There had been albums like The Lemon Of Pink before. Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High And Rising, most famously. Negativland’s Escape From Noise, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… Just a few years prior, in 2000, the Avalanches had suggested that the new millennium would be made up of infinitesimal bits of the old one with Since I Left You. In 1968, Steve Reich had sampled and looped a field recording of a man singing on the street until it took on an ectomorphic, liquid quality; three years later, Gavin Bryars would write an entire score underneath a similar recording for Brian Eno’s label. So by the time the Books hit the scene, building music predominantly or entirely out of samples, creating a performance by arranging someone else’s performance (or many other people’s performances), was already an established and credible art form.
But nothing had ever sounded like the Books before. Or, put more precisely, there had never been an experience like listening to the Books before. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, The Lemon Of Pink is a staggering technical achievement, a needlepoint stitching of found sound, samples from other records (musical, instructional, whatever), field recordings, and original performances on banjo, guitar, cello, and voice. The seams tying all of these sources together don’t just show; they’re turned into percussion, snips and glitches ticking away like a click track in the absence of drums. There are up to 150 samples in each of these songs, each arranged perfectly.
But what made The Lemon Of Pink different from its peers — what led Pitchfork to call it the second-best album of 2003, ahead of Hail To The Thief and You Forgot It In People — was how easily it brought listeners into its world, how comfortable a place it made for them there, and how familiar the chopped and shredded and blitzed-out world they presented turned out to be. It felt (and still feels) humble, small, heartwarming, charmingly handmade, music that seemed already nostalgic for the moment of its creation as it was being produced. It was something like the Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 or a version of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea recorded in 2045 — Kid A for people who’d spent the summer of 2003 getting into Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan.
The handmade feel of The Lemon Of Pink was no accident. Nick Zammuto, Paul De Jong, and Anne Doerner painstakingly assembled the album in the walk-in pantry of Zammuto’s North Adams, MA, apartment. Squirrels lived in the walls. Between takes, the trio cooked collard greens and black-eyed peas from The Moosewood Cookbook. They may have been working on a period-appropriate Sony Vaio computer, but The Lemon Of Pink’s context was holey-sweater pre-hygge DIY.
Zammuto had met Doerner after hiking the Appalachian Trail. “A very transient person,” he called her in a 2016 Vice interview. She’d be out of the group and on the road again within a year of The Lemon Of Pink’s release. But like Nico on the first Velvet Underground album, her contributions fundamentally reshaped the group’s possibilities. Doerner’s voice is thick, a little hoarse; you can very easily picture her singing around a campfire at any point in American history. “We went through hell, well well,” she sings in “The Lemon Of Pink I,” luxuriating in the swing of the melody like she’s telling a painful story turned charming with time. Her voice, and the banjo she’s playing — carved by a friend from a tree stump — have been snipped and reassembled, and the snips themselves form a bluesy slide, the edits providing not only texture and percussion, but swing, feel. “Drum machines have no soul,” went the bumper-sticker cliche of the time, but there are no drum machines on The Lemon Of Pink, only intuitive gestures and flicks of the mouse, spectral wisps of human touch.
The sounds that Zammuto, De Jong, and Doerner bring together all feel freighted with meaning, even when they’re functionally meaningless. “The lemon — of pink,” a voice intones over a gulping piano. Scraps of fiddling click in, then out. One particularly subtle detail: Someone whispers the words “subtle details.” The cuts come quickly. In bursts. Rhythms approximate. A song’s locomotion might reverse course, then reverse again, in the span of two beats. De Jong’s cello hums to itself. These micro-movements form a strange but easy-to-follow musical grammar. When a Japan Airlines flight attendant wishes her passengers “sayonara” in “Tokyo,” it feels anthemic; you want to pump your fist and cheer for her.
De Jong and Zammuto were constantly taping, constantly organizing their growing sound libraries. “If a sample made them smile, smirk, sigh, or tear up when they heard it, and that impact stuck for more than a day, they’d keep it,” Pitchfork’s Jeremy D. Larson reports in the liner notes to a 2016 reissue. What kind of toll did this take on the two of them? What is it like to encounter raw sound like this in your everyday life, to always be aware of the potential secondary context of everything you hear? “Everything is music!” Winona Ryder as Björk whimsically declared on SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy, but what was caricature there was reality for the Books, enthusiasm and all.
I want to think that this way of listening would pull you out of consensus reality, that it would make staying present to the moment — which means holding fast to the meaning of what you hear, not simply hearing it — impossible. But maybe like practicing Zen Buddhist John Cage implied, the mundane and the curious and the sublime are all equally valid, are all artful as long as you’re paying attention. Maybe this kind of listening demanded a hyper-presence.
What is certain is that The Lemon Of Pink is swimming, nearly weightless, in implied meanings. “Take Time,” one of the album’s best tracks, begins with a percolating metallic drum that sounds like it’s been pulled from a Sublime Frequencies LP of kalimba recordings. It’s actually a recording of Zammuto’s friend’s daughter pounding away on a slab of Kentucky limestone, pitch-shifted and edited into shape. So many of the sounds on The Lemon Of Pink were generated in moments like this, making the album effectively a catalog of memories in a way conventional albums simply aren’t. A kick drum is just a kick drum, and doesn’t really point to anything outside itself. But the “Take Time” intro comes with the whole memory of how it was sourced built into it, whether you’re aware of that history or not. Every sample — by every artist, not just the Books — carries a kind of memory, a whiff of story, at least in an implicit way, because it’s been pulled from one context into another. Zammuto, De Jong, and Doerner seemed particularly aware of that, and the dreamy, hypnotic quality of The Lemon Of Pink often feels like a reflection on precisely that.
The Lemon Of Pink was released before Burial’s Untrue, and before critic Mark Fisher made the concept of hauntology something of a mainstream concept in music criticism. Rather than unrealized futures, the Books were haunted by never-true pasts, American histories that were warmer and jollier and more communal than reality. Coming only two years after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the idea that an album of avant-garde Americana might be able to transcend the horrors of post-9/11 America felt not only possible but inspirational; there might be something in our collective mythology worth preserving after all.
For all its technical prowess, The Lemon Of Pink’s foundation was in American folk music, and it’s probably best understood as an outgrowth of that tradition. The banjos and acoustic guitars aren’t just convenient instruments or even contextless musical textures; they were nets that dragged listeners backwards into musical history. Even at their most chopped, it’s impossible to hear them and not think of Harry Smith, of coffeehouses, of foggy appalachia. Like Charles Ives grafting century-old folk melodies into his symphonies, the Books brought something personal out of the past, something universally personal, something all of us — or most of us, or maybe just some of us — felt was a common inheritance, and they shaped a new future from it.
“In a sense, electronic music is folk music,” Zammuto told TapeOp in 2005, “because it’s readily available and you can share it with your friends and community.” In classic folk tradition, The Lemon Of Pink’s ethos has been passed down to artists who have in turn put their own spin on it: the collage confessionals of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, the viewing history of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica. It turned sampling into a singer-songwriter mode despite its own lyrics being mostly processed into illegibility; Bon Iver’s 22, A Million simply flipped the formula. The dynamic between Zammuto and De Jong would toxify, and the Books would disband in 2012; as of 2016, Zammuto says he has no idea where Doerner is. They are not likely to reunite. But for a little while in 2003, in a tiny room warmed with the smell of collard greens, crowded around a rattling PC, they spun together one of the most comforting, confounding, and heartwarming pieces of experimental music ever produced in this country. And they shared it with us.