While we’re all waiting for the new Avalanches album, The Books have delivered their own pot-pourri of samples to tide us over. Not that they’ve been particularly hasty about it either, mind. It might not have taken them the nine years and counting the Australians have racked up to produce their new LP, but it’s still been five years since the New York duo Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong’s last album Lost and Safe. Time they seem to have spent listening to new age meditation tapes and watching an inordinate amount of kids’ TV. Although, if you’re a band known for stitching together odd samples with acoustic instruments, you could probably justify that as ‘looking for samples’. To be fair, though, since the duo have both started families during their extended hiatus, needing to entertain the kids by plonking them in front of the telly and then relaxing after they’ve gone to bed with some self-help spiritualism becomes understandable; the fact that they’ve then managed to make an album out of it almost admirable.
But if The Way Out's first single ‘A Cold Freezing Night’ is any indication, fatherhood doesn’t seem to have been all sweetness and light. Based around a rhythm as repetitively insistent as a toddler tugging on your sleeve, the track also features a barrage of kids voices shouting "asshole", "you’re such a nerd" and "I’m going to kill you!" Yet where Boards Of Canada used children’s voices to create an eerie Rosemary’s Baby atmosphere, here the kids sound as annoyingly precocious as Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, and all the track’s sudden bangs, squelches and pratfalls make it feel like the booby traps Culkin rigs up for Joe Pesci.
Of course, despite being beloved by the same sort of IDM fans who breathlessly laud Boards Of Canada, The Books actually have far more in common with the aforementioned Avalanches’ sunny sample symphonies. They’ve certainly found a sense of funk that was largely absent from previous albums like 2003’s The Lemon Of Pink. ‘I Don’t Know That’ in particular is a damnably groovy little thing; rimshot cymbals introducing a tightly winding bassline and chops of funky guitar. ‘I Am Who I Am’ meanwhile begins with a voice intoning "nuttiness", an apt description of a track which is the closest The Books have ever come to a full-on rave-off, all guttural basslines and pounding beats that would do Venetian Snares proud.
However, ‘nuttiness’ also sums up one of the problems with The Way Out since their sense of humour teeters precariously close to self-conscious wackiness at times, the quirky samples in ‘Group Autogenics’, ‘Chain Of Missing Links’ and ‘The Story Of Hip-Hop’ reminding you of Lemon Jelly as much as anyone. Not necessarily a bad thing, since Lemon Jelly were fun for a while, but they did wear pretty thin pretty quickly and these tracks similarly end up feeling like inconsequential retreads of overplayed ideas after just a couple of listens.
The actual songs are more substantial though, and should satisfy if not surprise fans of The Books’ earlier works. The same air of gleeful childishness that imbues some of the cut-up tracks is still apparent in the skippy little beat of ‘Beautiful People’, but the track also has a slightly hymnal quality thanks to the vocals layered like a Gregorian chant, and the final beatific fade out of brass. ‘We Bought The Flood’ and ‘Free Translator’ are both distinctly darker, however. Despite seemingly nonsensical lyrics like "I was born with a teacup on my head", both tracks feel wistful and foreboding, the former with rusty guitars and a rhythm apparently tapped out on a bucket, the latter a piece of gentle Americana that sounds not unlike some of Sufjan Stevens’ more contemplative moments, and it’s also here that the ‘real’ instruments come to the fore, rather than being buried beneath all the samples or subjected to electronic filleting. There might be less going on than with the cut-and-paste stuff elsewhere, but ironically that makes these tracks seem like most fully formed moments here, the points of contrast which, as with all successful collages, make The Way Out work as a whole.
7Paul Clarke's Score