Photo: Steve Gullick / Courtesy of Heavenly Recordings

audiobooks Could Use Some Editing on Their Latest Synthpop Album

audiobooks is a London-based duo with a unique sound that ranges from catchy pop to minimalist accompaniment to oppressive layers of sound.

Now! (in a minute)
2 November 2018

audiobooks is a London-based duo with a unique sound. Evangeline Ling handles the lyrics and most of the vocals, while David Wrench provides the music. That music is largely synth-based and on their debut album Now! (in a minute), it ranges from catchy pop to minimalist accompaniment to oppressive layers of sound. Ling is a storyteller, and many of the album’s most interesting moments come when she is using songs to relate narratives. She’s also a manic 21-year-old with a ton of energy, which is a great benefit for audiobooks – right up until it isn’t.

The album opens and closes with what turn out to be outliers for the band. “Mother Hen” begins with a funky little beat and builds the rest of the song around it. A synth bassline kicks in, followed by an old-school analog synth tone on the melody as Wrench noodles around on a solo. Ling doesn’t come in properly until a minute into the song, and at that point, her vocals are more impressionistic than anything, her words blending into the fabric of the song. Eventually, she drifts into a simple, catchy refrain, “Mother hen / How free, how sweet”, and the song rolls along into a bouncy, more chaotic final minute before the beat drops out. Closer “Pebbles” is almost the inverse of this. It’s built from a thick wall of slow synths and no beat at all. Ling is just as impressionistic here, but her high, drawn-out vocals combined with the synth style make the song resemble latter-day Björk. It’s an intriguing way to finish out the album, but at this point (past the 45-minute mark), audiobooks have pretty much worn out their welcome.

Between those two songs are 11 more tracks that find Wrench indulging and encouraging Ling at every turn. This starts out really entertaining but eventually curdles. The second song “Hot Salt” is a funky synthpop number where Ling tells a story about hanging out in a garden, naked with her friends. She complains about a man who crashed the party and how he had been making drawings of all of them in the nude. But Wrench surprisingly shows up on vocals in the second verse, with the Human League-referencing line, “Well, that was me / Sleeping in your garden / That much is true.” He goes on to tell his side of the story, and the song ends up being a sexy fun good time.

The vocoder-assisted “It Get Be So Swansea” is a very English take on female desire. It includes the charming, disarming verse “Makes me spin my mind apart / When I see you with your legs apart / I don’t mean dirty, you know / ‘Cause you are not dirty / But I feel dirty / ‘Cause you’re so not dirty.” The song eventually devolves into a series of very teenage exclamations (which Ling is a master of) that play with the vocoder in fun ways. This swings into “Friends in the Bubblebath”, which has an even greater musical debt to the Human League than “Hot Salt”. Sonically the song sounds right out of the early ’80s, and Wrench pops up here for some more vocals. Here, Ling unconvincingly insists “It’s not a big deal / I don’t want to sleep with you / I just want to be with you / As friends in the bubble bath.” It’s another strong, catchy synthpop song that makes audiobooks seem absolutely charming.

But things start to go off the rails with track five, “Womanly Blood”. This one finds Wrench strumming away ominously on an electric guitar over a basic factory-demo level synth beat. It’s not a bad song by any means; it’s just not nearly as catchy or interesting as what came before. Then there’s “Grandma Jimmy”, a three-minute story about an excruciating car ride with the titular grandparent with barely any musical effort from Wrench. He contributes a bassline, a basic slow beat, and some other effects, while Ling narrates dramatically, emphasizing certain vocal sounds as if she was making an ASMR video. Once again, it’s interesting because it’s different, but as a story, it just peters out.

“Dance Your Life Away” gets things back on track with a disco and bongo-infused beat and a pseudo-Arabian synth hook. Ling speak-shouts through the whole song with a crazy, seemingly drug-fueled abandon. There are yelps and screams as Ling talks about a wild night on the town, musing on fashion and finishing with 30 seconds of her yelling about how “We’re gonna get a wax tonight! / We’re gonna go get our legs waxed / and our armpits waxed /and our vaginas waxed, yeaaaah!!” It’s kind of insane, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Then “Call of Duty Free” finds Ling back in narrator mode, telling another spoken word story. Wrench’s synth accompaniment is much more ominous this time, giving portents of a dramatic ending to come. This is why the story of Lewis Lane and his girlfriend, Austria, trying to take a vacation together is so disappointing. The point of the story seems to be that Austria tried to invite her boyfriend on a family vacation without bothering to tell her parents that he was coming or that she even had a boyfriend, which is a good dramatic setup. But after four minutes of anticipating a big confrontation at the gate, Ling cops out, having Lewis get so drunk while waiting at the airport that he just doesn’t show up for the flight. It’s a waste of all those oppressive synths.

At this point Now! (in a minute) sort of limps its way to the finish line, with a pair of short tracks, “Period Talk” and “Car Sick” that don’t really have anything significant going on, and another pair of longer songs, “Spooky Algorithms” and “Dealing With Hoarders”, that double down on Ling’s more annoying tendencies. “Spooky Algorithms” has an off-kilter but interesting bed of synth sounds, but Ling speak-sings her way through the track in a sort of stream of consciousness that emphasizes noises like obvious breaths, coughs, and hitches in the middle of the words to portray intoxication in a manner that isn’t particularly entertaining for the listener. “Dealing With Hoarders” is essentially a synthrock track, with acoustic-sounding drums and guitars backing up Ling’s shouting, growling, meandering vocals. This kind of vocal nonsense was charming on “Dance Your Life Away” at the halfway point of the album, but is completely aggravating by the record’s penultimate track, and I just wanted her to stop.

Now! (in a minute) is a 49-minute album with 13 tracks, and that length does audiobooks no favors. At ten tracks and 39 minutes this would have been a quite enjoyable listen, but the longer it goes on, the harder it gets to like Ling. Wrench, a veteran producer and musician who’s been at it since the ’90s, seems content on this project to cater to the much younger Ling’s every impulse and build everything around her. That very indulgence is what ultimately makes the back half of this album such a chore to listen to. There’s something admirable about the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach the duo brings to this album, which at least makes their strengths and weaknesses stand out. By the end of the record, it’s clear that the more focused Ling is on presentation and the more work Wrench puts in on actually making songs and not just scattered musical ideas, the better audiobooks are. It’s a shame they didn’t figure that out for themselves before putting out a full album.

RATING 5 / 10