North Adams Transcript
by Charles Schneider (Fantagraphics)
Delving into the hidden world of secret societies of the Victorian Age in America, Charles Schneider blows the lid on the craziness, but it’s not quite the sort of unhinged activity you would have expected.
Reality -- and old catalogs -- reveal that behind the scenes in groups like the Modern Woodmen of America and other popular lodges in the early 20th century there was a lot of activity involving mechanical goats, collapsing chairs, devil costumes and electric currents.
These revelations are culled from listings in DeMoulin Brothers Catalog No. 439 -- a collector’s item from 1930 reprinted in "Burlesque Paraphernalia" that features scores of initiation gadgets and costumes for secret brotherhoods looking to spice up their routines.
Schneider starts the book with a fascinating history not only of the use of these items, but also a detailed rundown on the history of the company that made them. It still exists, although it now specializes in marching band uniforms -- not enough lodges looking for gadgetry to amend their hijinks anymore.
The actual catalog is a wishbook of possible DIY projects for the clever or crazy -- a dog show stunt set that features canine masks and collapsable dog houses, the electric (and apparently unstoppable) teeter totter, goat blood mix for drinking, a baby bouncer with electric carpet, exploding golf balls, collapsable stairs, the so-called "branding and whirling table" and plenty of other items with which to injure and horrify future candidates.
The catalog also highlights some offensive humor from yesteryear, including a baby doll for lodge candidates to train in preparation for being an at-home daddy as a way to mock women’s suffrage, and of course the ever-popular "race costumes."
The catalog also includes the section "Suggestions And Directions For Introducing And Using Our Burlesque And Side Degree Paraphernailia" for fraternal orders that needed a script prior to taking advantage of items like the Bucking Couch and the Invisible Paddle Machine.
As retail histories go, this is a vibrant one -- if nothing else, it lets you know what foolishness your grandfather was up to when he looks back to the good old days and bemoans "these kids today." At least these kids today aren’t making a habit of using a Lifting And Spanking Machine on their friends.
"The Way Out"
(Temporary Residence Limited)
Spoken word and abstract soundscapes, with music finding direction through the found sounds contained in the songs -- it must be a new release from The Books.
Balancing the urgent with the ethereal, the eclectic duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong returns with an ambitious album, their first in several years.
In the universe of The Books, all sounds constitute music; it’s just that some of them are produced on musical instruments, while others are made with various objects lying around and the lost utterances of spoken-word records that take on mystical meaning when taken out of their context and transplanted into one of these songs. The best prog-rock band in the world couldn’t offer anything quite so cryptic as the instructional greetings on the opening track "Group Autogenics 1."
The Books aren’t lazy souls, though, and this isn’t a collection of found sound slapped on top of weird electronic doodlings. There’s musicianship and plenty of ideas being unleashed here, as well as studio tricks that glide alongside the analog sounds to create a hybrid experience between two sonic worlds. Manipulated, edited, sampled spoken word is made to twist around the instrumentation to create a groove that is both other worldly and entirely warm on tracks such as "I Didn’t Know That" and "A Cold Freezin’ Night," which features the goofy sing-song ramblings of two kids going nuts with their tape recorder to the point of bloodlust.
One of the major gems on the album is "I Am Who I Am," a high-speed thumping ramble that features edited samples from a Salvation Army preacher’s sermon about Exodus 3:14. Variations on God’s proclamation of "I am that I am" is transformed into a defiant name check of oneself. This is followed up with "Chain of Missing Links," a lilting piece culled from a meditation tape.
Another high point is "The Story of Hip Hop," which mixes together samples from a 1950s Christian children’s record about a grasshopper name Hip Hop with modern beats and some refrains created by the use of an electronic guitar bow.
Throughout the album there is an undertone of science within the absurdity and mysticism. Coupled with the technology engaged to create the work, that may be at the center of the statement being made here -- the multi-disciplinary aural stew that results is the ultimate proof that the duo’s theory works.
Zammuto has lamented about the loss of "scientific freeplay" in the era of corporate funding, and how he moved from chemistry to music in pursuit of analysis and creation less constrained by the systems that scientists find themselves trapped in. Zammuto desired unbridled discovery through the tools and knowledge available.
He made the right decision in his move, and an even better one in embracing the musical mind of de Jong as his partner in the journey. That’s exactly what this Books album sounds like -- the joyful pursuit of something not yet known -- and it’s what will keep it something to listen to again and again and again.
The Books will perform at the Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA tonight. They can be found online at thebooksmusic.tumblr.com.