The Books: Media Detritus and Profound Nonsense

An ensemble of benevolent, disembodied heads gave the public its first introduction to The Books‘ fourth and latest album, The Way Out, during a 2009 fall tour. “Welcome to a new beginning,” said a serene, balding fellow on a video screen above the stage as sample-miners and multi-instrumentalists Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong began piecing together the calming yet suspenseful melody of “Group Autogenics I.”

Later in the song (which ended up becoming the new album’s first track), another floating-face spiritual guide followed up with this hysterically baffling statement: “You may now just possibly detect from my voice that I am Irish — and now I leap forward in time.”

The voices came from an old cassette demonstrating “autogenics” (a mode of self-hypnosis that emphasizes relaxation and positive affirmation), and the heads belonged to friends whom Zammuto videotaped lip-syncing to the cassette.

Audiences laughed, the way they can’t help but laugh at new-age non sequiturs. The heads, as they floated through galaxies and bobbed in glasses of mysterious “orange-colored liquid,” were welcoming the crowd, not into a mocking kitsch fest but into The Books’ deceptively warm little universe.

Throughout the live show, the duo’s meticulously synced-up collages of original and found video compensate for the fact that the two are modestly hunched over guitar, cello, or even doubled-up electric basses the whole time, recreating music that’s inescapably rooted in the studio. The screen above them puts not one but dozens of faces on the show, from tourists bungee-jumping in Wisconsin Dells to stiffly dressed Victorian-era men staring uncomfortably at the camera.

This gentle human touch is one of the reasons why The Books’ patchwork of samples and original composition has stayed refreshing and accessible since its 2002 debut, Thought For Food. On The Way Out—its first since 2005 album Lost And Safe — The Books proves itself under-appreciated humorists as well as experimental-pop masters.

“We like to say that humor is a back door to the profound,” De Jong says. “It’s incredibly revealing.” The key is never to look down on the people in the countless old cassettes, LPs, answering machines, videotapes, and other media detritus that the two dig up in thrift stores.

Zammuto regards the sages of “Autogenics” with sympathy and patience: “I’ve flirted with a lot of Buddhist and Taoist texts. To see how Eastern thought works its way into Western culture and really mutates into these hypnotherapy tapes, it’s pretty fascinating.” The hilarity might just be some kind of Zen bonus.

Though they don’t aim to be funny all the time, Zammuto and De Jong can find humor even alongside some of the album’s most somber moments. “Thirty Incoming” begins with an answering-machine message that Zammuto finds incredibly sweet (though he says his wife finds it creepy): A man calls to tell a woman that “it really felt good to lay down next to you. I didn’t realize how much I missed that feeling.”

From there, De Jong’s soothing cello gets busier amid analog synths, melodic bass, a percussion track that’s surprisingly meaty for The Books, and a whirl of other people’s answering-machine messages, with beeps and cassette hiss intact. As the track ends, a cranky old fellow tells a friend that he “ain’t no Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone!” It’s a ridiculous insult — just a roundabout way of saying, “you’re not making phone calls” — and one of the album’s most abrupt and goofy moments.

Admittedly, a lot of the voices The Books converse with are aiming for planes higher than comedy. To make “I Am Who I Am,” De Jong boiled down an old cassette of a sermon to a minute and a half of the preacher indignantly shouting, with ever-shifting emphasis: “I AM who I AM. And WHAT I am, and I WILL BE what I WILL BE,” and so on, in time with the relentless stamp of an electronic kick-drum sound.

The song’s almost comical punchiness reflects the harder touch that De Jong and Zammuto tried on some of The Way Out‘s tracks. “We didn’t want to have to fall back on any expectations people had that our music was pastoral or acoustic,” Zammuto says. The upbeat pulses of analog synth on “Beautiful People” and “Chain Of Missing Links” back up that statement, though these tracks still feature Zammuto’s delicately ascending guitar chords.

When he does find someone who’s actually trying to be funny, Zammuto seems happy to play along. He now uses clips from ’80s golf-instruction tapes as a companion to the song “I Didn’t Know That” in the live show’s synced stream of video.

“They do all these sight gags when they get ahold of a video camera,” Zammuto says. “They do crazy stuff like bring vacuum cleaners out on the green to make fun of people who are always trying to line up the perfect putt.” The song “kind of quotes funk but doesn’t really go there,” he explains, adding, “there’s almost nothing funkier about golf from the ’80s.”

As the father of two boys (four and one-and-a-half), Zammuto needed a few listens to come around to a tape in which a brother and sister recorded themselves trading insults and death threats: “I can kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, any way I want to! Probably by cutting your toes off and working my way up towards your brain!”

During the live show, the resultant song, “A Cold Freezin’ Night,” comes complete with these menacing words flashing on the video screen in childlike crayon script.

“I almost rejected it the first time I heard it,” Zammuto says. “’No way. It goes way too far.’ And then I started to revisit it. I saw more and more humor in it each time.” He says it helped that the little girl develops her character a little more by revealing that she wishes she was a boy, thereby making the track more than just “an absolute childhood cruelty piece.”

“Our technique for creating humor involves nonsense,” Zammuto says. The prime example might actually be “Meditation,” a live highlight also released on the 2007 DVD Playall. As a voice says “meditation” over and over again, increasingly whimsical anagrams of the word flash onscreen: “Do it in meat,” “I’d mate on it,” “I tainted Om.” At shows, the minute-long piece draws the same mix of applause and high-pitched “woo!”s that would normally greet a vocalist holding a high note for a few excess bars. That’s The Books turning virtuosity on its head; the harder it plays with nonsense, the more silly and disarming possibilities open up.

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