“Lost and Safe” by The Books
Over two albums, the Books have plucked sampled voices from their original context and arranged them inside simple compositions for sliced-and-diced guitar, banjo, and cello. They’ve taken moments of contemplation– when one understands something on an emotional level but can’t quite articulate his thoughts– and dressed it up in a melodic frame. By transmitting at the frequency of pre-conscious association and intuition, Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink were immediately accessible despite absences of obvious reference points. Both records felt like gifts, demanding little from the listener but paying out handsomely.
With their fresh sound and economic construction (the first two releases were each under 40 minutes), the Books did well to stick to a similar template on back-to-back records. But in preparing for their third album, one senses Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong felt as if they’d mastered this approach and needed to try something different. On Lost and Safe, the Books take the vocals and song structures hinted at on Thought for Food and fleshed out on The Lemon of Pink and make them the centerpiece.
This time it’s Zammuto alone on the mic; Anne Doerner, whose spare vocal contributions to The Lemon of Pink wound up being a highlight, doesn’t sing any lead. There’s more processed electric guitar (often used in a clicking, repetitive manner reminiscent of classical minimalism) and far less cello. Despite live vocals on nearly every track and the shifts in texture, the approach is still very recognizably the Books. In a way, the original lyrics aim for the same level of engagement as the odd samples, finding and skirting the edge between different meanings. “Yes and no are just distinguished by distinction, so we chose the in-between” are the first words Zammuto sings in his hushed whisper on the opening “A Little Longing Goes Away”, and that sort of ambiguity sets the tone for the record. Words for the Books have been a subject in and of themselves, worth hearing purely as sound, and the written lyrics here have a similar character.
Most of Lost and Safe is pleasant enough but not much more. “Be Good to Them Always” is the record’s lone great track, one that hints at potential interesting directions down the road. As clicky electric guitar with some backward reverb pans across the stereo field, Zammuto sings in concert with the sampled voices, finding the hidden melody in the deadpan newsman deliver of lines like “I can hear a collective rumbling in America” and “This great society is going smash.” Reminiscent of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, which built tunes from the speech inflections of interviewed holocaust survivors, “Be Good to Them Always” is a fantastic reminder of the musicality of the spoken word, an idea that lurks constantly inside the music of the Books.
One of the more interesting things about the Books first two records was their democratic production; the music never seems to push the listeners ear toward any one element. But now Zammuto’s voice is clearly the focus, and though his quiet and half-spoken phrasing works well with the arrangements, the “tunes,” as such, don’t necessarily warrant the added attention. It’s as though, with a few exceptions, the Books weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do and they wound up stuck halfway between proper songs and the ambiguity of samples. Though the Books do a nice job here bending lyrics to fit the open-ended tone of their compositional style, the original vocals wind up draining their sound of mystery, and Lost and Safeseems by far more conventional than their previous two records.
— Mark Richardson, April 4, 2005