Album as Archive
Nathalie Lagerfeld on The Books' new album The Way Out.
I wasn’t at all excited about—or even conscious of—the Books’ then-upcoming album The Way Out until I saw the duo perform their new song “Cold Freezing Night” at a free concert in Millenium Park. I was so far back that the music was barely audible, but the band thoughtfully projected a video with lyrics on a screen behind them to entertain the unfortunates like myself stuck in the back. Spliced together from dozens of old home videos, it depicted a childhood apparently caught in some kind of time loop and/or on PCP. Fortunately, for your own viewing pleasure, the video can be found online.
I find this to be a refreshing change. For years, indie music has presented a monolithic vision of childhood as a sweet and carefree time when everyone played nice together and wore cool headdresses. (I’m looking at you, MGMT.) “A Cold Freezing Night,” however, explores the psychotic aspects of childhood. A little boy’s voice threatens tortures inventive enough to make Method Man blush. A little girl experiments with her first curse words. The frenetic pace of the synthesizer samples adds to an overall feeling of confusion and chaos (though the occasional clown horn honks to let us know that they’re just playing and it’s all going to be okay). The song evokes a part of childhood that rarely comes across in adults’ sentimental remembrances—the sick private rituals of childhood that we act out away from our parents’ prying eyes.
Prying into the darker areas of the child world took a lot of research on the Books’ part. It’s been five years since the duo of cellist Paul de Jong and guitarist/vocalist Nick Zammuto turned out a record, 2005’s so-so Lost and Safe, but during that time they’ve certainly kept busy. Out on the road, they scoured thrift stores for old cassette and VHS tapes, a search that turned up much of the material they used here (interestingly enough, the vocal samples found on “Cold Freezing Night” were taken from old Talkboys—those kids’ audio recorders made popular by Home Alone). In a post on the Books’ very informative blog, Zammuto explains the enormous amount of effort that went into collecting these sonic artifacts:
“Since our last record came out in 2005 Paul has been working on rebuilding and reorganizing his sample library. He’s got some 30,000 samples now, neatly categorized into folders like: ‘Foghorns’, ‘Insects’, ‘Mechanical Instruments’, ‘Strange, Small’, ‘Telephones, Beeps’. At least half of the library is spoken word and is categorized by source, with mysterious titles like: ‘1975’, ‘Morning Offering’, ‘Alpha Awareness’, ‘IF’, ‘Egos, Emotions’, ‘Canary Instruction’, ‘French in Record Time’, ‘Jezus Christus Superster’, ‘Bend Me and Feelings’, etc. etc. etc.”
You get the idea.
Zammuto has said he thinks that The Way Out is “our best record so far,” but I’m not convinced. It is apparent that De Jong and Zammuto have challenged themselves musically on the album. De Jong works with a much more abrasive selection of samples than on previous records, like the percussive synths on “Cold Freezin Night”, and Zammuto has added electric guitar to the instrument mix—the electric, a Fender Strat, is apparently his first. The result isn’t really a stylistic departure for the band, but there is enough variety introduced to keep things interesting. That said, it’s also apparent that The Books haven’t kept up with the ways that electronic music and sampling has changed since their debut. Their musical collages sound dated and often predictable even when the combinations of samples are themselves unexpected.
I get the feeling, though, that when Zammuto says it’s their “best record,” he may not be talking about the quality of the songs themselves. In interviews, he seems to be more proud of the album as archive than artwork. There is a sense of historical mission in the way he talks about his and de Jong’s methods in their search for samples (again on their blog):
“What makes a good tape? Nothing mainstream. We’re into stuff that was made in small runs by local producers, that would otherwise never be digitized, and is therefore literaly on ‘the Way Out’. For the most part the material we sample has no ‘google signature’ which feels like an important line that defines the sweep of the library. This includes home recordings like answering machine tapes and ‘talkboy’ type things, instructional videos for products that no longer exist, strange religious stuff etc.”
There’s a fine line for Zammuto, it seems, between the library and the album itself. The songs are one way of many to organize the library. This album is an important historical archive as much as it is a work of art in itself—a kind of Smithsonian Folkways Collection of Talkboy tapes.
There are also many songs on the album that are strong for reasons that have little to do with sampling. “All You Need is a Wall” and “We Brought the Flood” are two beautifully melancholic tracks that rely more on simple guitar and cello arrangements than on looped samples. And as “Cold Freezing Night” attests, the Books’ signature wry sense of humor is on display in the juxtaposition of disparate vocal samples. My favorite is an evocation of the title of their debut and comes from one of the autogenics tracks that bookend the album: “Humans only use 95% of their brain, meaning that the other 5% is available for... food.”
For a record from a band whose style is rooted in experimental music, The Way Out isn’t all that experimental. However, the diversity of voices on the album almost makes up for it. While most albums are defined by one or two big personalities, The Way Out has a myriad of them: bloodthirsty children, spaced-out hypnotists, zombies, and long-forgotten soul singers are just a few of those in the mix. The rich result offers enough subtle pleasures to merit several close listenings, and enough entertainment to make many more casual ones.
Nathalie Lagerfeld lives and writes in Chicago.