Episode 13: The Way Out (The Books, 2010)
Where we perceive a chain of events, Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History sees “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The past may be dead, but it’s far from gone, and from the dusty shelves and cement floors of thrift shops and garage sales, forgotten relics scream to be rediscovered.
Paul De Jong and Nick Zammuto, collectively known as The Books, wade through that incomprehensibly large pile of history, and pull flotsam from the pile in the form of recordings-on-the-margin—and the margins of history are wide indeed—building a library of sounds to-be—or not-to-be—incorporated, as-is or in manipulated form, into the collages they create, in an effort to move the culture forward by shuffling the past.
"Your being merges with the garbage / and you become one with it."
If the idea of listening to “sample-based music” seems beyond you—that there’s no way you could hang with it—consider for a moment the ease with which you might listen to and enjoy the soundtrack to old Warner Brothers cartoons, with all their swirling tempos and crammed-together genres and ridiculous musical quotations and such. String orchestras mingle with ratchets, kazoos, and whiz-whistles. It’s more avant garde than you think, but so long as we tie it to the visual, it goes down smooth. A spoonful of sugar, and all that. It’s a gentle mental hop from that music to the music on The Way Out, the fourth and final recording by The Books, released in 2010. Call it “a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist.”
What differentiates the music of The Books from cartoon music, however (besides the lack of visuals and the preponderance of self-help and meditation samples), is that the layering is horizontal rather than vertical. Whereas the soundtrack of a Bugs Bunny short cuts speedily from genre-to-genre, tempo-to-tempo, and key to shining key, The Books’ tracks tends to be grounded with a pulse—a consistent groove, often laid down by Zammuto—upon and against which the fluttering, unexpected rhythms of spoken word and other recorded b-roll can float or sting.
You may never know what's coming next in the stream of samples, but you can at least file away each moment as having either played along with, played against, or completely ignored, the pulse.
It's appropriate that the 22-second track entitled “A Wonderful Phrase By Gandhi,” which contains an unadorned recording of—you guessed it—a wonderful phrase by Gandhi, references "a living power," underlying the constant change in the world, that "is changeless; that holds all together." Life's powerful pulse.
There's also an element of the uncanny in The Way Out, and a fine line is repeated crossed between the disturbing and the hilarious—the frightening and the invigorating. The two tracks that most clearly bob about that line are “A Cold Freezin' Night,” which uses as its main sampled material recordings taken from Tiger Talkboys—those early 90s handheld variable-speed cassette players-slash-recorders, and “Thirty Incoming,” which samples messages pulled from a single, anonymous answering-machine tape found in a thrift store. Both tracks are eerie and voyeuristic, but they are also endearing and sympathetic.
Unlike today, where social media—that worldwide depository for The Personal—soaks up and sends out our selfles as quickly as we create them, the time of the Talkboy localized creative output to one's house, or neighborhood: you wanna share the cool noises you made? Invite your friends over.
It's amazing how listening with open ears to an album like this, so full of disparate elements that melt into each other and challenge your brain to make everything fit under the rubric of "music," can, in a way, train you to notice, say, the way a honking horn or screaming toddler or construction noise can interact with and even add value to the Music-with-a-capital-M you might be listening to in your headphones, walking down the street. And, in an ideal world, it might even open you up to hearing, for example, how the interaction of your whirring and clacking washing machine with your partner's incessant mindless tapping, too, can be musical, and therefore interesting, rather than boring or bothersome.
Our backs may be turned to the skyward-growing debris pile of history, but albums like The Way Out, which challenge us to dip into that past and use scraps to shape our future: that's some sort of progress worth turning around for.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.