When pressed, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong would describe their band The Books as “folktronica,” however they preferred that their music not be categorized. And rightly so. What they created in four full-length albums – from Thought for Food (2002) to The Way Out (2010) – was always (and still is) its very own thing, despite apt reference to other nerdy, cerebral and sample-heavy acts like Negativland and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics. But unlike those projects, the music of The Books was more focused, more polished, and more like that of an actual band, even though it was still miles away from straight-ahead rock.
At the heart of the duo is an eclectic library of samples and found sounds, comprised largely of spoken word culled from both historical recordings and thrift store curios. Wrapped tightly around those spectral voices are de Jong on cello and Zammuto on banjo, acoustic guitar and processed electric guitar (sounding at most times a lot like electric bass). On Lost and Safe, their third album, they added Zammuto’s voice to the mix to great effect.
More often than not, the music of The Books is rhythmic, mostly employing samples for percussion. On Lost and Safe those sounds come from a variety of sources: the bounce of a basketball on “Be Good to Them Always”; PVC piping on “Vogt Dig for Kloppervok”; and metallic whacks and thuds on “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps”. Even the sound of the more conventional instruments is transformed through self-sampling. This is distinctly digital music aspiring for the warmth of analog. And these are truly electroacoustic sounds, carefully layered and juxtaposed to create something that could only exist in a post-ProTools era.
Zammuto’s voice and original lyrics are also treated like samples – the words themselves express disjointed thoughts and emotions that have been plucked from their original context and recast, often bearing no deeper meaning in relation to a greater whole than whatever can be gleaned from what comes directly before or after. This is emphasized most effectively on the track “Be Good to Them Always.” Here Zammuto speak-sings along with the found sounds, crafting simple near-melodies that follow the rising and falling of natural verbal inflection. His idiosyncratic Sprechstimme is accompanied by musical changes that wander from place to place, landing on an actual resolution only at times of greatest impact.
On “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps” and “If Not Now, Whenever,” Zammuto’s singing and samples alternate, either as different sections of the same song or as different interlocking parts. There are also tracks that do without singing altogether, like “It Never Changes to Stop” and “Venice.” In these instances, a single recording plays out for a few minutes while the instruments construct a musical setting to add mood and emotional context. “It Never Changes…” is particularly effective (and affecting), comprised primarily of a single male speaker, distinctly American and rural, who directs his audience in various ways to sit still and be quiet as his voice trembles and cracks with emotion. It sounds as if he is willing them to comply, using only the sound of his voice. Meanwhile, Zammuto’s banjo spools out at a steady pace and de Jong’s multi-tracked cello drones and swells. It adds to the vague menace of the voice, lending it a melancholy and perhaps nostalgic serenity that imparts an unsettling mood.
At the other end of the spectrum are tracks that attempt instead to do without the pre-recorded sounds, coming closer to actual songs than anything else The Books had done. “None but Shining Hours” sounds quite a bit like Pinback – looping figures on electric guitar and Zammuto’s hushed voice singing about “the tide reclining…/ the sweet sun shining…/ the long horizon.” But the song gets caught in a rhythmic loop before it can dream up a chorus to go with its placid, meandering verse. And then it abruptly stops. There’s also “An Owl with Knees.” Kinetic, percussive, melodic and mildly euphoric, it’s Lost’s “Tokyo” – The Books most recognizable song, from their popular 2003 album The Lemon of Pink – giving impressions also of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium,” if that song had been augmented by a close approximation of Rob Crow’s singing and digitally sampled percussion.
As with all other efforts by The Books, the listener plays an important part in assembling Lost and Safe, helping to give meaning and resonance to the words by providing his or her own context to samples that have been excised from their original sources. Lost is an album with a lot of meaning and resonance to ruminate on. Admittedly, there is humor at times – “Keeping your eyes gently closed/close your eyes tightly” – but most of the album’s content is serious stuff for thoughtful listeners.
The track “Be Good to Them Always” in particular may come off as especially relevant today, with lines like “I hear a collective rumbling in America” and “This great society is going smash.” But other tracks are even more abstract and philosophical, like “A Little Longing Goes Away” or “Smells Like Content,” which finds Zammuto singing, “Our heads are approaching a density/ reminiscent of the infinite connectivity/of the center of the sun/and therein lies the garnered wisdom/that has never died.” The singularity of The Books’ sound and the open-ended, out-of-context aspect of their aesthetic mean that Lost and Safe will likely remain both dated and timeless in a way that invites listeners to return to it every so often with fresh ears.