If you judge a book by its cover (get it? Books on Tape? “book by its cover”?), LA resident Todd Drootin, the latest punker turned electronic miscreant whom you need to know, might seem more of a fit within the Tigerbeat6 clique than a Montréal highbrow label like No Type (which has jointly released this sophomore album in Europe and Canada). In Drootin’s world, everything is fair game. Electronica, hip hop, rock, jazz, breakbeats, theme pop: it’s all in there, as long as it can be used, abused and bent into compliance — albeit barely — with a shit-eating grin. Books on Tape’s mischievous core is exposed as a whimsical bright spot within IDM’s crowded field — much like a Kid606, to whom he’s often compared. However, with abstraction seeming to be the rule these days, Drootin represents a stark contrast to his laptop peers, as his sound is relatively unmolested by plug-in technique. Sings the Blues has its own methods of unearthing balls-to-the-wall stream of consciousness; here, the sonic freeflow that wants to be Zappa-electro-free jazz is kept in check by linear production and a high degree of organization. Where some artists rely on wayward mouse clicks to give their music a push, Drootin has a plan. Needless to say, it’s refreshing.
Early on, Sings the Blues (which, if you haven’t figured out by now, has little do with the blues), hits you over the head with playful hooks and personality to match, gradually becoming less civilized as the raucous energy takes over. Tracks like Republic Of (a mix of Amon Tobin and Prefuse 73 hip-hop futurism) and See You In Tokyo (in which the Batman and Munsters themes collide in a Shibuya backyard alley) team with hip hop and rock sensibility — an alliance that Drootin won’t let you forget. Girls Up Front gives a taste of Drootin’s beat programming pedigree, a complex barrage of loop science in which our hero throws another rock bassline into the prickly chaos of the Squarepushin’ briar patch. The cartoonish Death In the Sex Shop continues the arc; its berserker onslaught could be likened to Naked City on a crack high after an all-night recording session with every product in the Sweetwater catalog.
Toward the album’s end, Drootin lays in with a masterstroke of choppy techno-funk on Sidekick, a rare moment of obvious digital processing discipline. Otherwise, Books on Tape flaunts each meticulously programmed note, as well as each breakbeat loop notched carefully upon the next — in some ways, a throwback to the days when MIDI churned through Cakewalk and 16 note polyphony. Thankfully, Drootin doesn’t overthink things. His melodic leads — there are quite a few — are not fancy; it’s as if he hits record and taps in the next tuneful thing that pops into his head, and never mind the inspired skullduggery that surrounds it. Mike Paradinas perfected this trait, but Books on Tape takes it to a different plane altogether, where even a track like The Crucial, with its ironic Prodigy-style breakdown, can succeed with the help of thematic contortions. It would be a mistake to brand Books on Tape as less sophisticated based on Drootin’s apparent methods, but it’s worth mentioning this point because it sets him apart from his competitors.