“The Way Out” & Plunderphonics

by Christopher Toenes on September 30, 2010

Many of this season’s Duke Performances artists share an affinity for working with or against their sources while sticking to their original medium, like how Loudon Wainwright III re-interpreted Charlie Poole within the same acoustic-instrument realm. But the Books swirl pop culture, original music, and audio ephemera into genre-bending pastiches. Bits of detritus from old cassettes and records converge into snapshots that quickly float apart again, picking up the emotional residue of swelling, harmonized vocals and melodies.

On the Books’ latest record, The Way Out, the voices are more continuous than usual, and their meditative qualities are the record’s core. On opening track “Group Autogenics I,” a calming voice gives instructions from New Age theory, punctuated by amusing lines like “If there’s some extra saliva in there, swallow it.” (Nick Zammuto discusses the source material in this post from the Books’ blog.) As if the record were in fact swallowing its own saliva, the audio samples start to mingle and turn in on each other from then on. As a voice intones “deeper and deeper” over small string plucks and hushed vocal hums, one can’t help but feel that the Books have been unjustly excluded from the creation story of the mash-up.

“Plunderphonics” erupted when artists began using invasive editing techniques to recombine songs and other audio fragments into original collages. John Oswald started doing it as early as 1975, using lots of educational recordings; a trick the Books would adopt wholeheartedly. From the 90’s onward, plunderphonics started to catch on in the mainstream as “mash-ups,” until eventually, novelty songs like pop diva Christina Aguilera meshed with The Strokes were rampant. Popular mash-up artists such as Danger Mouse, who famously blended a capellas from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with music from the Beatles’ White Album for his Grey Album, owe a debt to the Books’ way-paving work, which still retains Oswald’s sense of child-like wonder and zeal, especially on The Way Out’s “A Cold Freezin’ Night,” where we hear the voices of children trying to sound tough rattle along a punchy electronic beat.

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