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Reviews

The Books
The Way Out Ross Pounds , August 12th, 2010 08:07

The Books have become one of those bands who add a little something extra live. Echoing the found sounds from which their recorded work is meticulously created, they apply a similar approach to old snippets of video and film, chopping and cutting reels and reels of thrift store film stock and abandoned home movies into a visual accompaniment to the sounds being made, the images on the screen behind them echoing the sentiments in the songs being played. It's at once subtle but enchanting, languorous but mesmerising, a perfect fit for the sound collages they create. It's easy to find yourself getting lost, the slivers of sound and half-heard words melding seamlessly with footage of old women dancing at bar mitzvahs and kids fighting on degraded, washed out, mould-speckled film spools. It's a show so simple, but one so involving and well-executed that one can't help but wonder whether Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto - coming on like a snooty librarian and his excitable young assistant - might lose something on record.

On the evidence provided with new album The Way Out (as well as on their previous three LPs), the answer would be no. It's a different experience, admittedly, but the rewards are no less great. Where live the film appears before your eyes, here you find yourself creating images in your head; Polaroid-quick snaps rolling past as you try and pair the words coming out of the speakers with their source, however mistaken or left-of-field those attempts might be.

Though broadly similar in terms of their sample-happy approach to the Avalanches and more recently Javelin, the aesthetic The Books specialise in is an altogether calmer one, piecing together shards of spoken word and replacing the drum machines and raps favoured by their half-brothers with a delicate, unobtrusive backing track of plucked guitar and hushed hums. It's akin to going to see a hypnotist who's particularly au fait with editing software, letting your mind drift and your thoughts wander as the songs peel off on unexpected tangents, double back on themselves and then move forwards once more. It's a wonderful trick, and one excellently executed here. Although not quite in the same league as their sophomore effort, 2003's superb The Lemon of Pink, The Way Out is nonetheless quite unique and, for something that could quite easily not be, refreshingly unpretentious.

It's an album which feels oddly timeless - a symptom perhaps of the varied ages of the various sound samples being used - but also because it's a technique that doesn't really date or become stale. It's a collection of compositions: pieces which could easily have been the work of some minimalist contemporary of John Cage or Steve Reich or an album found 50 years from now, snippets from earth beamed deep into space. It feels like a relaxed stroll through the turn of a radio dial and the antithesis of the MTV effect with its joyless and frenetic editing streamlined into something sometimes full of humour, sometimes catchy, often touching but always beautiful. You get the sense that albums like The Way Out are real labours of love for de Jong and Zammuto (the four year gap between this and their last release seems to confirm as much); triumphs of craft and ingenuity, pieces of art as much as pieces of music. It's the aural equivalent of a house built of matchsticks – painstaking in its creation but well worth the effort once you see it in all its glory.

We're greeted on opening track 'Group Autogenics I' by a clipped, collegiate voice announcing "Hello, greetings, and welcome. Welcome to a new beginning,". It's something that's not entirely true - if there's a legitimate criticism to be levelled at The Books, it's that their sound hasn't ever really changed or progressed. If you joined their eight years of work into one long album it would be tough to notice the joins and gaps where one record ends and another one starts. But on another level, that kind of criticism is redundant. It's a moot point whether or not the albums sound the same, given the vast and disparate array of samples and sounds which go into constructing their tracks. It's an odd reversal: although their larger body of work sounds very similar, there are more ideas in each track than a lot of bands manage over an album. That The Books have created a sound so identifiably theirs from snippets that are so obviously not their own work should be applauded. They're breathing life into something stale and lost here, turning junk into art in the best way possible.

Although there's without doubt an element of aleatoricism at play in the way the samples are found, the songs themselves are very deliberate and structured, crafted in an exact order for a definite purpose. Zammuto has described what the Books do as collage music, probably the most appropriate definition for a band whose work is really in a league of one. In the build up to the release of The Way Out they spoke of how they wanted each track to be "its own rabbit hole", a fitting symbolism in that repeated listens to the songs here reveal new elements every time, new structures and meanings, nuggets of humour or observation found buried deep beneath the surface.

What makes the sound so unique on The Way Out, and what really makes the Books work as a concept and a band, are the detached nature of the samples. Clearly taken from something much larger, here we're only privy to disembodied portions of greater wholes, taking one piece of something broader and layering our own interpretations on top. As such, we get an inexplicably unrepentant stiff-back fearlessly proclaiming "I am who I am" on the track of the same name; two flat, oddly menacing children trading insults ("It's not fair/I wanna blow your brains out", "I am gonna kill you" and so on) back and forth to a Casio disco beat on the hilarious 'A Cold Freezin' Night', and a New Age counsellor who sounds alarmingly like Adam West on the lovely, elegiac, self-help soundscape 'Chain of Missing Links'. 'I Didn't Know That' is flat-out great, the Books' own version of a mini-funk odyssey as imagined by Squarepusher, slap-bass and all, and the closest thing they've come to a straight-up pop hit. One gets the sense that we could have another 'O Superman' on our hands were it to trickle into the mainstream, but in this day and age it's unlikely.

But perhaps that's where they're best: comfortably underground and consequently able to carry out these experiments and build such grand collages to their heart's content. They're masters of their own domain, as comfortable creating wonderful sounds on their own (see the gloriously warm, math-worshipping 'Beautiful People', which Zammuto described as "a three part Christian harmony mixed with a sort of euro-disco-trash beat, an orchestra's worth of sampled brass and lyrics about the twelfth root of two, trigonometry and tangrams") as they are sampling Ghandi and old answer phone messages. They're a band who exist in their own world, a place totally immersive and unlike any other. It's a pleasure to go there, and a tough place to leave. If it takes them another four years to craft an album then so be it. If it's anything like The Way Out, it'll be well worth the wait.

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