I’ll admit it, there are times when I want to quit college, lie on the couch, and play video games ‘til I wither away and rot. I’m the type of guy who (after going through a divorce and falling away from religion before the age of 12) tends to get disillusioned easily. And I can’t count, on all fingers and toes, how many times school has disappointed me, and how academia makes me want to never study, never learn, and, therefore, never read.
But there are those rare moments when, in the depths of some many-century-old text, I get this weird feeling of inter-connected-ness while learning. Call it enlightenment, call it oneness, but I also get this feeling of hyper-intellectualization whenever I listen to The Books.
The Books create a form of music that I like to refer to as “Collage Rock.” By working old audio clips from film and other forms of mass media, they create rhythms within the sounds and, by putting the words with acoustic instruments, they create amazing, haphazard melodies that seem to tell music the way storytellers tell stories. Hearing it makes you feel smarter.
The use of old audio lines and acoustic sounds gives The Books a rustic sound that is fully exploited in their new album Lost and Safe. More mellow and transcendental than their previous albums (Thought for Food, and The Lemon of Pink,) Lost and Safe also contains more singing and audio files than their previous two albums, which makes The Books’ name make more sense. And what lyrics! The liner notes could easily be studied in any poetry class at college. The Books somehow make who-knows-how-old spoken words into poetry by the simple act of cutting and pasting. In track 2, “Be Good To Them Always,” the words come out: “I can hear a collective rumbling in America/ I’ve lost my house, you’ve lost your house/ I don’t suppose it matters which way we go/ this great society is going smash.” These four lines are spoken by four different speakers within four different contexts. None of these lines rhyme with one another. And yet, with the weird weaving of the strings of the acoustic sound of the Books, it all seems to fit.
The album’s centerpiece is the song that appears right-smack-dab in the middle. Entitled “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps.” The Books seem to be perfectly aware that this song is amazing; because it is the only song where they capitalized the first letter of each word in the title. And for good reason. You will not hear such amazing percussion work in your typical artsy-fartsy albums. It’s enough to make your knees buckle and fall to the floor. And then the audio samples begin to talk of Mr. Maps himself. “He is forty-two/ five-feet-eight-inches tall/ normally wears his curly hair long.” The voice continues to describe Mr. Maps the character, while the drum behind the song continues to pound on the whole body. It’s something that isn’t easy to forget.
If Lost and Safe has a flaw, it’s that it has a tendency to fall short while simultaneously trying to be over-reaching. It’s something that is captured quite nicely when Books member Nick Zammuto speaks into the microphone at the end of “Smells Like Content.” “Expectation leads to disappointment," he says, "if you’re not expecting something big, huge, and exciting/ it’s just not as…. I don’t know.” And then he trails off. While I get the point of the line, it seems to capture a sense of awkwardness that is sometimes present while listening to Lost and Safe. It’s the awkwardness of trying too hard to do something you made look easy on the first two albums. I’ve worked with audio collage before, and I know how difficult it is when a speaker could have said a line better and therefore make a better song. The idea of letting the chips fall where they may is usually the only available option when making the kind of music that the Books make. But the music, on occasion, suffers for it. The Books’ first album, Thought for Food, was a masterwork in terms of putting the collage just right and making an album that was both fun to listen to and enlightening. Lemon of Pink was a bit messier. Lost and Safe falls somewhere in between the two. It’s not the Books’ masterpiece. The Books’ have not recaptured the sense of discovery that they nailed with Thought for Food. Then again, neither has anyone else.
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