It’s easy to forget how funny the Books could be. Started in 1999 by vocalist/guitarist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul De Jong, the duo spent about a decade crafting dense and delicate folk collages built from soft acoustic instruments, spry electronics and a seemingly endless treasure chest of found footage, but beneath the post-modern wonkiness of the project there was a joyous prankster spirit.
Far from the condescending “LOL random” internet humor of Family Guy or many found footage blogs, the pair took great pleasure in wordplay and the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate elements. They were excavators, sure, but they brought a sense of humor to their archival spelunking. Bits of old film clips got reapproriated into a new context; a recording of a spelling bee became the dominant vocals in an otherwise lumbering instrumental; they turned audio scrapbooks into head-scratching, oddly poignant comedy. When Zammuto and De Jong revealed they were breaking up earlier this year, the specifics were appropriately shrouded in mystery, but the announcement came with a silver lining: Nick Zammuto would be releasing an album with his new band, Zammuto, in early April. Zammuto, the band’s self-titled debut, finds Zammuto with his funny-bone intact and a whole new set of musical obsessions to bury his head in.
What does Zammuto sound like when unbound from the Books? That’s not an easy question to answer, but even a cursory listen to any of the album’s 11 tracks shows that he’s shed some of the conceptual rigor of his former project while upping the instrumentation and groove quotient, incorporating bits of house, disco, electro-pop, chiptune and techno into the already familiar terrain of art-rock. From its opening seconds the album shows a greater interest in rhythm and percussion than any Books release, with many songs building on lively drum beats that snake in and out of the mix. Though there are quite a few electronic beats throughout the album, many songs are anchored by the live banging of drummer Sean Dixon. Zammuto sounds less frantic and dizzying than something like a Battles record, but it retains the same spirit of exploration and experimentation. Songs build to jubilant climaxes and pause for twitchy digressions, showing an equal reverence for silence and for chaos. It also retains the same sense of fun that Battles has, that feeling that people are sitting in a room and trying to freak each other out with their own spontaneous creativity.
The album begins with the ecstatically titled “YAY,” which finds Zammuto in full-on Dan Deacon Bromst mode, his soaring vocals chopped up into thin slices of squeaky bursts accompanied by clanging drums. It’s a giddy opener that signals this won’t be a post-breakup mope fest. Instead, Zammuto seems intent on showing that for as brilliant as the Books could be, he was only scratching the surface of his own musical interests within the group. “Groan Man, Don’t Cry” finds Zammuto emoting in his breathy vocals over a slinky math-rock riff and an equally brazen bassline, before drifting into an ambient keyboard drone. The lyrics offer reassurance and comfort over the bubbling instability of the music. “Relax,” Zammuto sings, the vocal effects turning the rest of the lyrics into an indiscernible purr, but the sentiment remains clear: It gets better. The next track, “Idiom Wind,” draws its title from the killer Bob Dylan kiss-off song “Idiot Wind,” but where Dylan’s song is overflowing with bitterness (“It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), Zammuto’s version is a more understanding kiss-off (“We could talk all night/But talking isn’t real/We could put a name on it/But it’s not the real name”). Who knows if he’s referring to a former bandmate, a lost friend or a jilted lover—it doesn’t matter—the song is less about the specifics of betrayal and more about the way language betrays us on a day-to-day basis.
Zammuto has a lot of fun with language throughout the album, even though his voice is often filtered through various devices and twisted beyond recognition. This digital manipulation reaches a glorious and goofy crescendo on the menacing mini-epic “F U C-3PO.” Sounding like a robotic swamp monster, Zammuto chants his way through an explosive array of cluttering percussion and burping electronic flourishes. The simultaneously silly and bracing maximalism of the song makes for a startling jolt, but it’s the type of proggy excess that Zammuto can pull off because of his lean sense of composition and his smart editing skills. No song overstays its welcome on the album, and a few almost make you yearn for a more sprawling, indulgent director’s cut. It’s telling that the hilariously titled “Too Late To Toplogize” kicks off with the jaunty “Here we go!” from Mario Kart: This record feels like a race to an unknowable destination.
Perhaps to show that he can still cut and splice vocal samples with the best of them, “Zebra Butt” makes transcendent use of a stilted instructional voice. Over the album’s harshest and wildest synth squiggles, the woman passes off bits of advice amidst daffy bits of gibberish. It’s tough not to giggle at the inanity of it all, but the galvanizing force of the beat turns the song into a blast of Dada-disco. Later, Zammuto slows things down, crafting moments of creepy beauty on tracks like “Harlequin,” “The Shape Of Things To Come” and “Full Fading.” It’s here that the album’s focus on grief and recovery becomes most apparent. A type of cool calm takes over as the vocals take on an ethereal, Sigur Rós-like quality. On these more melancholy tracks we see a different Zammuto than the mad scientist conjured by the image of the Books digging through attics for old cassettes and broken VHS tapes. Instead, he reveals the beating heart beneath all this brainy and funny music.