Back in 1999, long before the found-footage movement kicked into high gear and spawned Adult Swim shows and arty movies, The Books formed in New York City. Made up of guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong, the duo made music its own way, mashing together obscure samples and manipulated speech, resulting in often confusing but always enchanting bits of music. Together, The Books put out four records—2002’s Thought For Food, 2003’s The Lemon Of Pink, 2005’s Lost And Safe, and 2010’s The Way Out—before breaking up earlier this year. Before slinking gently into that proverbial good night, though, the duo collaborated on the new box set A Dot In Time, which collects all the band’s recorded material—released and unreleased—into one massive seven-LP set, complete with accompanying USB drive, DVD, and a 56-page coffee-table book about—no joke—golf.
The real meat of A Dot In Time is, understandably, the band’s four full-length LPs. Each stands alone as not only a musical work, but as a piece of art meticulously built layer by sonic layer. Put the LPs together as a group, though, and the real scope of the band’s vision comes into focus. The Books were less about making pretty little ditties than about striving for artistic catharsis. These are records that had to be made, collections of bleeps and bloops that had to be eased into songs, lest no one ever hear them. That The Books managed to get the sounds skittering about their brains onto records and made those records cohesive one by one is a feat; that the records work as a group is even more impressive.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the material. Completists will revel in the inclusion of 2006’s Music For A French Elevator And Other Short Format Oddities By The Books, a collection of one-minute audio collages The Books wrote for an actual elevator on assignment from the French Ministry Of Culture. Built to ascend and descend, the tracks might have been charming in short bursts in an actual elevator, but back-to-back on a turntable, they have the potential to drive a listener a little insane. Other material, like Zammuto’s score for an unreleased movie about Biosphere 2, stands up a little better, but ultimately lacks the weight that the full-length albums carry as a whole.
Named for an anagram of the word “meditation,” A Dot In Time is just that: a thoughtful, deliberate look at an unbelievably thoughtful and deliberate band. The Books may be no more, but what the group did—making beautiful music from thrift-store tapes about chemistry and birthday parties—changed what’s possible in today’s indie-rock landscape.