Guitarist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Long crafted brain-pretzeling plunderphonics music for eleven years as the Books. They made crate digging an art form and took it to the next level with the internet. Besides the music itself, it was interesting that all of their highly conceptual albums were completely legal.
As most bands do (good or bad), the Books disbanded up earlier this year. Their final LP, 2010’s The Way Out, was a meritorious send-off, which found the pair still reveling in the gray area between acoustic and electronic music. Their classic, Negativland-esque sound collages from Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink became almost second nature.
In a socially networked world, the Books don’t seem as novel today, though. Anyone with enough patience, a running laptop, and the right (albeit cheap) software could make a close approximation of the Books’ sound. Even children fool around with the rudimentary aspect of mashups with things like a YouTube Doubler. Nick Zammuto’s self-titled debut is no suprise at this juncture. He largely abandons the high-meets-low art of his work with the Books and wholly embraces a spirited and band-oriented aesthetic. It’s a solid move on his part.
Zammuto was reportedly recorded in the aftermath of The Way Out‘s hypnotherapy and thus the lyrical themes center on the seven stages of grief. Despite this serious conceptual underpinning, it’s a lithe, spirited, and agreeable release, bursting with pop hooks. This is evident from the outset. Opener “Yay” is bubbling with experimentation as Zammuto utilizes a slicer effect to morph his vocals into a skipping counter-beat to his band’s forceful timekeeping. Organ and guitars are swept up in this dust devil of a tune. The energy of the overture continues with the vocodered jam, “Groan Man, Don’t Cry.” Its conflation of Afro-funk and sleek electro-pop is at once beguiling and sad once you pay close attention to its lyrics about an aimless man “crying rivers made of fake.” It’s also a highly percussive track. Like many songs on this release, it begins with the percussion section singled out and builds out from there.
“Zebra Butt” is a silly mélange of acid house and techno, while single, “Idiom Wind,” which was the centerpiece of an inaugural EP, sees the band at their most uplifting. The bass creeps along, the drums skitter like a jazz tune, and the strings float down like cinders from a bonfire. Zammuto’s lyrics speak of a scene very familiar to recent college graduates: “an educated man doing everything he can/ which isn’t much because his education isn’t worth a damn.” Whether Zammuto is speaking about himself, a friend, or an imaginry person isn’t really important. The emotion is realized with only a few choice phrases.
Only the latter third of the album begins to drag. The band ratchets down their manic playing and Zammuto’s bifurcated view of life’s issues becomes somewhat myopic. “Harlequin” is downright creepy in almost a Fever Ray-type way and closing track, “Full Fading,” could slot into any moody alternative radio station from the ’90s. Only the carbonated synth-pop of “The Shape of Things to Come” will hold your attention on repeat listens. Zammuto’s vocals are draped in a haunting vocal echo that perfectly matches the song’s laid-back milleu.
For all of Zammuto‘s vocal and percussive tomfoolery, it has an emotional core. These tracks are ardent and expressive when many current electronic musicians obfuscate or drench their messages in pretension. Zammuto has the chops, but he never flaunts them in an off-putting manner. As such, this is a welcome musical footnote to the Books’ continuing legacy. The Books were all about constructing statements from the detritus of pop culture. Zammuto excels at the opposite: deconstructing life into easily digestible songs that make you feel something. The spotlight has moved from the head to the heart with piebald flourish.