The Books are difficult to categorize. The components can be described objectively as an act that specializes in collage and found sounds, incorporating influences ranging from Neu! to Vince Guaraldi, classical cellos to country finger-picked banjos thus constructing dynamic melodies syncopated with ephemera. And yet they’re not pretentious. This is not a “challenging” listen in the sense of many acts critics tout so as not to be the one in the crowd to say that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. But what are the Books about really?
There are two old literary critics named Wimsatt and Beardsley. They’re formalists who conceptualized two important fallacies regarding criticism, namely the intentional and affective fallacies. The former happens when a critic seeks to determine the author’s intent, often resorting to autobiographical overlap or pseudopsychoanalytic projection to accomplish the historical heavy lifting usually left to hermenauts. They portend to understand the author’s place in history through a variety of exegetical and hermeneutical backflips so as to get at what the author actually meant without succumbing to sociological inquiry. They marshal evidence in such a way as to suggest causation where correlation presides, and it results in a scholastic babble without placing the reader any closer to the source, simply hypothesizing in the name of hard fact-after all “authorship” derives from all important authority and more importantly (to paraphrase James Miller) authors have texts, and texts have authority-a tautology that makes the critic insulated and unassailable.
On the other hand, the affective fallacy transposes the same question. The fallacious function here is to assume a normative, value-neutral response common among all readers. This not only denies the author any sophistication, but also the reader’s dignity to interpret facts, tone and mood as an individual, instead of the critic’s preferred mode, that of the solipsist’s straw man. The critic seeks to say what you’ve read, or heard, and arbitrates the sublime. Not only is this undemocratic, but its not useful to those of us who live on budgets, with records and CDs occupying a space disproportionate to income.
Across disciplines, its as though Heisenberg rendered the humanities inertial, leaving critics to fret over insignificant details of the avant garde. But this isn’t the case. With an act like the Books, and an album such as this, it can be interpreted in stereo, with the analog elements instructing the digital on what it means to be real. In the midst of electro-ontology an album plays, at various times rococo, and others like lonesome robots learning to pluck banjos for a sequel to Deliverance, if not to march in the Mummer’s Day Parade.
The opener stuns: it finishes with a question-“arewelikemajororminoranyway?” It’s both at different times. “Tokyo” is the song that escaped Kevin Shields as he compiled the Lost in Translation soundtrack, it’s ethereal beauty found in strings that sound like raindrops on a koy pond. “S is for Evrysing” is the disembodiment of the annual family reunion and summer picnic, with voices that ring out in white-tiled kitchens and on crowded patios as the badminton game winds down. Side 2 begins with “Take Time” and it exemplifies the difficulty of deftly combining found pieces of spoken words and manipulating both the sample and the music to create something beautiful. “Don’t even sing about it” has a lyric that M. Ward might’ve written: “get used to hanging if you hang long enough,” but “The future, wouldn’t that be nice” expresses the hope of Miles’ “If I were a bell” with its deliberate bass and keys, hopeful and poignant.
The Books offer something to everyone. It’s an accessible record, even for people who are staunch pop fans. The music ranges from jazz to bluegrass and even a little country western at points, but hooky enough to make it difficult to listen to just once. The final track has the poignancy of a meeting of close friends seeking to reacquaint themselves, pregnant with excitement and anticipation, but too embarrassed by their joy to commit to any particular conversation. When they say “bye” you feel amiss, as if they had secrets to share that were too private even after baring themselves to you in song.