October 30, 2010
Cedar Cultural Center
If writing about music is indeed like dancing about architecture, then describing the music of the Books is a bit like waltzing about Gaudí, as their elusive, entrancing sound is liquid and stylish, just like the work of the Catalan architect.
[jump] Couple those incredible, inventive sounds with a perfectly synched video production that only augments their highly engaging, thought provoking production, and you have the Books performance at the Cedar on Saturday night, one of the more unique, penetrating shows of the year.
The night started out with a somber, low-key set by the Black Heart Procession, who are performing as a somewhat muted two-piece on this tour with the Books. Their set was stripped down to just keyboards and a signing saw during the first half of their performance, with a visual accompaniment of ticking clocks, tearful characters, and random pharmaceuticals that went along well with their dark material. It was an ominous, melancholy 40-minute set that fit the mood of All Hallows Eve, and set things up quite nicely for the experimental vision of the headliners.
The Books are touring as a three-piece in support of The Way Out, their first new record in five years, with guitarist/vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong joined by Gene (didn't catch his last name), who played violin and keyboards along with other various well-placed sound effects that really fleshed out the sound of the New York band effectively. Their 80-minute set was perfectly paced and thoroughly entwined with the random visuals projected on the screen behind them during the performance, with everything from golf to geese to random PSA's timed flawlessly with the rhythm and cadence of their music. It was truly a joy to watch a performance so wholly consuming, where not only were you left wondering how these three were creating these phenomenal sounds, but also where exactly they found the engrossing film clips that were accompanying their music so impeccably.
Zammuto proved to be quite an affable frontman, bringing some personal touches to their calculated, complicated music. He introduced Gene to the audience before playing an amazing version of "Tokyo" by saying matter-of-factly, "This is Gene, and the fact that he can play this next song amazes me." And, before a stirring version of "A Cold Freezin' Night," Zammuto asked the audience if there are "Any Macaulay Culkin fans out there. He's an important figure in our lives." Nick went on to explaing how the Talk Boy was featured in Home Alone, and the band has used that somewhat primitive device many times while recording.
He also explained how the lyrics to "Free Translator" were originally a well-known folk song which they fed through a translator, taking the song from English to German to French to Spanish and back again, with the images described in the song getting "all messed up." It's that type of subtle creativity that beats at the heart of all of the Books songs, knowing that anything they experience could, and often does, find its way somehow into their music. Taking something so mundane as seeing a kernel of corn suddenly burst into popcorn in slow motion is quite a spectacle, and when soundtracked by the gorgeous music of the Books it becomes quite moving and meaningful.
After a stunning version of "Take Time" closed the main set, the band returned for the encore with the meditative "We Bought The Flood." After which, Zammuto's brother Mikey (who is also serving as the Books merch man on tour) came up to play the bass on "Classy Penguin," a song he co-wrote. The song proved to be one of the night's highlights, with Mikey's bouncy bass line driving the number along with the touching home movies of the band that played along with the music. It was a gorgeous, collaborative effort, and you could see it was a thrill for the brothers to perform together.
I had noticed that the band was occasionally covering Nick Drake's "Cello Song" on this tour, and I was really hoping it would find a way onto our setlist. When de Jong leaned up to the mic to introduce what must be a favorite number of his for obvious reasons, I was thrilled to hear it. Zammuto also implored all of us all to go see Jose Gonzalez, (who sang on the Books version of "Cello Song" on the Dark Was The Night compilation) and his new band Junip when they come to the Cedar this week. It ended up being one of the best covers I've heard all year, so emotionally intricate and lovely, with Zammuto's plaintive vocals and de Jong's spirited playing truly making the song their own. It was a splendid end to what was truly a transcendent performance, with the band boldly and seamlessly linking the visual with the musical and creating something entirely new in the process.
Critic's Bias: I've been a fan ever since The Lemon Of Pink, but this was the best performance I've seen yet from the Books.
The Crowd: I was surprised (and happy) that all of the seats at the Cedar were filled. I thought the Halloween revelry would keep some people away from a truly special, can't-miss performance.
Overheard In The Crowd: Thankfully, not much of anything, as the crowd was both respectful and certainly awestruck by the set.
Random Notebook Dump: I tried to figure out what the codes and symbols beneath the Books projection was throughout the show, and when I asked their soundman for a setlist, he read them to me from the screen-it turns out they were the names of the songs, just in cyrptogrammic form.
Group Autogenics I
Didn't Know That
Be Good To Them Always
Cold Freezin' Night
Chain Of Missing Links
An Owl With Knees
Smells Like Content
We Bought The Flood (Encore)
Classy Penguin (Encore)
Cello Song (Nick Drake) (Encore)