For a band as bizarre as they were, The Books built a weirdly devoted fan base. Even as the musical climate changed and their integration of sample collages became the status quo instead of outsider music, it seemed that each release was anticipated with bated breath. Even 2010’s The Way Out, with its posthumously-appropriate title, was received relatively well across the board, despite the fact that it was conceived in a time of apparent turmoil between Paul De Jong and Nick Zammuto. So why are The Books done then? Word from Zammuto has been nebulous at best. He’s hinted at some of the aforementioned turmoil, but turmoil aside, The Way Out seemed to represent Zammuto and De Jong taking their experimenting as far as it could go. Outstanding as it was, it lacked the groundbreaking feeling that previous albums by the band had presented. It felt like we were hearing something interesting, a great album by The Books, but not a redefinition of music in the same way that their earlier albums were. It was still quirky, still bizarre in its own ways, but the shock had worn off. Somehow, sampling of self-help tapes seemed a natural move for The Books. For the first time in their career, they were acting as you might expect them to, and it is for that reason that it seemed like the project might be headed to a close.
Such is the context of the debut release from Nick Zammuto’s new project. Fresh off one of the most well-constructed, but least novel albums of his career, he appropriately seeks out something new here. For one, the found sounds seem to have been excised, save for the computer rap of “Zebra Butt.” Instead, Zammuto’s vocals, previously present on tracks like “All You Need Is A Wall,” come to the absolute forefront. That much is apparent, even on the mostly instrumental opening track. On “Yay,” Zammuto takes a stereotypical math rock instrumental and superimposes a set of chopped vocal samples over the top of the whole track. Though there are no words to speak of, without the vocals, there would be no track and that much couldn’t really be said of any track that The Books ever put out.
Similarly the vocal focus continues throughout, though mostly in altered form. And it’s this bit that really drags the album down at some points. Though the modulation really works on tracks like “Too Late To Topologise” and “Groan Man, Don’t Cry,” it’s an unwanted intrusion on “F U C-3PO.” It’s not that it’s cringeworthy necessarily, one just can’t help but wonder if the emotion of the song might have presented itself better with the vocoder stripped away. It’s a minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.
More than anything, what separates Zammuto from anything The Books ever released is this newfound focus on pop songwriting. There’s just catchy songs throughout, “Yay” and “Too Late To Topologise” included, and that really was never a focus of any pre-Zammuto material. The Books were all about composition, sure, but this album focuses on songcraft. These are not only triumphs of the studio, but also of the song. It’s not that this material is any less challenging than anything that The Books did, it’s just infinitely more memorable on a first listen. What will that mean for the longevity of this record? Who knows, but for the time being it’s an interesting new direction for a relatively established figure.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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