The Books - Lost and Safe (Tomlab)

The Lemon of Pink was one of the oddest and most memorable releases of 2003: a follow-on to the previous year’s odd-but-so-so Thoughts For Food, this was a completely un-self-conscious, fabulously hybrid creature - like a yodelling griffin, or a falsetto phoenix in a pink boa - consisting of two parts sound-collage, two parts nonsense, and one part quirky instrumentals. Few knew how to even begin to talk about it. It was just utterly delightful.

Lost and Safe is even better.

Sometime around 1900, some long-forgotten inmate of a lunatic asylum in either Germany, Switzerland, Italy, or France began tearing up scraps of paper and fabric and gluing them at random onto a canvas supplied by the establishment to keep its charges occupied. This 'object' was acquired, together with a hundred or so other examples of madmen's doodlings, by a psychiatrist called Hans Prinzhorn, resident at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Institute, who, beneath his other hat as an art historian, recognised that there might be something more to these formless, rootless, hallucinatory daubings than mere diagnostic auxiliaries. When the group of radical artists who were to become known as the Cubists were searching for an authenticity in art that would support their reaction to its current Academic domination, they first turned to 'primitive' art and childrens' drawings for inspiration, then they discovered the ‘psychotic art’ of the Prinzhorn Collection, and its effect was immediate and world-shaking. In 1912 in Paris, one Pablo Picasso pasted a patch of oilcloth with a chair-caning design to a canvas and called it 'Still Life with Chair Caning' ('Nature Morte à la chaise cannée') and the history of art was transformed: 'collage' was born.

Whereas a number of Modernist artists - notably the Dadaists and Surrealists - experimented with collage ideas in sound and live performance, it wasn't until the invention of magnetic tape as a recording device that the fundamental principles of cutting and pasting could properly be begun to be experimented with. Iannis Xenakis, working in the early 1960's, is recognised as being one of the first composers to work with sound-collage, then people like John Cage, Brion Gysin, and William S Burroughs picked up the torch and ran with it in their own distinctive directions.

In popular music, sound-collage made its first appearance, as so much else, with the Beatles: Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Revolution No. 9 on The Beatles were the prototypes for a long and distinguished line of artists who have subsequently incorporated sampling into their work as a dominant, if not the defining aspect of their music: Girl Talk, Kid 606, People Like Us, DJ Shadow, Negativland, Set Fire to Flames ... etc

A recent rash of petulant and silly lawsuits on the grounds of theft of intellectual copyright has rather queered the pitch for such artists lately (it'll all blow over by Christmas) but as The Books' sources seem mostly to be archival radio and TV tapes (a lot from the BBC), I can't see that being a problem. Not unless the estate of the late great Raymond Baxter, for starters, begins clamouring for royalties. RB was a Battle of Britain hero, one of The Few, a Spitfire pilot-turned-rally-driver-turned-radio commentator who subsequently established himself as one of the first TV popularists of science and new technology. In June 1962 he was present at the BBC’s huge parabolic dish at Goonhilly Down on the Lizard edge of Cornwall to witness the very first live transatlantic transmission of a TV image bounced from Andover in Maine via the Telstar satellite. His ‘Here we are...Here we are...We are antici...There it is! There it is!… It's a man! There it is!...’ provides the opening sample to Be Good To Them Always, and, whereas you don't need to know that, it does inform the rest of the song in a very typically Bookian manner.

It's at the heart of the collage technique that, whereas the whole is composed of snippets from here there and everywhere, it's implied that those snippets carry their own resonance into the reassembly whether they're recognised or not. At the heart of the nonsense poem, that other significant component in The Books technical armoury, is the reverse notion: that, regardless of the apparent lack of sense in the superficial reading of the poem, or lyrics, meaning coheres nevertheless to the experience as an inevitable consequence of the human need to make sense of one's situation regardless of any and all disorientating distractions.

Originating (in the English tradition) with the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Riddles and the Exeter Book, writers such as Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, and Spike Milligan have become synonymous with the notion of ‘nonsense’, with, yet again, John Lennon himself deserving at least an honourable mention. Sergeant Pepper was Monty Python’s uncle, of course. Not many people know that. The Books own contributions to the form are distinctive not so much for their content (prolix streams of consciousness operating just this side of tediousness) but for the astonishingly inventive ways in which they manage to shoe-horn the music to accompany them:
‘most of all the world is a place where
parts of wholes are described
within an overarching paradigm of clarity’
is perfectly typical.

A plummy archive reading of part of Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' comprises the lyrical superstructure for most of Vogt Dig for Kloppervok which, unsurprisingly, translates as 'Beware the Jabberwock' in Danish. Here, something else typically Bookian: the re-constituting of a sound-collage assembly into a standalone sung 'chorus' - a kind of sonic equivalent of copying a visual collage as a separate picture. This is so post-post-Modern it's bleeding edge, but the marvellous thing about it is that it's not even remotely earnest in that dreadful, hermetic, knowing way that some artists adopt: it's just great fun. It's inclusive. It makes you smile. Rare gift.

The aforementioned quirky instrumentals - the third leg in The Books tripod - have evolved considerably since The Lemon of Pink. Now, not only do we have Nick Zammuto's guitar and Paul de Jong's cello - the fundamental basis of The Books sound pallette - but also much more of frequent collaborator Anne Doerner's perky banjo, and the inclusion of a whole battery of new, found, and altered instruments, including, notably, a vintage Hohner clavinet, a set of tuned plastic drainpipes, and a cheap metal filing cabinet with subwoofers installed inside: add these sounds to things like inside-out cello and slow-motion ringtones and you begin to get the picture. Quirky.

But never whimsical, unlike the only two other groups who I can think of to compare The Books with – Lemon Jelly and British Sea Power - who, for all that they're both marvellously distinctive and hugely enjoyable in their own, different ways, both succumb, occasionally, to what I think of as the Morris Dancing syndrome, when substance is subsumed to nostalgia, and the jingling and the hankies and the tambourines .... *shudder*

There's such an embarassment of riches in Lost and Safe.There's a piece of virtuoso filing-cabinet drumming on An Animated Description of Mr Maps that moves from a kind of Burundi masterclass to incorporating something I've only ever heard before in Steve Reich's Different Trains - when the percussion exactly matches the rhythm of the spoken word, which in this case is an animated description (just as it says on the label) of a strangely colourful-sounding police fugitive as read over some local radio network. And in It Never Changes To Stop Doerner's double-tracked banjo is joined by de Jong's double-tracked cello and finally by Zammuto's double-tracked guitar in an elegaic Rachels-like sextet that turns out to be the introduction to a very disturbing little outburst from a deeply stressed Southern state junior school teacher hectoring his cowed class into silence before prayers.

Lost and Safe is also the most song-based of The Books three albums so far: Nick actually sings – quite a lot – and really quite nicely – outstandingly in An Owl With Knees, an achingly beautiful, enigmatic song whose rolling instrumental break - just those three, unaltered, instruments, this time – emerges out of a fast-chopping pizzicato sequence that sounds for all the world as if Apocalypse Now’s ubiquitous slowed-down helicopter sounds had been grafted onto a Bach chorale that ascends to quite inspirationally sublime heights before, literally, and most cruelly, just petering out at four-and-a-half minutes. More, they yelled, more.

There is, of course, another way of looking at all this. Having listened to this album a lot since acquiring it, I’ve begun to nurse the inkling of a suspicion that there might be something else at work here – that its paradoxical title might, in fact, be a clue, and that its eleven (!) tracks are code-cribs to the deciphering (come closer whilst I whisper this – and swear that you won’t tell another soul) of the infamous Lost Books of the Illuminati.
‘The books suggest we set our hearts on doing nothing’ (A Little Longing Goes Away)
‘When finally we opened the box.
we couldn’t find any rules’ (Smells Like Content)
‘He saw red, but he thought five’ (An Animated Description of Mr Maps)
‘I can’t find the books, they must be in La Jolla’ (If Not Now, Whenever)
‘It told itself it needed names
and in so doing it became’ (Twelve Fold Chain)
Such apparent gobbledegook might well be nothing more nor less than a brilliant cryptic concealment, purposely disguising its portent beneath a double-bluff of nonsense.
It’s happened before.
Me, I’m off to La Jolla. Or maybe Heidelberg.


June 2005

 

 

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