Our Album of the Month for November is the Books’ The Lemon of Pink. In these original liner notes, Jeremy D. Larsonwrites about the transformative patience the record brings to bear on listeners, who are rewarded for unpacking its multitude of charms.
True acts of solitude should go unnoticed, which is why I’m hesitant to talk about The Lemon of Pink. Better to just let it be. Better to just let this stainless artifact with its deep warrens of sound exist alone and far away from this life. It’s too alive with error messages and backwardly incompatible. Singer and producer Nick Zammuto, cellist Paul de Jong, and vocalist Anne Doerner built a paradoxical space, an alien world that is pressed up against the skin of our own. All these recondite voices stitched together with skeins of guitar and banjo and cello are a drug, a thick scrim laid over this world that can allow for one real, organic moment of solitude.
Solitude is a practice, and like The Lemon of Pink, it’s a discipline that does not immediately yield tangible results. Emily Dickinson, the patron saint of I’m just gonna stay in tonight, used solitude as a means of survival, where the “soul admitted to itself” would allow for a “finite infinity.” Modern-day dispatches from our moments of solitude are usually not stanzas of Dickinson or Whitman or Rilke, rather they are appeals to whoever will listen. The urge to tweet about how my yoga teacher played like three Smiths songs during Shavasana is staggering. The rush of likes on a selfie from my hike makes the tick bite almost seem worth it. Our effort then is not to be alone but to let others know we were alone. This breaks the character of solitude. To transmit a moment of solitude is to tarnish the ascetic soul. But to let it burrow in and remain private can allow you to learn and unlearn the lessons as dictated only by the self.
So to send back solo transmissions from within The Lemon of Pink seems almost sacrilegious to me. Music does a pretty good job celebrating the communal: the shared knowledge of a great pop chorus, the bruises from a mosh pit, the sweet smell of the dance floor. We are overwhelmed by the largess of music’s spirit. It unites us. And it’s also, you know, it’s just music, man: low stakes, fun, dumb, something to throw on in the car. In grave contrast, The Lemon of Pink is both a compass and a puzzle that I believe can lead you to a state of peace, of stasis, of aloneness. Like from inside the impossible room of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves or from the overgrown Area X in Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, what comes back from the album may seem backwards and misunderstood when not among its filigrees. Its sounds work within the quieted self, immune to the world around it, constantly creating and reinforcing a new musical language that appears immaculately notated on the backs of closed eyelids. Rare does music seek to make you feel alone. Rarer still does music provide such a fertile environment to be alone.
When the music of The Books arrived, it was precisely this kind of implacable feeling that garnered the album so much praise. It didn’t seem to be connected to any other sounds or styles at the time, and Zammuto credits Mark Richardson’s revelatory 8.4 review at Pitchfork for really kickstarting The Books’ career. Richardson captured what still is so readily wonderful about The Books: There is just so much mystery to discover. Once you drop into the album and get your bearings, there’s the appearance of freak folk, musique concrète, electro-acoustic neo-classical, and cafe indie. But the songs shift in and out of form as if each measure of music was a replica made out of a million grains of sand.
Large scale, sample-heavy records like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (1996) and The Avalanches Since I Left You (2000) were in part aimed at amplifying exotic and unheard sounds so they could live in larger spaces like bedrooms and dance floors. Both DJ Shadow and to a larger extent The Avalanches positioned these samples in service of the music, tinged with a big wink because of how odd they sounded in a pop context. Their samples carried with them the stamp of their extractors.
The Books, however, pay more deference to their source material. Their samples vibrate with the harmony and rhythm of their text and pay reverence to the great Steve Reich, who would conjure melody from human speech and weave it into his music. “If speech melody is the flower of the water lily, it nevertheless buds and blossoms and drinks from the roots, which wander in the waters of the mind,” wrote the great Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Each little sample on The Lemon of Pink is a peek into the spiritual provenance of a phoneme. The first words you hear on the album are, in fact, “The lemon of pink.” It’s a woman’s voice, pronouncing it in a thick accent as if introducing an entirely new definition for each word. The brain begins to disassociate the meaning of the words and separate them into a new language.
“The lemon of pink” sample was pulled from an old 7” record for a Dutch cosmetic company, describing the color of lipstick, one of many records in Paul de Jong’s collection. He was a connoisseur of found sound and tape projects. In 1999, de Jong watched over 750 movies. He always had his recorder going. If something bent his ear, he had a tape of it. Hundreds of MiniDiscs were stacked high in his living room in Harlem, New York. When de Jong met Nick Zammuto, he played him selections of his collection, including outsider artist Shooby Taylor, and the two formed an immediate bond at the joy, humor, texture, and possibility coded in each byte. Likewise, Zammuto had a little DAT recorder and would capture the sounds of his neighborhood and whatever interest tidbits from his television. Soon, the two amassed a sample library that would be the garden from which The Books would grow. Zammuto and de Jong began to splice together these disparate bits that stretched through geography and time with one basic rule: If the sample made them smile, sigh, or tear up when they heard it, and that impact stuck with them for more than a day, they would keep it.
Thought for Food, their prototypical 2002 debut, was assembled in the course of two years, during which Zammuto removed himself to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. While on his hike, he met all-around musician and singer Anne Doerner in Hot Springs, N.C., where after his trek he would spend some time working at a hostel before making his way back up to the East Coast, to North Adams, M.A., to start recording The Lemon of Pinkwith de Jong and Doerner in the kitchen pantry of a small apartment infested with squirrels.
It was perhaps one of the last albums that could exclusively call upon a physical library of samples. With YouTube still two years away and the exponential growth of the internet in medium swing, The Lemon of Pink landed just as we all began to get connected. Since The Books’ early fame was mostly predicated upon online reviews, they were uniquely one of the first bands whose music could exist entirely without a physical copy. The Books could be discovered and then listened to in the same breath, without ever having to leave your computer. (The still nascent iTunes Store opened in April of 2003, a few months before the album was released.)
The assembly of music from found sources feels like it too was in the liminal state between the analogue and the digital world. A toy piano solo from when Zammuto was two years old, a live uncovering of a hundred-year-old lithophone in the North Carolina woods, dropping small wind-up chicken over an open-tuned guitar, Zammuto pulling beaded lamp chain over a chair, the door of the kitchen pantry—all these sounds interacted with digitally manipulated cellos, fretless mountain banjos, and acoustic guitars tuned so low the overtones dance around every note. Doerner’s soft linen voice and Zammuto’s thin baritone were folded like paper correspondence into each song.
Then another layer of samples: Albert Einstein saying a kind word about Gandhi, Israeli politician Abba Eban reading from the Old Testament, a Dutch riverboat captain protesting early EU regulation, some Christian beat poetry, an Islamic prayer, a Japanese potato vendor. The spectrum of voices grows and grows, turning in on itself as the band also sample themselves from the past (the “now I have two or three whiskey sodas” on “Don’t Even Sing About It” is from a Books interview on CBC radio where de Jong talks about how many samples he owns that reference “whiskey soda”). Time and authorship blur into grids latticed with lines both digital and analog, electric and acoustic, found and stolen.
These elements are arranged and presented in this one-to-one direct ratio through Zammuto’s production. The stark lack of reverb or chorus effects across the whole album strips away any artifice. The voice is the voice, even if it’s from corralled from a Japanese in-flight service announcement. The cello is the cello, even it it’s pitched up a few semi-tones. The tings and clangs trigger those blessed with ASMR, and each sound makes you more aware of the next one, or the one before it. Tactile sensations become aural experiences. A guitar line pans from one channel to the other, the ping of metal sounds like it’s inching just behind your head, and a glitch clip of a spliced banjo becomes as crucial as the clanking of the of cello bow on the bridge.
To be in this world is to experience this magical convergence of sounds. They collide into a new language that, slowly, you begin to pick up on. Picture being in a foreign country but at double or triple the speed of life, your synapses firing, your brain regulating the dopamine to its peak performance so that what was strange at the beginning of “The Lemon of Pink I” now becomes suddenly familiar. The harmonics and tempo of the hammered guitar in “Take Time” transform into the album’s token sound, a safe ground, as the song billows open at the end. Then a chorus of harmonies rock back and forth on the words “take” and “time” and lead you into the acoustic rush of the most structured and harmonious song “That Right Ain’t Shit,” and without even realizing it you feel at peace in this uncanny copy of home.
I asked Nick Zammuto what it’s like to listen to The Lemon of Pink today. He paused. “Psychologically it’s hard because losing The Books was the biggest tragedy of my life,” he told me. “I still feel that loss every day. I put so much time and energy into it and to see it fall apart like that was kind of a slow-motion train wreck that really damaged me.”
In the documentary No Needle, Just A Haystack—a short film about Nick Zammuto and his life and work as a musician, husband, and father in rural Massachusetts—there is a scene where Zammuto loads a 20-foot tall homemade wooden trebuchet with the computer that he made the final Books album, 2010’s The Way Out. He launches it high in the air and it lands in the thickish grass of his property. We see Zammuto running toward its remains as he attacks the casing and disgorged circuits and motherboards with a sledgehammer. It was a purge, a funeral, and an unpairing of devices.
Maybe that’s why this Books record feels so cloistered away and disconnected from the world. There are these distractions now, a part of life I suppose, always something begging for your attention. This record begs for nothing. It is inviting without being prickly. It entreats with no tricks. It guides you and your practice of solitude to a world that isn’t jammed with your own thoughts, but instead, if you donate to it a kind of rigorous attention worthy of the patience that Zammuto, de Jong, and Doerner put into it, it transforms this world into something grander and golden. The Lemon of Pink is magical Wunderkammer, one of the last messages sent before we came to realize we need other people. The Books knew better: What may look small on the outside goes on forever within.
Our Album of the Month is The Lemon of Pink, by the Books. You can receive it by signing up for the club here.