The last album that I heard that worked the same way as Books on Tape's new one, Sings the Blues, was King of Woolworth's charmer, Ming Star. Not that they sound remotely like each other, mind you, but both of these electronic albums have the same appeal. Neither artist is trying to turn electronic music on its ear; instead of pushing the proverbial envelope, they're just happy in their own little niche. Ideas may be recycled from other artists' work, and this music isn't anything that will make your jaw hit the floor the first time you hear it, but given time you feel yourself warming up to the music until you realize that, in its own innocuous way, the material is well-crafted, accessible, and quite enjoyable.
Books on Tape, the moniker of Los Angeles artist Todd Drootin, keeps things amazingly simple, compared to many of his peers. Sings the Blues is yet another clever laptop collage of samples and beats, but compared to more ambitious fare like Four Tet and Manitoba, he works more like a jazz artist, establishing a very simple primary melody in a song and just letting loose for the duration of the piece, acting as a cut-and-paste soloist. It's a 65-minute mishmash of myriad musical styles that is sometimes dark, sometimes warm, the overall tone of the record changing with almost every track, but in the end that's half the fun.
Credit Drootin's girlfriend Kerri for inspiring him to create this album. Drootin plundered her personal record collection, covering a wide variety of genres, for sampling ideas, and as it turns out, the idea worked out quite well, sometimes magnificently. Sings the Blues is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title, which Drootin alludes to in the brief intro "Laptop Blues", a track that basically consists of a lazy, amateurish acoustic guitar progression that's given a silly, slightly warped effect by Drootin. "Republic Of" gets down to more serious business, however, as it mines the languid, funky trip hop sounds of early Massive Attack, minimal samples of guitar, fretless bass, and strings providing a murky, noir-like tone. "See You in Tokyo" sounds just as sinister, but this time the song is propelled by an acoustic drum sample (note the outstanding use of the ride cymbal sample), and has more of an early '80s electro touch. The terrific "She's Dead to Me" cranks up the intensity, a frenzied blend of synth bleeps, screeches, and frenetic beats, while the more dance-oriented "Pointe du Pied" and "Girls up Front" are more playful, each possessing whimsical melodies.
The latter half of the album returns to the darker side of Books on Tape's sound. The careening "Death in the Sex Shop" sounds like a video game soundtrack, with its frantic jungle beats and siren-like synths adding to the song's menacing, nocturnal feel. The song immediately segues into "Siberian Soundsystem", one of the album's most inspired moments, as Drootin adds swirling noise that weaves in and out of the stark breakbeats, making for a harrowing, enthralling listening experience. But the true highlight of Sings the Blues is the seven-and-a-half-minute "The Crucial", an entrancing, intoxicating blend of a slow, insistent drum sample, a looped acoustic guitar riff, and a brief saxophone sample that repeats throughout the track. Over the course of the song, Drootin throws in various samples, like electric piano, flute, synth, jungle-like snare drum samples, and electric guitar, making the song an extended, free-form solo. The sax may add an instantly recognizable sound that would strike the listener as being "jazzy", but it's what Drootin does with the other elements of the track, his spontaneity and inventiveness, that makes this song more jazz-influenced than the usual electronic piece.
Sings the Blues does run a little long (65 minutes), and it would have been nice to hear Drootin continue in the direction of "The Crucial", but for the most part he manages to keep things fresh. The album might hit a speed bump here and there, but the ride is mostly fun, and never dull.