than just keeping time and adding melody, while the playing elsewhere is described as visceral. One to watch out for I thought while heading back in time to 1959 and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come. I'm not a big jazz fan, although the old progger in me makes me amenable to stuff that's long and in wonky time signatures. Although we're not really told why, the review says that the album is revolutionary and a genuinely new sound in jazz. I know I should have some Ornette Coleman in my collection and this sounds like a good place to start.

Obviously Mojo readers have a predilection for this beatnik sound as Coleman's reviewer sends me off two pages to Charles Mingus' Ah Um, also from 1959.

I've got a bit of Mingus in my box of records although I've never found it easy to listen to. However, I do know he's cool so I hang onto them.

Fearing I'm in jazz limbo, I'm relieved to find that the Mingus footnote sends me bounding through time and space to 1997's Buena Vista Social Club, the Ry Cooder project which revitalised the world music scene with the excavation of a whole forgotten generation of ageing musicians and spawned a new industry which spread into film.

On then to 1979 and Ry Cooder's Bop Til You Drop, an album I bought at the time. A mixture of rootsy material and some wonderful guitar playing, the link between the Buena Vista bunch is obvious. And then the whole thing breaks down. Bop Til You Drop links me back to the Buena Vista Social Club and I'm in a loop.

But you get the idea. Some rock books are custom-built for trivia lovers, the sort of book to start long and heated discussions down the pub. The Mojo Collection is a more noble tome. It'll keep you busy for hours.


Robert Wyatt, creator of the masterpiece Rock Bottom,
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 18, 2003
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