Monday, October 5, 2009

#87. The Books - Thought for Food (Tomlab, 2002) and The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab, 2003)

A Fahey-ian, resonating acoutsic guitar riff.
An announcer for a golf tournament.
More random guitar.
A woman recounting her harassment by...someone.
An old blues song.
Jim Bakker's Christmas message.
A more hoedown-y guitar part.
An Italian (?) guy repeating the word 'rainbow.'
Hoedown-y violin.

Welcome to the best indie-electronic album of the decade, and there's the breakdown of what you'll hear in the first song. No percussion, no synths, no real vocals, just a series of seemingly random elements thrown together without much rhyme or reason, yet the effect is positively thrilling and unsettling.

The Books' debut album Thought for Food may stand as the most singular release of the decade, not that it's singularity is the only striking thing about it. The duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have a knack for creating surprisingly coherent songs out of random samples and sampled acoustic guitar and violin, an odd combination that recalls both American Primitivism and IDM while never sounding fully at home in either camp. The songs don't have the free-form acoustica nor the lenghty compositions of the former, but the guitar work is distinctly reminiscent of that school, especially in the moments where the riffs are allowed to develop into full-fledged jams as opposed to being cut up and cast aside at any time. The songs themselves take full advantage of the breadth of samples that the duo have on hand to create unexpected lyrical through-lines whole Zammuto's guitar playing provides an anchor for the track to distinguish it from something like Since I Left You or the rest of their label-mates' more standard indie electronica. It's a strange little blip on the radar that would have probably been ignored if not for a few high profile bits of praise, but its incongruous popularity among a certain section of listeners is fine by me. The album is too good to languish in cult album limbo.

It's also pretty damn creepy in its best moments. The thing that keeps me coming back to thought for Food more than anything is that it manages to turn the mundane into the unsettling through nothing but context. I mean, the whole album's not a giant ball of uncomfortable the way a Sunn o))) album is, there's plenty of expertly played upbeat moments and a near-country hoedown vibe to quite a few songs, with Zammuto's guitar and the violin converging at key moments. There's also about half the tracks where the combination of the guitar, strings and whatever vocal sample the band came across add up to something extremely creepy. The individual elements of "Contempt" don't necessarily appear to be that unsettling, but put together the way that de Jong and Zammuto choose to put them together everything takes on a more sinister air. "Motherless Bastard" is more unambiguously disturbing - that vocal sample is emotional abuse in its purest form - and the fact that its one of the few times the live instruments get to flesh out a riff into a full-fledged jam makes the song that much more of a stand out. That's not to discount the stuff like "All Bad Ends All" where the jaunty guitar collapses into a random pile of electronic sounds before givingway to a polka sample at the end or the weirdly funky stuff like "Mikey Bass," but the moments where the duo give a lot of play to the darker side of their sound are the ones I keep coming back to.

I think that's my biggest issue with their more widely praised follow-up The Lemon of Pink: It's still a great album, but the creepy is gone and I miss it. It's easy to see why it's the more widely loved of their albums, the composition is more fluid, the songs are more song-like and the album has more of a sense of album-ness to it, but the fact that they've applied these improvements to a series of songs that abandon the most striking elements of its predecessor. Now, as I said, the songs are pretty uniformly excellent, the more vocal based number especially sound fantastic, and the core of Zammuto's guitar playing anf de Jong's manipulation of odd sound sources is still firmly in place, but I find it hard to fully embrace it the way I did Thought for Food. If i could simply judge it on its own merits I'm sure my opinion would have a decided upswing to it, but in the context of it coming on the heels of one of the most individual and striking electronic records of the decade makes it unambiguously disappointing to me.

Outside of that context though there's very little to complain about. As I said, the duo have honed their craft to a considerable degree and the resulting songs are consistently great. It loses steam towards the end - really after the double shot of highlights "There Is No There" and "Take Time" it never gets back up to that level - but it feels more of one piece than its predecessor nonetheless. These are all qualities that would push it above their debut if they'd retained the more striking features of that record, but their developing of the more accessible side of their sound does have its good points. Besides the two I mentioned above there's also "Tokyo" which foregoes the live vocals that permeate the rest of the album in favour of a sampled greeting from a Japanese airline and gives us the most Thought for Food-like moment of the whole album and really, the whole album is a great showcase for Zammuto's guitar playing. It's a case of a band refining their sound in ways that probably endeared them to more people but losing a bit of their individuality in the process. There's still very little that sounds like The Lemon of Pink out there, but it's closer to the fold than their debut, and that's a bit disheartening.

Coming up tomorrow: The guitars that go BEEEEEEEEEEOOOW and DWAAAAOAOAOAOANG.

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