Last night the experimental duo The Books took the stage at the Music Box Theater in front of a warm and delightfully geeky audience. One can tell the caliber of a crowd by the quality of their heckling. Instead of the usual "I love yous!" this crowd offered up phrases like "You're on my bestsellers list!" and "I like to read!" as terms of endearment.
But was the catered flattery was well deserved? Absolutely. The Books are a band that takes its audience by the hand and offers to expand its imagination, which is a very rare commodity these days.
In a world gone mad with desire for the perfect body, the perfect life, and the lifestyles of the extraordinary, The Books are drawn to the beauty of the everyday. Sitting in the half-dark in front of a giant screen the duo that makes up The Books, guitarist/vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong were joined by multitalented Gene Back on violin, guitar, keyboards, or whatever else was needed, all of them in decidedly unflashy stage garb. There were no sequined capes or smoke machines or ruffled back up dancers in this set. It was all about the screen.
Projected behind the musicians were visuals that opened the doors into The Books' imaginations. The set opened up with "Group Autogenics" which was accompanied by a string of professorial middle-aged heads floating in swirling ether instructing us to relax. Over the advice the band played a soothing melody that highlighted the truly bizarre nature of the words. Phrases like "You're not your mother. You're not your father. Your sentence is over. You are free," floated overhead as the music complemented the words. It was as if your favorite sound effects guy had made you a mixtape and had decided to play it live.
The band didn't hold back from describing and explaining their influences either. Unlike some mysterious experimental groups that want to keep their samples a secret, these guys wanted to share in their influences. "Have you guys seen Home Alone 2?" Zammuto asked the audience. "You know the Talkboy he has in that movie? These samples are gathered from Talkboys that we've found from the early 90s. What we found on there was tasty." They weren't kidding either. Their samples were mashups of little kids telling stories about their day on their tape machines. Voices telling stories long forgotten and thrown away newly resurrected by these musicians into something beautiful played in front of a screen with images of random home videos edited together.
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The Books excel in seeing the beauty of the everyday and reflecting it back to their audience. Through their lens nothing is boring, it is only fuel to create new art. Whether its hunters showing off their duck calls to each other or people washing their guinea pigs or African ladies laughing or instructional videos on how to perfect one's golf swing, the band makes you stop and wonder about the world around you.
Even internet translation holds a source of joy and inspiration. Their song "Free Translator" consists of a folk song that they had translated into German, Italian, Swedish, and then back into English and sung the resulting words as earnestly as if they had written it themselves.
The set closed with a three-song encore. "Since you're all in such a good mood, we're going to play you a death march," Zammuto announced good naturedly before beginning "We Bought The Flood." As promised it was the most melancholy number of the night but not overly gloomy. It was more of an exercise in pondering our own mortality rather than a dirge of despair.
The mood quickly changed after the song was over though. Zammuto's brother Mikey (relieved of his merch booth duties) picked up a bass and joined them on stage for "Classy Penguin" to the delight of the crowd. They really had a soft spot for Mikey, yelling his name at odd intervals throughout the song. The evening ended gently with a cover of Nick Drake's "Cello Song" before the crowd filtered out into the night pondering the beauty of the flickering streetlights, the rhythms of the hot dog vendors' tongs on their carts, and the buzz of the traffic on Hollywood Blvd. It was like being given new eyes that rejoice in the tiny details of the commonplace.