Not even the first seven seconds of the Books’ Thought for Food are allowed to pass before the disorientation sets in. The plaintive chords of an acoustic guitar are interrupted by a brief snippet of traffic noise, and then another brief snippet of ferocious applause. A cellist begins abusing his instrument to produce a series of swooping, clicking noises that are more percussive and much funkier than I thought a cello was capable of. An eagle crows in the distance, a door shuts, and a woman lets out a loud grunt as she strikes a ball with a tennis racket. The first minute of opening track “Enjoy Your Worries; You May Never Have Them Again” hasn’t even ended, and I already feel like I’m listening to a folk song that’s being broadcasted through a demon-possessed shortwave radio. The guitar and cello keep playing the same circular chord progression, unswayed by the endless stream of abrupt interruptions, none of which bear any sort of logical connection with each other. A panicky talk show guest rants about the harassment she’s been receiving from a debt collector. Her words are slowly sped up until her voice sounds like that of a chipmunk, after which they’re cut off in mid-thought. The song itself forms a similarly asymptotic trajectory: the playing becomes faster and more intense, and an insistent drum loop eventually enters the mix. The song ends, though, at the exact point in which the Books approach something resembling a conventional groove.
Books extend one olive branch to the listener by outlining the method behind their madness in the second song, “Read, Eat, Sleep.” An acoustic guitar is given the digital cut-up treatment, and is then supplemented by the tinkling of a variety of chimes and music boxes. During the first half, voices of different timbres slowly spell out the words of the song’s title. The music then segues into a field recording of what sounds like chains being dragged across glass. After this jarring transition, a stern voice says, "By digitizing thunder and traffic noises, Georgia was able to compose aleatoric music." For those of you who aren’t studying for the SATs, aleatoric music is defined as “composition based primarily on chance, but sometimes also random accidents and/or highly
improvisational execution.” This must be the Books’ way of telling the listener not to try so hard to make sense out of the interruptions, to simply enjoy the music for what it is. It is fortunate for the adventurous listener, and unfortunate for the befuddled critic, that the only word that can accurately describe the rest of Thought for Food is “brilliant.”
“All Bad Ends All” could have fit nicely on Moby’s Play if His Royal Baldness had severe attention deficit disorder. A blues singer moans through a cloud of vinyl static, introducing a bouncy juke-joint guitar riff backed by a percussive backdrop of what sounds like drumsticks beating on buckets. On “Contempt,” a cello is deliberately
plucked as one guy asks another guy strange questions about his body parts, for instance, “Do you like my ankles?” The gorgeous “Excess Straussness” is little more than layer after layer of celli run through tremolo, and it is as close as I’ve ever heard to a musical representation of floating on a cloud. “Mikey Bass” is an appropriately named showcase for the bass guitar. The riffs are sped up, slowed down, and triggered to stutter and fold back in on themselves until they bear a striking resemblance to the human regurgitation noises that appear at the end of the song. The coda to “Getting the Done Job”sounds like a recording of an Irish jig that was spliced into tiny pieces and rearranged incorrectly. “All Our Base Are Belong to Them” begins with dueling bass guitars, sounding like Dianogah on Quaaludes, until a singer shows up to do a duet with a slowed-down recording of his own voice. In the middle of the song, someone says, “Welcome to the human race; you’re a mess,” and that statement is just as good a manifesto for Thought for Food as the previous “aleatoric” hullabaloo, for the incidental noises that pop up in almost every nook and cranny on this record could serve as symbols of the messy realities of daily life.
Occasionally, an element of dark irony pops into the Books’ music. “Motherless Bastard” begins with a recording of a father publicly disowning his daughter as she cries out for him. The father’s voice is so dispassionate that I wonder whether his words are meant in earnest or in jest. If it’s the latter, the child isn’t in on the joke, for her cries begin to sound more and more desperate until the introductory guitar riff finally appears. The conversation appears merely as a preface to the actual music, with occasional interjections of “Mommy! Daddy!” punched in the mix to reinforce the melancholy. “Deafkids,” the album’s closer, pits a group of babbling children against a clueless schoolmarm who keeps telling them to be quiet though the children obviously can’t hear him (hence the song’s title). It’s a cheap joke, but one can’t hold that against the Books, for the song’s seventy-second duration keeps the joke from getting stretched too thin.
Getting this album to sit comfortably inside a specific genre is about as difficult for me as solving a Rubik’s Cube would be to a colorblind man. Despite the fact that not a single second of this record sounds as if it hasn’t been digitally altered in some manner, Thought for Food cannot be classified as Intelligent Dance Music. There’s no way in hell that you can dance to it, and the Books do all of the intellectualizing for me in “Read, Eat, Sleep”. You can’t call it “musique concrete” because no matter how busy the sonic manipulations become, the emphasis remains on melody and organic instrumentation. In fact, the album’s weak point, the minute-long “A Dead Fish Gains the Power of Observation,” is the only song in which the voice (the mumbling monologue of the song’s protagonist) is actually more interesting than the music (a quiet, directionless guitar improvisation). There are bluegrass and ragtime influences on display, but not even the late guitar virtuoso John Fahey’s most extreme work approaches this music’s sheer otherness. Yes, cello is one of the main instruments on this record, but the noises it makes are too rough and unstructured to resemble anything symphonic or classical. The liner notes don’t give any insight as to who the Books are; the guest appearances are mentioned by name, but the main offenders aren’t. The Books have to be admired for their dogged refusal to draw a straight line and follow it, but all of the mystery and obfuscation in the world would mean nothing if it weren’t for the thirty-eight minutes of random, beautiful music that they’ve given us with Thought for Food.