By Daniel Garrett
The Books, Lost and Safe
Is reproducing the way we experience the world—with fragmented consciousness and conflicting sounds—a form of honesty or a crude capitulation? Does art merely mirror or does it transform and transcend? So much of modern culture has been involved in acknowledging facts and figures that had been deemed inadmissible in art in the past. Questions of knowledge, morality and taste have been answered differently in modern times: no thing was too shallow or trivial to know, no thing was too nasty to tolerate, and no thing could not be appreciated. Yet, twentieth-century modern culture still believed in art—that is to say, it still affirmed that there was something to be appreciated, something to be contemplated. In postmodern culture, with its excesses and plentitude, it sometimes seems as if appreciation and contemplation are themselves not valued: we are expected to experience and to know somehow without paying very much attention to what we feel or what we think. That produces a conundrum for art: what can art be in such a time and culture? The music group The Books, manned by Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, may have an answer.
On the album Lost and Safe by The Books, we hear isolated notes and then a whispery voice begins to issue brainy observations in the piece entitled “A Little Longing Goes Away”: “Yes and no are just distinguished by distinction, so we choose the in-between” and “Everybody’s busy waiting for the go-ahead, but by then their heads are gone.” A quoted or sampled announcement, with repeated musical rhythm, and an electronically-treated voice suggest the order and disorder of our world in “Be Good To Them Always,” with families and bureaucracies and technologies as organizing facilities, both oppressive and useful. A peculiar (outdated?) language mixed with modern English connects two different sensibilities, two different worlds, in what seems more like drama than music in “Vogt Dig for Kloppervok” (yes, “Vogt Dig for Kloppervok”). Many quickly spoken words move against a “new wave” rhythm and guitar’s strum in the long piece “Smells Like Content”; and it has an eloquently, pleasantly, spoken vocal part, and lines such as “our heads were reeling with a glut of possibilities, contingencies, but with ever increasing faith, we decided to go ahead and just ignore them…” Strings, and possibly a bass, and a male instructor’s voice open “It Never Changes to Stop” and then a woman’s voice comments on a man’s thinking he could stop behaving in a certain way if he wanted to, an addict’s delusion. A clanging, clattering movement of sound, and quotations from theatrical productions and news notices are mixed with an invented narrative softly sung, with an allusion to a broader, complex public atmosphere, in “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps.” Something similar is created, with sound effects, in “Venice,” while the voice and music, with a relatively soft sound and simple rhythm, of “None But Shining Hours” are more conventional.
The lyrics of “If Not Now, Whenever” contain tautologies and strange—but not too strange—imagination (“your head is made of clouds, but your feet are made of ground”), using content from one source to complement content from another, reminding me of the (sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving) audio work of radio programmers Mike Sargent and Peter Bochan: and to that, I’m inclined to say, “Yes, that is how I sometimes experience the world,” but not “That is how I want to experience the world.” Transformation and transcendence, as ideas, as possibilities, may be not as respected or sought as they were once—but their allure has not been destroyed. The old things can return to us as more than an excuse for critique and satire. The song “An Owl with Knees,” with the simplicity of a children’s book, is sweetly, slowly articulated. There is, along with comments about beginnings and endings, memory and forgetting, an old-fashion troubadour sound to the piece that closes the album, “Twelve Fold Chain.”
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org