Found sound – a helter-skelter form of sampling using previously-purposed and sometimes the most commonplace of audio, taken from the field or in staged recordings – isn’t a musical conceit that knocks down many music executives’ doors. Few artists merge it into their work, and fewer still excel at it. The one collective I can conjure up who really made a career out of such sound collage, Negativland, are so entrenched in making sociopolitical commentary that their music often is barely musical, and they could give two shits about filling anyone’s corporate coffers.
This, then, makes The Books such a particularly brilliant oddity. Throughout the 2000s the duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong integrated with increasing success their string instrument backgrounds, their fascinating audio libraries, and their arranging abilities. Where Negativland pull back curtains and engage in debate, and where found sound lodged in industrial music usually aims to shock and scare, The Books’ compositions take on conversational and truly musical tones. With occasional nods to the dramatic and melancholy, their work is by and large pleasant, and altogether curiously engaging.
One notorious part of The Books’ creative process finds them pulling up roots and settling in a new locale to cook up new material. Having finished prior releases in the sticks of both North Carolina and Massachusetts, fourth album The Way Out was prepared in the mountains north of New York City. (After releasing all of their previous work on German label Tomlab, they’ve now moved to Temporary Residence Limited in Brooklyn.) Who knows if Zammuto and de Jong could feel the restless, insomniac heartbeat of the city where they first met, but they seem to have paid homage to it. For work once teased by Zammuto in the Boston Globe with, “You’re getting verrry sleepy,” The Way Out is nothing if not The Books’ dance-rock album.
Granted, from the album-bookending “Group Autogenics” tracks inward there are numerous references lifted from self-help and hypnotherapy recordings. “We Bought the Flood” and “Free Translator” also surely focus on the “folk” in their brand of glitch-folk, the former a lurching yet calm acid freakout, the latter a somber meditation on a couple underpinned by a folk singer’s “And I see” refrain. The rest of the album is still recognizable as The Books, but they’ve spread out more rhythms throughout it and gone seriously uptempo.
“A Cold Freezin’ Night” might be the signature track on The Way Out, its clipped drum loops and sampled makeshift percussion supporting a whirlwind of guitar, harmonica, telephone tones, birds, and disturbing dialogue from misanthropic children. Nearby “I Am Who I Am” is dense and dissonant enough to stand alongside the earliest and best work of Skinny Puppy. “I Didn’t Know That” is hand-assembled funk, while “The Story of Hip Hop” takes a recording about a mysterious garden creature and reconfigures it into an allegory on the namesake musical style.
The momentum in tracks like the math paean “Beautiful People” is a surprise only because it dominates quieter work like “All You Need is a Wall”; the duo’s softness has now become a softer side. The transtion of The Books from 2005’s Lost and Safe (and their commissioned EP Music for a French Elevator and Other Short Format Oddities by the Books) to The Way Out recalls the change in atmosphere between Music has the Right to Children and Geogaddi by Boards of Canada. There’s a pervading sense of maybe difficult growth, tempered by comfort in knowing that the group you loved is still in there somewhere managing to thrive at everything they do.
MP3: “Beautiful People”
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.