Words by: Ryan Torok | Images from: thebooksmusic.com
The Books :: 11.23.09 :: Masonic Lodge :: Los Angeles, CA
The Books never intended to be seen live. Since forming in 2000 in New York, they've released three albums and only started touring after the last one in 2005, and that was because they needed money. Even nowadays they don't tour very often - they aren't promoting any new material on their current tour - and their delicate music seems like the result of tedious trial-and-error making it difficult to give justice to onstage. They utilize acoustic guitar, arrhythmic strumming, and folksy fingerpick patterns (played by Nick Zammuto) cut up with textural electric cello (Paul de Jong), and they achieve sonic depth by copying and pasting digitally chopped up recordings of sounds from nature, conversations between ordinary people, machines, from creations meant to be art, such as movie and TV dialogue, and from sources not meant to be art, like home videos and personal recordings. This is where The Books excel, taking things not meant to be art, and which most people would never think of using as art, and turning them into art by placing them in a new context.
At the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, an unreleased song with no title illustrated this best. When a hunter uses a duck caller to attract some game, the sound the duck caller makes certainly isn't art (unless you are defining "art" in the everything-is-art sense). But The Books manage to find a recording of this duck call, sample it in their music and make it musical and thought-provoking in a way that is perfect for somebody who likes to think too much (and this is meant as a compliment). While they sat and performed this playful song onstage - they sat for the entire hour-and-fifteen-minute set, as did the 200-person sold out audience, until after the one and only encore, when The Books said goodbye and the crowd saw them off with a heartwarming standing ovation - video of hunters and geese was projected onto the wall above their heads. That they found this duck call somewhere and incorporated it into their live show while a video of hunters trying to lure ducks flying past played, AND it seemed like the duck calling sound was coming from the ducks flying on-screen rather than from The Books, is some serious re-contextualization. Even if you didn't think too deeply about it, it was emotionally stirring.
Another highlight was "Smells like Content" from their 2005 album, Lost and Safe. Zammuto introduced this song saying that his brother was the type of person who would go into the woods and record his thoughts. Snippets of these recordings opened and closed the song, including one line in particular that makes the song great: "Expectation leads to disappointment/ If you don't expect something big, huge and exciting/ usually... uh, I don't know... it's just not as..." And that's where the song ends on record, and that's where The Books cut it off live. A precious and over-analytical state-of-mind probably brought these words into Zammuto's brother's head, but played live, bookending Zammuto's soft and only barely melodic vocals which recalls Swedish singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez's singing-style, it was just beautiful. The Books and Gonzales collaborated on 2009's Dark was the Night, where they covered Nick Drake's "Cello Song," which The Books performed as the encore. Zammuto demonstrated the dexterity of his self-taught guitar skills on this number.
| The Books|
The Books weren't afraid to show off their darkly humorous side either. A montage of footage extracted from home videos - which they explained they found at various Salvation Army stores and thrift shops - of penguins falling and kids beating each other up, played throughout. Near the end of the set, a video of all the anagrams of the word "meditation" cracked the crowd up.
Some of what was played on the video screen wasn't as successful. At the opening of the show, the guys spoke about how they are currently very into hypnotherapy and a different kind of group therapy, where instead of a group of patients sitting in a room with one therapist, a group of therapists practice on one patient. They performed a hypnotic, ambient version of "Take Time," from their 2003 album Lemon of Pink, while a video of therapists' heads told the audience to, "Close your eyes in your ears." This kind of dragged.
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Several thrones fit for kings were set up on the stage, and big, framed '70s movie posters adorned the walls – Jaws, Chinatown, Star Wars, Raging Bull and Harold and Maude, to name a few. The Books obviously didn't ask for these posters to be put up - these films are definitive Hollywood expressions, and that is why they were up there - but they were appropriate. They all are mainstream movies, but they all have vision and artistic integrity nonetheless. In other words, they all hold up despite themselves.
The Books make ostensibly boring music that is good to get a massage or fall asleep to. In 2006, they made elevator music for the Ministry of Culture building in Paris, France, and that seems like a match made in bookish heaven. But, they do what they do with a purpose that makes them original, if not pioneers. During the show, you felt like you were a part of something important, bearing witness to something groundbreaking, even if you couldn't, and still can't, explain why. I guess the best you can do is say that The Books are really inclusive. All night they seemed to be saying, "Look what can be art. Art can be pretty much anything, if presented imaginatively."
The Books tour dates available here.
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