With a channel-surfing restlessness and penchant for maniacal unpredictability, Todd Drootin is a beatmaker who revels not in the beats themselves, but in the experimental subdivisions farmed out on their extremities. Drootin is an archaic technology loyalist, forgoing the current trend of laptop-orchestrated electronica in favor of older samplers, beat boxes, and effect pedals. (He even titled a previous album Throw Down Your Laptops). His output under the Books on Tape moniker proudly holds these individualist ideals high, flaunting uncompromised cut-and-paste canvases with an audio sadist’s zeal.
Books on Tape’s latest release The Business End follows 2003’s lauded Books on Tape Sings the Blues; while it’s roughly half the length of its predecessor, The Business End isn’t quite as successful. Books on Tape has never pretended to be a revolutionary force in the electronica-as-musique-concrète universe, but The Business End doesn’t consist of much beyond its proliferation of scatterbrained, broken collages. For all its interweaving samples and deconstructionist subversion, The Business End offers nothing of substance to hold on to after the fact. It’s often bewildering rather than bewitching, its walls and floors disappearing right before we’re allowed to acclimate to the environment.
Think of sterilized rubber gloves splitting and fusing microorganisms in a petri dish, working in disorienting fast motion, and you’ll start to understand where Drootin’s coming from this time around. The Business End opens with “The Truth, the Whole Truth, & an Assortment of Lies”, a fidgety house groove cut with dissonant horn samples; the beat routinely drops out, only to be fiercely regenerated with footnoted appendages. This formula — establish, remove, reform, repeat — is what the majority of the album is built on, including “Grey Matters” (which gyrates like video game music designed by Dante), “People That Don’t Like Me / People That I Don’t Like” (a lumbering, almost comical, sidewinder rhythm, spliced with jerky hyperactive stutters), and “Patron Saints III” (with samples that sound like a cast of car horns making music, then being overridden with machine gunning punctuations).
Occasionally, when the routine is unceremoniously busted up, Books on Tape unsubtly flirts between complacency and revolt. Punctuated by a scratchy sample from an old TV show or film, “Stones to Turn, Bridges to Burn” is a near-fascinating structure of funhouse mirrors, its ominous tones ricocheting off the walls. “Ill Team Captain” is a quick, multi-piston attack of lulling fuzz and grinding lines. Likewise, “Bullets” opens with happiness in repetition, but is soon undermined by the beat’s obvious attempt to break from its short leash. Neither of these tracks is exactly stronger than any of the others, but they serve a valuable function by altering the album’s affinity for its own choppy formula.
Based solely on its test-tubed eccentricities, The Business End can induce salivation in a stream of analytical adjectives (see paragraphs above). One can’t fault Drootin for his individuality or antiquated idiosyncrasies, for they’re what ultimately separate him from the electronic pack. But Drootin’s mood shifts with the speed and accuracy of a blink; after a number of successive rapid eye movements, one tends to lose focus of the composition and obsess over the self-editing. When all is said and done, The Business End isn’t musically or conceptually conscious in a way that makes it remotely likeable. For all its insubordinate splicing, hemorrhaging, flailing, and plundering, The Business End volunteers precious little excitement, engagement, even intrigue.