Musicology

Engaging Emerson
photo: Barry Morgenstein
Engaging Emerson

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Ken Emerson
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
Viking

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    The brick-and-mortar Brill Building is still there, but for decades it's been a metaphor—for an expediently teen-oriented songwriting and production aesthetic that was derided as the place's commercial importance faded in the late '60s and then nostalgized as the girl groups and later Burt Bacharach entered a contested rock and roll canon. Ken Emerson subsumes the metaphor in a social history that profiles seven songwriting teams, four male pairs and three married couples. All the principals, as well as such background machers as Don Kirshner and Phil Spector, are Jewish, mostly from New York. So that Emerson is a Southern Episcopalian is a piece of luck—he can't ignore the scene's Jewishness, but he also can't obsess on it. Concisely, engagingly, insightfully, he not only thumbnails individuals as different as white-Negro hipster Doc Pomus, mama's-boy prodigy Neil Sedaka, sophisticated Manhattanite Cynthia Weil, and perfectly pitched Brooklynite Carole King, he conveys how they related to their partners and within their subculture. Emerson loves their songs, but not equally—better Leiber-Stoller than Sedaka-Greenfield, better the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" than Steve Lawrence's "Go Away Little Girl." He's blunt about the pretensions of late Leiber-Stoller and the vapidity of most Bacharach. He details the musical acuity of these supposed hacks while emphasizing that the preponderance of their enduring work was recorded by black singers, who usually got totally screwed rather than merely exploited. A better book than—to name two good ones of renown—Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music or Geoffrey O'Brien's Sonata for Jukebox. Quicker, too.

     
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