The Books at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, Dec 5 2010
– review by Raoul Fernandes/photos by Megan Chursinoff
What makes The Books so special is how instantly enjoyable their music is, despite remaining ‘unclassifiable’ and consistently pushing the boundaries of pop music.
Much of the New York duo’s music has real instrumentation at its core (guitar, cello, violin, vocals) but is layered with all kinds of found samples. These consist of bits of meditation tapes, clips from home videos, and other minutiae, much of which the members have salvaged from thrift stores. If that sounds too gimmicky or head-scratchingly arty, the result is far from it. The beautiful and thoughtfully composed songs reveal a genuine love of unusual sounds, a quirky sense of humour, and an appreciation of the inherent musicality of ordinary (and not so ordinary) human speech.
After what seemed like a long wait and a maudlin opening band (sorry Black Heart Procession, I was just not feeling the dirge-y ballads, even though the saw-playing was pretty), The Books took the stage for the last night on their fall tour. Founding members Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong sat on the left and right side, and in the middle talented new member, multi-instrumentalist (violin, guitar, MIDI controls) Gene Back. Above them, a large projection screen played as important a function in the show as the music itself.
Zammuto plucked away at a chiming, creeping guitar riff, as disembodied heads appeared on the screen. “On this recording, music, specifically created for its pleasurable effects upon your mind body and emotions,” a soothing earnest voice assured us, “…is mixed with a warm orange coloured liquid.”
That moment gave a hint of the charming “wtf?” tone for the rest of the show. In the next song, the funked up “I Didn’t Know That” (the main vocal being gleeful yells of “I didn’t know that!”) was set to images of golfers practicing their swing and, occasionally, a car blowing up . It didn’t exactly make sense but it was hilarious and the crowd didn’t hold back their laughter. This was the case too in “A Cold Freezing Night”, which was composed of Talkboy-recorded samples of children threatening to do rather violent things to each other.
The perfectly synced-up and bizarre video clips at times overshadowed the band, but The Books seemed happy in the role of musicians accompanying films – they were, of course, films that the musicians themselves had no doubt painstakingly created. Thankfully, there were times where the projector showed restraint and remained on a simple quiet image of trees or running water, allowing us to focus more on the musicians.
De Jong, mostly playing cello, charmingly fit the appearance of a man who stays up late in a dark room listening to odd sounds. He introduced a song that featured geese calls, real and simulated, by mentioning that our majestic bird of the North is also a favourite Thanksgiving dish in Germany (I didn’t know that!).
Though most of the videos were found artifacts with anonymous people, The Books weren’t too shy to include some of their own childhood home movies in a groovy song that Zammuto’s brother Mikey had written – and delightfully appeared on stage with his bass guitar to perform it with them.
Zammuto himself sang on a few songs in a sad smooth voice reminiscent of Nick Drake (the show ended with a spellbinding version of Drake’s “Cello Song”). His really great moment however was an unexpected encore, a slow sad song written to accompany his friend’s film of depressing archival footage. Over such black and white images as a flood in Virginia and a very sad looking baby sitting in a hat, he sang “Let’s notice everything, I mean every grain of salt/Let’s be thorough to a fault.”
Rather than being a downer to the crowd (who had just given them a standing ovation), it was a poignant shift in tone, and one which enriched the depth of what The Books can accomplish. Their music is more than just a quirky soundtrack to America’s Surrealist Home Videos but a record and celebration of our culture and humanity – not leaving out anything too weird or bizarre. Which including demented hypnotherapists, and, yes, even golfers.