Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Music Review: The Books - The Way Out

"There are a lot of reasons to get excited for a new Books album in 2010. For one, the New York-based electro-acoustic sound collage duo’s fourth album, The Way Out, is their first full-length release in some five years (and this after packing three records into just four years from 2002-2005). Second, in an era of instant gratification and woefully nostalgic genre dress-up, the Books’ engaging mix of found sound samples and cello-based musique concrète offers not only a respite from the influx of faux lo-fi trend-hoppers, but also an authentically derived sense of real nostalgia with exactly zero posturing or elitist aura evident in the proceedings. And after their last record, 2005s satisfying if not exactly revelatory Lost and Safe, this long period of artistic gestation is further stoked by the opening sample of The Way Out, which declares (via what sounds like a self-help tape voiced by the narrator of “Magnolia”) “Welcome to a new beginning…that’s right, a new beginning”. It’s enough to send my Books-loving heart racing at the possibilities, and to their credit the duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong do present a run of tracks here as exhilarating (and different) as anything they’ve ever done. They’ve also, unfortunately, not entirely done away with the more traditional singer-songwriter material which ultimately hampered their last effort.

It’s an odd trade-off and one that I’m not sure exactly how to reconcile, even after close to a dozen listens. They obviously have no intention of returning to their solely found-sound, instrumental roots, but on evidence of this record’s fascinating first half, it’s a little disappointing that they didn’t extend this newer, more dynamic approach across the album’s entire breadth. Which is to say that there’s plenty of material here that long-time Books fans will appreciate, but with the scattershot approach employed I’m doubtful anyone would consider this alongside their still utterly unique early work. In fact, their catalogue is now split evenly between these two approaches, to the point where comparing the two seems a little like a dead-end. In this case, it’s probably better just to take the songs and this record in particular on an individual basis, since more often than not the music on The Way Out is weird and creepy and inspired enough to at least satisfy the left-brain consciousness that we should be glad at least a few bands are still engaging with.

So yes, the first half of The Way Out lives up to expectations and then some. After the enticing, aforementioned table setter “Group Autogenic I”, the album drops a brief segue in the form of the mysteriously titled “IDKT”, before taking off with a run of bold, disorienting pieces that utilize the band’s patented sample-based collagist approach towards very different ends than what one has come to expect. Traditionally, most Books music has been invitingly mellow in nature, but the four song sequence of “I Didn’t Know That” through “I Am Who I Am” represents the most dynamic and hyper-stylized compositions they’ve yet stitched together. “I Didn’t Know That” pits two title-invoking samples (one featuring children and the other a sort of obscure soul crooner) against a twitching backdrop of rubbery bass and glitched-out vocals. “A Cold Freezing Night”, despite its bracing patchwork of side-long, stick-tapping percussion and toy-box samples, is arguably the record’s most thematically ominous track, as a young boy details the murder of a friend in giddily anticipatory manner. Even when the duo cautiously utilizes their own voices on “Beautiful People”, they wisely manipulate, fragment and briefly reverse the melody, so that the vox becomes yet another instrument in the record’s swirling stew of early highlights.

From there the record hits a patchy stretch wherein memorable tracks such as the answering machine-derived “Thirty Incoming” sit alongside sagging acoustic pieces like “We Bought Flood”. On this track, as well as on the female-accented “All You Need is a Wall” and the country-tinged “Free Translator”, the Books become so surprisingly traditional that they sound like a completely different group. The worse thing I could say about the less adorned moments on Lost and Safe was that they felt like half-remembered (and less inspired) Microphones tracks, but their counterparts on The Way Out offer not even a hint of the atmosphere that those pieces at least had working in their favor. Coupled with the least interesting sample-based track on the album (“The Story of Hip-Hop”), this run of songs ultimately sends the album out on a disappointing note, particularly when compared to verve displayed early on. The album is unique enough in its front half, however—and pleasant enough in its back half—to label it a worthwhile listen, particularly for long-suffering fans. After five years though, it would have been nice not to have to make such qualifications. It’s good to know the Books are still a restless and at times brave band, and if they take some of the best ideas offered here and push-off even further from their chamber-locked origins, their next record might prove worth the wait." [73/100] [Published: 07.28.10]

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