The Books

The Way Out

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"Welcome to a new beginning" declares a voice at the start of The Way Out, and this album does indeed mark a fresh new chapter for the Books: a return to record-making five years after the fantastic Lost and Safe, on a new label, with a newly open-ended, wide-ranging approach to their work. It may not initially sound that way: opener "Group Autogenics I," one of several pieces that draw on guided meditation-style self-help recordings, feels almost like Books-by-numbers, with a gently humorous, disorienting oddness, juxtaposed with genuinely deeply relaxing sonics, that will be immediately familiar to fans of their past albums. After that, though, the duo stretches beyond its comfort zone in multiple directions at once, pushing at the boundaries of an already utterly singular style. The acoustic strings (primarily guitar and cello) that dominated their earlier output are still present, but they share space with a dizzying array of instrumental and quasi-instrumental sounds, from twinkling music boxes to a full-scale sample-generated orchestra of archaic brass and woodwinds. And while scavenged spoken word samples remain the most defining element of the Books' music, anchoring each of these cuts save for the four sung, lyric-based "proper songs" (including the gloriously geeky, math-worshiping chorale "Beautiful People," which announces, slightly disingenuously: "We genuflect before pure abstraction"), they're less concerned with constructing linguistic puzzles out of their samples here -- cleverly editing them to evince a sublimely witty illogic and absurdity -- than with exploring their emotional nuances and often surreal humanity. Most tracks focus on a small number of voices, creating a sense of context and resonance without necessarily allowing for full comprehension. Hence, we get a tentative, intimate series of answering machine messages; a nonsensical bedtime tale about a Peter Rabbit-like character named Hip Hop; an inexplicably prickly grammarian vehemently insisting that "I Am Who I Am." "A Cold Freezin' Night" is a hilarious, slightly chilling tour de force built around a battle of (increasingly violent) words between a young brother and sister, set to a thumping disco beat. "I Didn't Know That" is even more striking musically -- the closest thing yet to a Books pop hit, and definitely the funkiest they've ever been, recalling Squarepusher's nimble bass playing and Akufen's micro-sampled funk barrages. The stated intention for The Way Out was for each track to be "its own rabbit hole," and the album does indeed manage to survey an impressively disparate set of worlds and modes. Still, each one remains readily recognizable as belonging to the Books' own unique, unequivocal universe, which, happily, seems to be expanding at least twice as rapidly as our own.

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