Conspicuous Consumption, #3
The Books - Lost and Safe
Note: In 2017 I tried doing autobiographical album reviews to document my favorite albums in my physical record collection that I am reposting here.
In my junior year of college I curated (with the help of friends) a music discovery blog with an unabashedly self-important title: "Conspicuous Consumption Clique". In "the ccclique", a handful of my friends and I would post YouTube links of songs that were resonating with us that week accompanied with a brief explanation as to why.
The blog had no ambition of becoming the next BrooklynVegan or TinyMixTapes, and our web analytics proved it. The majority of the clicks came from spambots in Russia and China, and our overseas "fanbase" was far less interested in our collective taste more than trying to sell us mail-order brides and discount Viagra via dubious URLs in the comment section. Instead, the blog only existed for the people that posted on it, specifically the purpose of promoting "conspicuous consumption" in the music we listened to.
"Conspicuous Consumption" was an intentionally cheeky name for the blog, coined after an economic theory. According to Wikipedia, conspicuous consumption is "using [ones] purchasing power [to] mark social status [and] publicly manifest prestige". I thought this was a funny way to think about the music discovery blog: a passive-aggressive game of cultural oneupsmanship where we competed to scoop one another on quality music we were listening to.
As an aside: re-reading through the archives of the blog now, I don't know how effective I was in turning people on to the music I liked. I don't think anyone was dying to hear a new Animal Collective track when I called their songs "eskimo seduction music" or sounding like a "food processor having sex with a radio transistor."
In my hunt, I meticulously maintained and scoured an .RSS feed of a handful of other personally-curated music blogs in order to discovered new music. One of these blogs introduced me to The Books when they released in Lost and Safe in 2009, and I posted about them.
"An Animated Description of Mr. Maps" was the song that really drew me into the The Books catalog. It felt unlike anything I'd ever heard at the time: a song driven by bombastic drums and the vocalist dueting with...samples? The song constructs a biography for a synesthesia-afflicted man who "sees Mars, but feels Neptune", depicted by lyrics that are equal parts sung and sampled from a variety of audio sources.
Generally, I am pro-sampling in music: Typically when sampling is used, its used as an efficient way to invoke a level of nostalgia or familiarity in a song without having to create something entirely new. Despite that though, I believe samples are generally used in a very cynical manner.
It's a cynical use of sampling when Girl Talk, on a single album, distilled 322 distinct songs into an album's worth of music for college freshman to drink jungle juice and dry hump to. Girl Talk is high-adrenaline music that is fun to listen to, but it's hard not to be cynical about the idea of the artist mechanically sifting through hundreds of hours of pop music looking it's most digestible kernel, mining them as if you were rooting through a garbage dump for precious ores.
It's a cynical use of sampling when Kanye West opens a song with a gospel choir and then immediately proceeds to rap over their vocals to talk about fucking a model with a bleached asshole. It's a banging beat with a hilarious lyrical juxtaposition and I'm positive the church ladies who belted out those vocals that day want nothing to do with it.
On Lost and Safe, The Books earnestly sample people with care, giving respect and a legitimate voice to those samples by imbuing them as the thematic soul of the songs they reside in—not treating them as window-dressing.
In "Never Changes To Stop", a duet between some warm country guitar and a longing standing bass melody is elevated to a very specific place by the songs sample: an ornery teacher lecturing his class to be Absolutely Still, Absolutely Quiet. Every time I listen to this song, I envision sepia sunlight pouring into rows of desks as dust visibly hangs in stasis. It evokes a very specific feeling I've had, a mental purgatory where you're half awake and half asleep in a classroom; trying to pay attention but finding the lecture pass through you, unable to interpret it. Nobody Talking, Nobody Moving.
Another track that samples respectfully is "Be Good To Them Always". The song is defined by a frantic series of disorienting, manipulated string solos that are strung together by the punctuation of a basketball aggressively smashing pavement. The song is a existential critique of an American society "going smash"; one that can only be salvaged by people treating one another better. However, it's not just the singer making this plea—half of the lyrics are sung as "duets" with a variety of different vocal samples, all coming from a variety of ages, genders and perspectives. These samples elevate the track from being the misanthropic rantings of a loner to hymn of a society trying to keep from eating itself alive.
On "Be Good To Them Always" and throughout Lost and Safe, the songs feel put together like a college in service of a larger picture, or, as the song itself clearly states:
"Oh, he's in the middle of putting things together and organizing himself!"
After maintaining the ccclique for a year and a half or so, I was "peak zeitgeist" in terms of my critical appreciation for music. In order to apply this knowledge, I decided to work at WXJM, the schools public radio station.
Working at WXJM was a self-indulgent dream gig. The music played on an amazing sound-system in the station, and as the music played, I had the opportunity to burn hundreds of hours of free music from the station's music library. After little time, I recruited by buddy Kyle Clapman to do the show with me, which henceforth went by the unfortunate title of "Wake and Jake with The Clap".
Much like the ccclique, our audience was nonexistent. The only call I ever took from the "general public" was someone lecturing me when I mispronounced the city of Staunton, VA for during live event promo. The most flattering compliment I ever got on the show from a stranger had nothing to do with the music at all, but instead, was about a drinking game her friends played. They drank whenever Kyle and I's between-song banter was too awkward.
The audience wasn't the point though. Kyle and I would slink into the station at 7:45 am every a Sunday, riding a buzz from the night before, and go segment-for-segment trying to play what we thought was the most vital and important music of the day, practically dancing in our office chairs as we jammed out. In a way, much like the ccclique, it was another conspicuous consumption showdown.
Preparing the playlists for each show was a meticulous process. Every week, I would prepare four, ten to thirteen minute segments of music and a small statement regarding each of the songs and how they relayed.
I was obsessive about it. I wanted a particular piano flourish from one song to end with a similar melody that started the next one. I wanted the themes from one song to flow into the themes of another from an entirely different genre or era. I wanted a popular song to be book-ended by lesser known artists that were playing in the same sonic landscape. I wanted to make sense of the massive, personalized wiki of music that existed in my head by organizing it's most slipshod elements into something cohesive.
I must have spent four to five hours a week tinkering with those playlists, all for a show that would be listened to by a handful of people before being immediately lost in time.
On an episode of Song Exploder, Nick Zaummuto (The Books' principle songwriter) described how he composed "Smells Like Content", the band's most listened to song on Spotify and my personal favorite off of Lost and Safe.
Whereas The Books previously relied on samples to act as their voice, Lost and Safe marked when they started using their own, and the music is better for it."Smells Like Content" is the best example off of the album's sudden embrace of sung lyrics.
The song is a philosophical musing about cyclical patterns of humanity over time and our ability to understand a world where "parts of wholes are described" The lyrics absolutely gush with vivid, literary imagery like "street corners [...] gnashing together like gears inside the head of some omniscient engineer". The song is a manifesto and it knows it, evidenced by the dialed down instrumentation that lets the lyricism shine: a mere base guitar slowly being strummed over a hum of a record vinyl looping after the last song's been played.
According to the podcast, the lyrics for the "manifesto" were organized by Nick was helping his girlfriend move over a three day period:
That's where the lyrics came from, knitting together a very disparate bits of information that came into my head over those three days.
It wasn't me writing a song from a personal perspective [...] but the universe writing the song. You know, there was nobody else to sing the songs in my head, so it had to be me!
When I listened to this episode a week back, I was blown away by this revelation. The lyrics were not inherently "written" but derived from what he saw around him during that time, be it from the dialogue from a television show to the engravings on a nearby library. Whereas I previously thought the lyrics were slaved over for months, they were merely a realignment of memorable little moments curated from a couple of days. Samples.
The theory of conspicuous consumption was posited to be condemnation of an inherently competitive society. The thought is that if all people are economically equal, those people would still try to one-up one another in terms of the tastes and aesthetics of the things they self-identified with. This posits a situation where"wealth" becomes defined by taste instead of money, with the end result being the same: an ultimately hollow inner-life.
I certainly desired to feel "wealthy" with regards to my taste in music, however despite all that, I possess no inherent musical talent myself past belting out a mediocre versions of Maroon 5's "This Love" at a shitty dive bar. However, in order to to feel more musical throughout college, I was driven by this exhausting energy of trying to "put things together" between the songs I loved to brute force myself within proximity of the artistry I loved. Despite sticking with the "conspicuous consumption" brand for this blog, I do think the concept is an inherently cynical one.
I will say this though: the obsessive energy that drove my conspicuous consumption of music in college is same energy that was an artistic motivator for the The Books.
The reason Lost and Safe resonated with me is the itch every music fan feels when trying to put a playlist together for a friend, or somebody they love, is a literal component of the bands creative process. Whereas I created forgettable playlists though, The Books' deployment of the auditory flotsam was used to create art.
On Lost and Safe, The Books' were a band held hostage by the randomness and chaos of an inescapable media landscape that demanded to be sorted like a newspaper-clipping ransom note: a thrift shop grab bag of toys and doodads stitched together to resemble something remarkably human.
Near the tail-end of our senior year of college, Kyle and I saw The Books live in concert on their last tour before they broke up. Harrisonburg, VA was not a musical destination by any means, but the radio station nonetheless booked them in a small movie theater venue downtown to perform. The crowd was small, and since I recognized most of the attendees from the radio station, I doubt many people from the general public were there.
In that way though, it was perfect: a critics band performing in front of critics, collectively consuming music that was satisfying on a primal level.