[11 April 2012]
When Nick Zammuto and his wife Molly were preparing for the birth of their first child, they ditched their overpriced Brooklyn apartment for a 16 acre plot of high meadow land in rural Vermont. Zammuto, who “had never used a chop saw, but sort of knew he needed one,” set out to build their dream home himself in the few remaining months before the due date. He described the whole process in a 2010 article in Impose Magazine, and his self educated journey through sustainable design and construction is a fascinating one to follow. The completed Zammuto homestead consists of a lovely cottage with a passive solar design that conserves fuel and provides an indoor growing space to supplement the adjacent vegetable garden where the family grows most of their own food. Out behind the house sits a little shack that serves as Zammuto’s music studio. And while this idyllic, down home setting may conjure up images of banjo pluckin’ hootenannies and campfire sing-a-longs, the sounds that emanate from this back woods shack are of another order entirely.
Zammuto is one half of the highly influential found-sound collage project the Books whose music combined sampling with live guitars and strings for a meticulously curated sound that was truly unprecedented upon their emergence in the early 2000s. Although the technical approaches that the Books pioneered have grown ubiquitous in the realm of electronic indie music, there are few other acts who so fully realize the unique potentialities of juxtaposition and pastiche that the genre affords. In a way, it’s not surprising that Zammuto took so readily to the challenges of home design and construction, for there has always been a keen sense of structure that permeates the Books’ finely crafted aesthetic.
This proclivity for assembling seemingly incongruous sounds into seamless and pleasing patterns extends into Zammuto’s current self-titled solo project as well, though here those sounds are more likely to originate from live human beings rather than from the dusty records of long forgotten audio archives. For this album, Zammuto mostly abandons his previous hushed and heartfelt vocal delivery for a heavily processed robo-croon along the lines of James Blake or Bon Iver’s auto-tune dabbling. His guitar work is inspired and impeccable as always and a supporting cast that includes string arrangements by Gene Back and drums by Sean Dixon provides many of the album’s tracks with depth and dimension. Although there are electronic undercurrents throughout, Zammuto traverses across multiple genres and points of reference, from the math damaged pyrotechnics of Battles and Hella to the tongue-in-cheek space funk of Ween to the unpretentious indie rock of Temporary Residence labelmates Pinback. Zammuto makes this often strange mash-up of inspirational source material work through his inventive musicianship and production, and by staying pretty light hearted about the whole affair. With song titles such as “F U C-3PO” and “Zebra Butt”, it’s apparent that he’s not taking himself too seriously here.
Zammuto’s penchant for complex programming and studio trickery blends nicely with his own intricate guitar work and Dixon’s manic and propulsive drumming on tracks like “F U C-3PO” and “Weird Ceiling”. The former rides a counterintuitive 5/4 groove across a wash of acoustic guitar, MIDI mallet sounds and warped vocal effects, while the former builds from a minimalist framework of programmed bass and digitized harmonies to a cacophonous freak out of pent up drum bursts and urgent staccato guitar lines. But the album’s finest moments are those in which the band tones things down a bit, and tempers their fierce and abrasive musicality with a softer and more refined approach. On “Idiom Wind”, Back’s elegant string arrangement provides a powerful augmentation of the pulsing synths, wandering bass lines and uniquely unadorned vocals that form the song’s underlying structure. And the final two tracks on the album, “The Shape of Things to Come” and “Full Fading”, continue in this vein that is somehow both more restrained and more expansive than the album’s more in-your-face moments. There are also a couple of tracks here such as the opener “YAY”, and “Too Late Topologize”, that don’t ever fully take off, as though they were promising ideas that never quite developed into fruition. These occasional misfires probably wouldn’t register at all, except for the uniquely developed vision of standout tracks such as “Idiom Wind” and “The Shape of Things to Come”.
All together, Zammuto is a fun and inventive record that shows great promise for Nick Zammuto’s post-Books future. And while the album has its flaws in terms of consistency and clarity of concept, the most captivating songs speak to the incredible potential of the project, and are among the more engaging that I’ve heard in quite some time.