'The Way Out' is The Books' thrifting at their finest

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the first seconds of The Books' newest album, "The Way Out," listeners are greeted by the voice of a man offering the opportunity of a new beginning. He introduces the experience that is about to be had by noting that the following will be "music specifically created for its pleasurable effects upon your mind, body and emotions."

Apparently, the music is also "mixed with a warm, orange-colored liquid." After an instrumental interlude, a different man's voice appears, offering to be our guide in a journey. "I hope to be of help without intruding any more than is absolutely necessary," he says.

Plinks and planks of bass and guitar strings start softly, crescendoing as percussion and vocal lines drift in and out of the soundscape. More guiding voices appear and disappear, offering advice that seems to be building with the music until the track is over. Then it's on to number two.

This style of auditory collage is what characterizes The Books. For the past 10 years, band members Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto have scoured East Coast thrift stores for tapes containing interesting audio clips that they'd like to use in their songs. Backed by cello, guitar, toys and other instruments as various as the audio samples they acquire, they interject their own lyrics into multi-layered compositions.

The natures and topics of The Books' collected samples are endless. "The Way Out" begins and ends with "Group Autogenics," hypnotic recordings mixed in a lighthearted style, yet with thoughtful undertones. By track four, listeners experience "A Cold Freezin' Night," which features the voices of children expressing their anger at others using violent words, accompanied by a fast-paced musical backdrop.

Near the middle of the album, "Thirty Incoming" uses voicemail messages to paint a portrait of a man in love. Dial tones and answering machine beeps are remixed with strings, vocal tones and heartbeat-like drums that build and build, suggesting strong emotion. The song truly is a journey, as are most by The Books. Their ability to compile contrasting content into cohesive compositions is strong, and they pursue their craft with professional dedication.

In form with their previous albums, it's not necessarily necessary to separate each track as its own song. Actually, in most cases, to do so would rob the listener of the big picture that the individual pieces combine to create.

In a book, each chapter is partitioned by pages but is informed by and so informs the others. Similarly, each track on "The Way Out" acts as a bridge between the previous and the subsequent. But it also stands alone as its own unique work, perhaps sharing properties with others but also containing attributes all its own.

Like a good book, new things are noticed each time through. I've been listening to The Books' other albums, "The Lemon Of Pink," "Thought For Food," and "Lost and Safe," diligently for years and I still uncover fresh discoveries with each new spin.

Their current record label, Temporary Residence, catalogs the band as "eclectic, innovative electronic-folk-pop that are so ahead of their time that your kids will be ripping them off." Perhaps they are ahead of their time, but their music creates a listening experience that brings me back to simpler times. Perhaps their technique could be considered electronic, but the analog nature of their mixing implies splicing tape more so than manipulating code with computer software.

I've often been disappointed in the past at the lack of material available about The Books' music. Their CD jackets never came with lyrics, and it was difficult to find official commentary online. I want to know where they found this or that sample, why they chose to compile it in the way that they did and how they experienced their own music as they made it. Well, "The Way Out" is the first Books album that comes with full lyrics in the liner notes.

If that's not enough - and it isn't for me - their blog explains in detail much of what you'd want to know about each song on the album. But before you read it all, be sure that you're really ready to see what is behind the curtain - just because it has been opened doesn't mean you have to look inside. After all, half of the magic behind the music is in the mystery.

Learn more at www.thebooksmusic.com.

Contact Libby Sterling at 523-2272 or libby.sterling@juneauempire.com.

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