The duo known as The Books have always been composers of the highest order. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong first met a little over 10 years ago when they lived in the same New York apartment building. One night over a neighborly dinner de Jong showed Zammuto a project he was working on, which involved mashing up various bits of recorded audio and video into one massive collage. It was out of that experience the band was born, and together they’ve been picking up interesting recordings wherever they can find them (mostly in thrift shops) for the purposes of chopping them up and placing them in the stew they like to call songs. By the time 2005 rolled around, The Books were ready to release their third album of original music with found sounds on top, like sprinkles on a delicious sundae. It has now been 5 years since we’ve heard any new material from the band, and the extensive delay has been the result of both taking time off for family along with going out on tour for the first times in their lives. After nearly 2 years of sporadic recording, this week sees the release of the new Books album “The Way Out”. If you’ve heard a Books album before, this is by no means a radical departure from their older material, but it does mark a progression.
It’s easy to get the impression that The Books are merely slapping wacky audio bits together and then playing quiet instrumentals underneath them. They are working on an abstract concept all their own, so one would be forgiven for suggesting the guys are just haphazardly throwing shit against a wall and seeing what sticks. No, their process is far more refined and carefully motivated by the mood and tone of their instrumentals, the samples being conscious choices with similar themes and matched to evoke certain reactions from the listener. Take the track “I Didn’t Know That”, which strings together a number of children and adults all saying the title with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The skittering drums and jazzy guitar brim with the excitement of freshly gained knowledge and also the innocence of youth. Equally fascinating is “A Cold Freezin’ Night”, which loops a quickly picked acoustic guitar with African-style drums while samples of little kids describing how they’re going to kill someone run over the top. Is it intended as a social commentary with a darker instrumental, or is it more about how silly the harmless yet vivid threats we often made in grade school are today? One thing you can count on with The Books is that they’re not going to tell you what to think or how to think it, but instead like the audio samples they piece together, there’s more than one right answer. Of course that’s not always the case. One listen to “The Story of Hip-Hop” tells you virtually all you need to know, with an old man telling a children’s story about a jumping bunny rabbit backed by a beat that might work well in a rap track. It’d be pretty funny if it weren’t so on the nose.
Even when they miss their target or play down to their audience, The Books still provide plenty of challenges in their songs. Between the multitude of samples and the variety of instruments they play on every track, you discover something new on almost every listen. They may not be the catchiest things in the world, but what they lack in easy memorability they more than make up for in sheer creativity and originality. “The Way Out” features the band taking things farther away from the acoustic-based instrumentals of their previous albums in favor of a more electronica feel thanks to an assortment of manufactured beats, synths and digital trash. It gives the entire record a more unified feel, and that leads to stronger melodies and better accessibility than The Books have ever had before. Call it a step in the right direction. While it’s tempting to call this the band’s best to date, there are a few flimsier moments towards the end of the record that fail to fully connect. The additional electronic elements also don’t do them any favors when it comes to crafting emotional warmth, though the harrowingly beautiful acoustic number “All You Need Is A Wall” is certainly an exception. Of course that’s also the only track on the album that doesn’t use samples liberally and primarily focuses on Zammuto’s hushed vocals. At this point it would seem that what The Books really need is a sonic balance, where they can continue to use their new wider palette of instrumental exploration with their loads of samples to craft a record that’s weird, complicated, fun, and sensitive from moment to moment. “The Way Out” comes close, but needs just a touch more refinement before it’ll be a genuine home run.