The book is split into four main sections: “Avant Rock,” “Funk, Hiphop & Beyond,” “Jazz & Improvisation” and “Modern Composition” with each section been given equal weight. Refreshingly, none of the authors give the impression that their article is the be all and end all of guides for their respective subjects; the Primer article serves only as one person’s suggested entry route into the convoluted back catalogues of “important” musicians. In the “Avant Rock” section, the articles on Captain Beefheart and The Fall all cover a lot of familiar ground but are written well enough to not be relegated to filler. Nick Cain’s broad account of noise in the '90s and '00s is an interesting if a little scattered in approach as Cain charts the connections between the various microgenres of noise. The power of the Primer is exemplified in Edwin Pouncey’s piece on Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention; despite my lukewarm interest in Zappa and the fact that he has been written about endlessly, Pouncy manages to keep my interest throughout his excellent piece, mixing biography and discography to good effect.
It is the other three sections of the book where The Wire Primers really shines as it is the unfamiliar ground that these articles were meant to chart out. The “Funk, Hiphop and Beyond” section is largely terra incognita when it comes to modern music and the writers in this section do the best job of marrying back stories with the music created by these individuals. Peter Shapiro’s chapters on James Brown and Fela Kuti are entertaining in their enthusiasm, it is almost possible to hear the music through Shapiro’s prose. The drier, slightly more academic-feeling articles on grime and dubstep are lacking in excitement, the information contained therein is useful for the novice.
Both the “Jazz & Improvisation” and “Modern Composition” sections run the danger covering artists and styles that have already been done to death in the wider publishing world. However with articles on music by artists like Derek Bailey, AMM and those from the musique concrète school of composing, this is the mossier side of the tree stump that is 20th/21st century music. Even when the focus is on more celebrated artists like Sun Ra or John Cage, the authors bring more to the table than dry history or the usual slew of facts that accompanies commentaries on their work. Presenting John Cage in a way other than extremely familiar is a difficult task but Louise Gray’s take on the master points the spotlight at both his infamous and undeservedly lesser known works, shedding a new light on pieces that have been discussed to death like his prepared piano and “silent” pieces. The only dud in these last two sections is David Keenan’s article on free jazz where he tries to put a microgenre straightjacket on the music he describes by calling it “Fire Music.” That being said, when he leaves aside the genre talk, his passionate descriptions and recommendations do make me want to pick up many of the featured albums.
Even though all of the articles have been printed previously in The Wire apart from those on noise, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and Derek Bailey, this book is worthwhile to have even for those who have been buying The Wire for years. Almost all of the older articles have been revised and updated by their respective authors for the book, most obviously in the Sun Ra article considering the huge amount of reissues that have surfaced since its original publication. Even for those who have an aversion to The Wire (and I know there are many out there), this collection divorced from the context of the magazine feels less like a typical Wire read and works well as a standalone volume.