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The Books - Thought for Food

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Artist: The Books

Album: Thought for Food

Label: Tomlab

Review date: Jun. 11, 2002

“The word variety, although recently a favored design term, has become discredited because of increased abuse. It has become a pretentious recommendation for designs of questionable merit. It is applied to protect hurried changes, to excuse poor alterations, or to defend any accidental and meaningless whim…

To replace this negative criterion, we are in favor of a related word of a better reputation, the design term ‘variant.’ As variety usually concerns changes of details, variant means a more thorough re-doing of a whole or a part within a given scheme. Although variant may remind us of slightly imitative plagiarism, normally it results from a thorough study. Because of a more comprehensive comparison forth and back, it usually aims at new presentation. On the whole, variants demonstrate, besides a sincere attitude, a healthy belief that there is no final solution in form; thus form demands unending performance and invites constant reconsideration – visually as well as verbally.” From Joseph Albers’s Interaction of Color.

The effect of bad sample-based electronic music is comparable to orthodontic trauma: a merciless regime of foreign agents that never assimilates to the cupboard of nerves to which it is bonded; a movement whose progress - a series of incremental adjustments - is colored by the horror and sterility of its first installation. It follows that mediocre music of this variety is just uncomfortable, an unnecessary cosmetic correction. But when it’s done well, the resulting constellation is such a triumphant improvement as to convince an audience that its original constituents were formerly unpresentable in their natural state and that, given the circumstances, it couldn’t be any other way.

Thought for Food is the work of a collaborative ensemble (as opposed to a band): a tissue of purloined variants whose destination depends not on chance (as the album’s pretension toward the aleatoric suggests) but on the mutability of its two authors. Collectively known as The Books, Paul de Jong, a composer of classical and contemporary music who lives in New York, and Zammuto, a resident of rural North Carolina known for his previous releases on Apartment B and Infraction and for his contribution to Tomlab’s For Friends compilations, have successfully elevated their correspondence to a level of autonomous aesthetic interest.

With the exception of the most preliminary assumptions about region (the album’s database of samples can be divided roughly into country sounds and city sounds, which the listener is tempted to attribute to Zammuto and de Jong respectively), Thought for Food works like a Socratic dialogue, the artists’ respective identities are ceded to the progressive aim of the composition. The included sounds are equally humble: for all of their rambling samples, there is no bibliography.

Some people think that untethered releases like Thought for Food are flippant and irresponsible. They neglect a debt to – and even ridicule - their source material and deliberately dishevel the catalogue of Music History to which they both contribute and subscribe. But The Books have achieved something that triumphs over the criticism of the incredulous mob: realism. For all of its digressiveness, forgetfulness, and ingratitude, Thought for Food sounds pretty close to how the world sounds these days in your average to sensitive head.

And besides, the heritage of The Books is clear enough: they are rogue empiricists, governed only by their resourcefulness and discerning. Thought for Food is a wayward child they’ve befriended: precocious as she is damaged, she knows her parents only by their disparate deposits in her person –a curious mark, a heart murmur, diabetes. Reft of filial baggage, this proverbial orphan can behave any way she likes. Such is the liberated artistic demeanor of the album, anyway.

The anthemic first track, “Enjoy your worries, you may never have them again” sufficiently prepares the listener – both in sentiment and sound – for the operatic nostalgia he or she is about to observe. Not to mention the fact that it’s the best advice I’ve ever heard. And not too hard to take, given the circumstances: Thought for Food, unlike many of its sound-collage peers (Nobukazu Takemura’s Scope, recent Boards of Canada), is less paranoid than it is elegiac. Its interruptive voices seem to be more afraid of exposing their bunk origins than of, say, death (see for example, the seventh track, “motherless bastard”).

Thought for Food might present a glib picture of family values, but in the end it has a Comic resolution: the final track (“deafkids”) culminates in a chorus of thumping, silenced by an amiable conductor. Abrupt and unexpected – given the ambling structure of the album itself – the end is more like a happy retirement. Which goes back to Joseph Alber’s relevant wisdom: having demonstrated a sincere attitude, the work is left to enact its healthy belief that there is no final solution in form.

Ultimately, though, The Books are their own best critics: rather than improving their adjectives, they have found the perfect nouns.

By Hillary Mintz

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The Way Out

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