The Books are a New York-based band with two members, Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto. Their music is difficult to label, but it is reminiscent of artists like Brian Eno, John Cage, Tunng, Four Tet, although I've never found a band that captures the sound or spirit of The Books. They have released three full-length albums, as well as a 15-minute minidisc, on the German Tomlab label, as well as a DVD of their audiovisual material.
Paul de Jong is originally from Rotterdam, in Holland, and plays the cello. Zammuto is American, and plays guitar and bass. In addition to these, which they play both in albums and during live performances, their music has constantly shifting and layered recorded clips woven into it. Some songs, like "Take Time," are more weighted towards instrumental music; others, like "Tokyo," are so dependent on the complex array of prerecorded sound in the composition that they cannot be played onstage. A live performance will have the artists accompanied by a number of screens, showing videos synchronized to the music, as well as a sound man able to summon up the necessary clips to accent songs.
The music of The Books is at once thoroughly experimental and completely rooted in musical tradition. Unusual rhythms and melodies abound, and pieces sometimes segue rapidly between a variety of musical themes and phrases. The overarching themes of a song may take a hiatus partway through for a spoken word segment, or the melody and rhythm of a passage might be synchronized to recorded speech. My favorite example of this is in "An Animated Description of Mr. Maps," which has a segment wherein a man with a rich, radio dramatist's voice describes Mr. Maps, to the accompaniment of a military marching beat. Hearing the implicit rhythms and cadences of English manipulated in this way gives me a thrill.
Nick Zammuto describes the creative process so:
"We both collect samples and make a lot of recordings wherever we go and then we sit down and make musical collages out of what we find, adding an instrumental counterpart as we go
Our tracks grow pretty organically
We try to let the tracks write themselves as much as possible, and when they get stuck we just listen to our sound library or improvise on our instruments for inspiration. The songs are certainly a reflection of our personal tastes to a degree, but when it is working at its best, it feels like we are tapping into something more universal and subconscious, making strings of connections between things that would otherwise never find each other." *
Their first album, Thought for Food, was released in 2002. It was followed up in 2003 with The Lemon of Pink, and in 2005 with Lost and Safe. Although they have yet to release a fourth full-length album, in 2006 they gave in to fan demand and released a minidisc album. Four tracks on this ("Fralité," "Egaberté," "Liternité," "It's Musiiiic!") are from a project to write listenable elevator music for the French Ministry of Culture; the rest are a selection of other songs representing ongoing work by the band. Appropriately, this album is entitled Music for a French Elevator and Other Short Format Oddities by The Books.
The Books also released a DVD called "Playall" in 2008, containing what amounts to music videos of their songs, the closest equivalent to the experience of seeing them live you can get without, well, seeing them live. There are three new songs: "Classy Penguin," "All A's," and "8 Frame;" the rest of the songs in it are from previous albums. Rumors abound of an upcoming fifth album, but one has yet to appear.
Much of the lyrics are sung by The Books themselves, but large swathes of dialog are transmitted through their recordings. The lyrics are abstract and symbolic; The Books are unlikely ever to release a straightforward love song. Here's a representative sample from "None But Shining Hours:"
The number on the back of the sign is rising
The gamelan attack of the trines aligning
Chance will leave the sky bedizened
Sliding on the wide horizon
Never is the start of a clever lying
Staring at the black of the blind spot hiding
The universe's private bower
These are none but shining hours
The Books are a relatively young band. Their albums are all excellent, and each a slightly different style. Their growing experimentation with the use of recorded sound in the music is apparent, and becomes more skilled with each album.
References abound in their music, if you can catch them. Song interpretation websites have ongoing discussions about the "real" meaning of their songs, few of which have been satisfactorily cracked. Although it is clear that, say, the title of "An Animated Description of Mr. Maps" and the line "There's a little black spot in the sky with diamonds" from "None But Shining Hours" are references to The Beatles, The Books are clever people, and there's far greater depth to their lyrics than those of many other bands.
When listening to The Books (for me at least), pretentious terms like "lush soundscape," "delicate interplay," "a warp of ambience and a weft of symbolism" come to mind. The music is dense, but not overwhelming, powerfully musical, but gentle enough to fall asleep to, a garden of little musical delights. I've found no other band like them. And now that music is so easy to get ahold of, you have no excuse not to head to iTunes (or wherever you like) and try out their work.
* Some quotations and facts come from this interview: http://www.musicforamerica.org/music/artist/2437