In the middle of some summer during my pasty, ornery adolescence, my dad threatened to throw the book I was reading straight into the pool. The choice was mine: either I swam, or my book did. In all likelihood I deserved the threat, squandering what was left of my grandparental hang time on whatever sci-fi serial was tickling my elementary escapism fantasies. My dad is erudite, a constant reader, but he also likes social engagement, a hobby I never inherited. Year after year, I picked Lunchables and Philip Pullman over what I viewed as summer’s undesirables: sunshine (meh), exercise (ugh), kids my own age (triple ugh).
Puberty came and left and got me a little better adjusted to group discussions about blockbuster movies and shoes and whatever else it is that people in social settings talk about. But I still bring books to lunch, books to parties, books to shows, books to bars. (The latter of which surprisingly leads to pick-up lines — hello? I am trying to avoid human contact. This isn’t the singles book club.) When a conversation lulls, or when I want nothing to do with the conversation (lulling or not), I retreat. It wasn’t until my late teens that I realized some people find the whole bookworm thing not only tolerable, but actually desirable. (I’m reminded of Sexy Librarian Halloween costumes, plague of my freshman fall at MIT.)
Infinity Caller, the third long-player from Brooklyn’s Grooms, is a kindred spirit for us self-identified stay-at-homers. The members of Grooms seem smart and a little dweeby right off the bat; their blog features funny, analytic ruminations from singer-guitarist Travis Johnson on the morality of Breaking Bad, and goofy flash animation from bassist-singer Emily Ambruso. Their sound is smart, too, an exercise in explosion and restraint hallmarked by sweeping guitars, stuttery drums, and cryptic, airy vocals that circle on obsession and self-perception.
Johnson, who makes no secret of the fact that he suffers from OCD, let obsession serve as subject matter for many of the songs on the group’s first two efforts, but fixation shapes his lyrical style beyond its narrative content. Exact details jarringly punctuate the surreal dream-journal automatics of his songs, especially in “Very Very Librarian,” practically an ode to the fetishization of bookish babes. Over a pacing bass line and nervous, ready-to-burst guitar strums, we’re introduced to (shocker) a librarian, “softly sorting through the stacks/fifteen buttons down and pleated slacks.” There’s nothing overtly sexual about this description, but in that alliterative “softly,” and in the (perhaps obsessive) counting of those buttons, Johnson transmits a coy but intense longing.
The guitars swell right into a swirling, exuberant chorus, in which Johnson sings, “Somebody’s making exceptions for you,” and I can almost picture a goddess-like librarian granting amnesty on late fines for a majorly overdue book — much to the appreciation of the blushing, errant book-borrower, of course. The noise fades into a surreal hush, then paces right back into reality in the second verse. The song’s low-key patience ultimately seems more amorous about the reading material than the girl, the former extolled as “walking, talking, limbless spines.” That’s a far more bodily, fleshed-out description than the faraway, garment-heavy observations we hear in the first verse. Maybe this guy just really loves to read.
Which would be fitting, considering the song’s context in an album that’s so outsider-ish. Grooms calls Brooklyn home, sure, but its members are really from Brooklyn-via-Oklahoma-via-Texas, and a New York transplant’s nervousness lingers throughout Infinity Caller. Characters are “cast out” of social groups; they “learn to impose” in displays of naïve sexual exploration; they “[talk] like a weirdo.” They lose their innocence. They are literally digested by other people. On standout track “Completely,” Johnson pictures himself there, “in the heart of it all/where your friends are so tall/The skinniest skins and they kiss on the lips.” There’s nothing especially anxious about the words, but his agitation is underscored by the clash of revvy, ascendant guitars, some of which are brash and staccato, some lackadaisically delayed, producing a sound that’s clumsy, bell-like, and totally fitting for the fidgety emotions Grooms harnesses.
On title track “Infinity Caller,” bad friends call too much, draw you into their circle — and for what? To include you in a “pushy porno” world of “bad skin and pretty eyes,” a world in which you feel totally foreign. No surprise, then, that respite is found in the stacks of books, or perhaps the steadfast clerk who sorts them. I’m reminded of a line from Daniel Clowes’ Twentieth Century Eightball comic book anthology, in which a typically cynical Clowes gives words of optimism to a character repulsed by his city. He says, “Sure, in many ways life is horrible, but we must never forget that there are beautiful, sweet-natured, 22-year-old girls who are bursting with love and who would rather read than watch television.” New York, like Clowes’ fictionalized Chicago, is harrowing, stressful. And (sorry, Dad) taking a swim in the pool doesn’t relieve those stresses for everyone. For those of us who’d rather read or listen to records than deal with the social dramas that accompany summer’s endless boozing, we’ve got our books, we’ve got this Grooms album, and, if all else fails, we’ve got some librarians to ogle.