I enjoyed the new Zammuto album so much that I figured I’d take a look back at his past work. It’s hard to believe I’ve been listening The Books for nearly a decade now. Despite the “folktronica” label that a lot of reviewers and RYM seem to give them, the music of The Books hasn’t aged much – like, say, Can’s Future Days, it feels a bit out of time. It could have been made long ago, it could be made 20 years from now. I try not to say this much on this website but The Books really were a one-of-a-kind band. They consisted of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, who played guitar and violin respectively, but really they were more than just musicians. Nick was the sort to analyze the mathematical qualities of sine waves and study the effects of certain sounds on the human body, while Paul had an obsession with audio and video obscurities and possessed a large library of both. The Books played a sort of music that was soft and acoustic, but threw a lot of experimentation and samples over the top. Essentially it is folk mixed with plunderphonics, though their approach to the latter was unique. With most plunderphonic groups, the more obscure the better – I recognize a very small portion of the samples on a Bran Flakes album, which is a big part of their charm. But they still drew these samples mostly from old LPs and TV, stuff that was rehearsed and made for commercial use. The Books use some of this as well, but they take things a step further, drawing from home movies and answering machine tapes found in thrift stores, ensuring samples that nobody could possibly identify (or worse, use for themselves).
Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, both seemed like big deal records at the time. Most reviews were the sort of wistful junk that Pitchfork still publishes on occasion (“I walked past a food truck in Albany while the sun painted the clouds an explosive orange…”), as it really hit a nerve with some people. The Books weren’t exactly some left-field act, but they lived in their own world and had such boundless potential. Hence, when the band split in 2012, it really felt like the end of something important. This, despite the fact that they only released two albums after 2003, and neither of them received the same kind of acclaim. That’s not exactly fair; all four of their albums are really good, and if anything they got more adept over time. But they’re the sort of band that you always remember your first exposure to (see also: Aphex Twin), and for me that was Thought For Food.
I decided to go back and listen to Thought for Food again in an attempt to remember how special this record really was. You hear it right away; on the first track you can hear samples drift in and out, as if someone is flipping channels on the TV – “Eagle!”, “Fault”, “Gentlemen, good luck”. These are the kind of vocal fragments The Books love; stuff that is tied to a particular event or captures a particular moment, and really isn’t meant to be used in this sort of context. The samples used usually aren’t played rhythmically nor are they repeated. That alone makes the group feel different from other Plunderphonic groups; they’re not DJs, for Christ’s sake. But what sets The Books apart is their sense of space. I get confused by the description of the group as anything-“tronica”, as the acoustic and human elements are usually very prevalent. You can hear the hands on the guitar body, the strings ringing out against the inside of the instrument, the violin being plucked, glasses clinking against each other, and so on. Most descriptions of their music don’t touch on how few extraneous elements there ever seem to be; every sound is thought out and deliberately placed. It is profound but it does not lead. It is layered but there are few overlaps. It is dense but it is also slight. It is rhythmic but uses no drums.
Clearly there is something special about this album and this group; for once you don’t know what the influences are. Their usage of samples is the album’s most notable aspect, as they drive the music in all sorts of odd ways. A track like “All Bad Ends All” seems to follow the inflections and patterns of the voices (jumbled speech is accompanied by jumbled plucking), while the countdown in “All Our Base Are Belong to Them” (see? Not dated at all…) espouses a celebratory mood that plays against the somber music that follows. They interact with these voices in ways that I’ve never heard – the frantic rambling of the woman in “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again” is gently led by someone (De Jong?) reading the text in a monotone inflection in the background. “Getting the Job Done” evolves into a strung-together folk song with Zammuto singing along with disparate lines. Now I could be wrong about all this; there is so much recontextualizing going on in everything The Books do that it’s nearly impossible to explain. For instance, it’s recently come to my attention that the dialogue in “Contempt” is originally from a 1963 movie of the same name, but the scene that is used is originally between a man and woman; “Contempt” edits (or re-records) it to be between two men (“Do you think I have a pretty backside? Do you like all of me, my mouth, my eyes, my nose, my ears?”). Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be creepy? Is it supposed to be profound?
“Motherless Bastard” is a great example of this; the dialogue that opens the track is apparently just a dad pulling a prank on his daughter, but taken on its own, it sounds almost shockingly cruel, and the beautiful, despondent music that follows doesn’t exactly make it any clearer. It’s a tune I’ve heard singled out in nearly every review, but it seems as though everyone gets something different out of it. That sort of ambiguity is difficult to pull off in music; once lyrics become too dense people tend to tune them out. But The Books have so many more tools at their disposal that their world seems to be so much bigger.
Thought for Food radiates that kind of potential; it is part music and part thought experiment. But what to make of Thought for Food as a whole? The sampling seems to die down at the end, with tracks like “Mikey Bass” (a bunch of bass lines layered on top of each other a la Chris Squire) or “Excess Straussess” (violin melodies repeatedly phasing in and out). Likewise there are the final two tracks, barely over a minute long each, one a seemingly incomplete thought (“A Dead Fish Gains the Power of Observation”, the other an oppressive rumble of cut-up kids voices (“Deafkids”). There is a lack of cohesion for sure, but given the collage nature of their work this really isn’t an issue.
This has been a particularly good album for me to rediscover, as my mind is able to connect more dots than it could a decade ago. A careful listen with headphones revealed a ton of detail I didn’t remember; nothing was quite that straightforward, even the more upbeat and catchy tunes like “All Bad Ends All” and “Thankyoubranch”. More surprising was that I was left emotionally wrecked by the whole thing and I can’t really explain why. Music by nature is emotional, but it usually hits broader feelings such as beauty, nostalgia, anger, loneliness, and so on. The Books hit something more refined; not just a feeling of “nostalgia” but a reminder of something very specific in your life. Of course, half of this is the music and half is the listener. A lot of the cleverness will be lost on you if you treat this as just background music.
If you’ve ever heard of the Found Footage Festival, or stayed up too late following a rabbit hole on YouTube, you’ve probably seen those videos, the stuff that, without the internet, would be lost to time forever – the bad commercial, the bizarre instructional video, or the strange home movie. There’s a beauty in restoring this stuff, and just reveling in the sense of the moment, especially once all context is removed. There is a huge internet subculture devoted to these kind of videos; Tim and Eric have made a successful career out of duplicating that whole aesthetic, and much of what Neil Cicierega does taps into that as well. I think there are a number of bands that played into this feeling – I’m thinking mostly of Negativland here, but there are plenty more like them (again, just type “plunderphonics” into Google and you’ll find a bunch). Still, nobody did it quite like The Books.