Graded on a Curve:
The Books,
A Dot in Time

The highly distinctive and dare it be said quite original duo The Books have brought their impressive run to a close, but not before issuing A Dot in Time, a set which compiles their four LPs, an EP, numerous extra tracks and a DVD for good measure. What shall be the legacy of The Books? Only time will tell. But this collection makes a strong case for the pair as one of the crucial acts of the early 21st century.

Beyond simple speculation or course, it’s impossible to really know which music from the first decade of this new century will ultimately stand the test of time, enduring, rising and still offering rewards to listeners in the year 2050. When it comes to this sort of game we all naturally have our guesses and it very often comes down to those records that have impacted us most heavily.

And anyone with a few decades of music appreciation under their belt has at least one instance of believing a particular group or artist was not only built to last but poised to profoundly alter the way future generations think about music. And then fifteen years later their albums turn up in the used bin for $3.99 (or less).

But with all this considered I’d like to make a case that in 2050 The Books will very likely be looked upon as, if doubtfully one of the greatest, then more importantly as one of the most defining acts of the new millennium’s opening stanza. And I say defining because that’s how the music of The Books is scaled; the duo of Nick Willscher Zammuto and Paul De Jong never intended to excel at an established genre or form. Rather they set out to construct the parameters of a new one.

To illustrate, I first heard The Books on a compilation CD, specifically the one included with the June 2004 Music Issue of the excellent literary magazine The Believer. It was on that disc that “There is No There” from The Books’ second effort The Lemon of Pink was sandwiched between tracks by the awkwardly named I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness and nicely alliterative The Buried Beds. And while The Books were positioned as the sixth cut on the compilation, they were the first moment on the disc that startled me into the realization that I was hearing something truly new.

What lingers about that newness is very relevant to the era it was made; not only a new century, but a thousand year epoch in the history books. People, this writer included, might choose to underplay some of the anxieties felt and expressed over where music and culture in general was going to head in the new era, but rest assured that many people, this writer included, felt them. And we underplay because the anxieties are somewhat silly; eras are defined in retrospect, not with the turning of a calendar’s page.

I replayed “There is No There” numerous times immediately following that introductory hearing, as I was deeply struck by its distinctiveness, eventually suspecting (more hoping) that I’d been given access to an act very much of the nonce. And after ample time to reflect they most certainly were. I made my way with due quickness to their 2002 debut Thought for Food and the following year’s The Lemon of Pink, both records solidifying that The Books were accurately described as groundbreakers. But what’s interesting is how their freshly conceived sound contained elements that were also very familiar, and hence comfortable.

The short description of The Books is that they combine acoustic instrumentation with an electronic environment, occasionally glitchy but more often ambient, and with an emphasis on found sound sources, quite often of humans speaking or giving speeches or captured in conversation, sometimes just laughing. So we get computer based atmospheres and a dedication to sampling (and shrewd looping) that combines with banjos, cellos, guitar, and that greatest of all acclamatory instruments, the human voice.

It’s this mixture of old and new, of the fresh and the well-worn that makes The Books such a fine candidate for a defining act at the beginning of century 21. But ultimately it didn’t come down to their tools, it related to how they used them. Additionally, the duo (with collaborators) was far from the first act to eschew the traditional recording process for the practice of creating and finalizing their recordings on computers, and appropriately their music is perfectly suited to contemporary listening modes; as I type these words I’m listening to The Lemon of Pink through a set of Sony Vaio speakers plugged into a Dell Laptop, and have no qualms stating that it actually sounds fantastic. Nearly all other music heard in this fashion sounds merely adequate.

And yet all four of The Books full-length records were released on LP when first released, naturally sounding even better in that format. And what’s more they were all digestible as albums. This wasn’t any random endeavor, the LPs really benefiting from their conciseness; a person could absorb any of them in same way they did Silver Apples or Music for Films. Where the work of Aphex Twin and Autechre was admirable in its conception, much of it encompassed durations that weren’t really compatible with the comforts of listening in one big gulp (at least not in my experience), which was likely part of the point.

But if The Books share something with Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada etc it was a distinct break with last century’s rock paradigm, which so often sprang from the garage as an expression of rebellion or alienation and just as often as a way to get girls. Instead, the music of Zammuto and de Jong feels like an evolving art project made by intellectuals, which is exactly what it was. If there was ever a more appropriate accompaniment for driving to see a friend’s gallery opening than The Books I don’t know it. Oh okay, I’ll give you Glass’s Einstein on the Beach or Berio’s Sinfonia. But that’s classical music, y’know?

The news is that The Books are no more. The Temporary Residence label has saw fit to bundle up all of their work into a seven LP collection titled A Dot in Time that comes with a DVD and a general aura of Job Well Done. And the collection does a killer job of amplifying their essential Old/New combo. First, the package is spread across seven albums, a format that’s been around since Sinatra held court.

Because it’s on LP that naturally means the set’s value as a standalone art object increases substantially. But the consumer also gets a USB flash drive containing 320kbps MP3s of all 95 tracks. Add in the DVD of the band’s videos and the entire set takes on the mantle of a true multi-media experience, a document that fleshes out why The Books mean so much to the music of the Aughts, to right now and, speculatively of course, to the future.

Since I bought Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink at the same time, spending months acquainting myself with them back to back, I can’t help but think of them together. I also find it difficult not to consider 2005’s Lost and Safe and 2010’s The Way Out as documents of refinement. This doesn’t mean they are lesser; refinement is one of the main avenues of artistic progression, and in the case of The Books it fits them well.

The set also includes 2006’s Music for a French Elevator EP, a release which was new to me, along with a bunch of added tracks which will be new to almost everybody. But it doesn’t include everything. The Books collaboration with Prefuse 73 is absent, a fact that doesn’t detract one iota from this whopping set’s necessity but is worth noting nonetheless, mainly because Prefuse 73 share with The Books a quality of newness that’s also well informed by history.

The poet Ezra Pound is justifiably legendary for shouting onto the page that maxim of Modernism “Make it New!” Old man Ezra also lost his marbles, but that’s a discussion for another time and place. The thing that often gets overlooked when folks trumpet Pound’s clarion call is that the man spent a significant portion of his life translating works of poetry that were centuries in the dust. My point is that to effectively make it new, a person must have a sufficient knowledge of the past.

This is true for literature, but it’s just as true for music or for that matter any work of art. With A Dot in Time, The Books provide an extended clinic in how to avoid the old saw of “those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s a grand document of a fine duo no matter how the often cruel hands of time choose to favor their work. Here’s to them.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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