The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 10, 2006

Electro-Organic Duo Rocks the ’Sco With Help from Mormons
Ironically, The Books Delight in Film
Mixed Media, Oh My: The Books, Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, play at the ‘Sco in front of found footage from the 1930s.

Most bands wouldn’t include 1930s newsreels of a man making farting noises with his hands as part of their set.

“I think this really shows the old, weird America,” said bassist and vocalist Nick Zammuto of The Books.

Old, weird America seems to be a favorite subject of the duo, along with new, weird America. Last Tuesday’s concert in the ’Sco had the group showcasing a plethora of images, including female African villagers talking at a water pump, a man playing basketball in a snow drift, babies learning to eat, actors recording their voices for a book on tape, flowers blooming — the list goes on and on.

According to their record label’s press information, in preparation for their most recent album, “[The Books] busied themselves buying up unmarked audio tapes at Salvation Armies across the east coast, expanding their notorious library of found sounds and samples to truly absurd proportions.”

Generally, the duo focuses on “found sounds and samples,” occasionally taken to absurd proportions, but The Books also features Zammuto on electric bass or acoustic guitar and Paul de Jong on cello.

They sing sometimes, too. On their second release, The Lemon of Pink, a third band member Anne Doerner contributed, but her vocals are sadly not present in their newer recordings.

The performance opened with folk crooner Death Vessel. Though usually both Joel Thibodeau and Erik Carlson contribute to the duo, Thibodeau has been playing solo for this tour. He performed songs from the 2005 release Stay Close and new songs from an album to be released in the fall.

The band was well received for its down-to-earth folk sound, but it was Thibodeau’s vocal stylings that helped the band tie in with the “old, weird America” that The Books emulate.

In a review on last year, Thibodeau was dubbed “The Boy Who Sings Like A Girl” and compared to such divergent vocalists as Kate Bush and Iris Dement. His feminine-sounding voice was readily apparent and not unwelcome.

The band has an irreverent Americana appeal similar to acts currently operating out of the Pacific Northwest like The Decemberists or Mirah, so it’s ironic that this warm and tender presence would carry a name like Death Vessel. Thibodeau’s affinity for contradiction made his performance remarkably charming for an opening act.

The main show — The Books themselves — was carried out with charm. Their act, just like their music, has an airy and cool vibe.

They opened the show by announcing they were going to show a video that they had found, which starred the founding members of the Mormon Church. The video showed the founders removing their hats while talking and then replacing them, ultimately displaying a checkerboard of 16 Mormons removing and replacing their hats while talking to the camera.

The Books went on to play a song that included a medley of things from their first release, Thought For Food, including the memorable sample of an elderly woman complaining about her heart condition from “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again.”

They played “Be Good To Them Always” with a collage of endearing images in the background, including elephants, a baby seal taking a bath and platters of desserts and infomercials in bright, cheery colors, while Zammuto’s ghostly voice sang “Oh how sadly we mortals are deceived...” in the background. The words felt ethereal, floating in and out of consciousness while figures progressed across the screen.

The Books also performed favorites like “Take Time,” “Smells Like Content,” “A True Story Of A Story of True Love” and “An Owl With Knees,” alongside newer songs such as “Classy Penguin,” a song written by Zammuto’s younger brother Mikey (also known as “Mikey Bass” to those familiar with their first album). They covered the Nick Drake classic “Cello Song” during the encore.

Zammuto and De Jong, with their presentation of themselves as a multimedia event, are constantly posing questions to their audience. Their inclusion of found sound and sparse vocals on their tracks are evocative of place and time, keying into the listener’s memory and instincts more than into their emotional core.

The Books’ live act, in turn, gives the band greater depth, making the experience of their text (pardon the pun) three-dimensional. But the question of which question they are posing hangs ephemerally on the horizon.

In their albums they combine the sounds of deep bass guitar, football games and bird calls to create a sonic collage that could either remind you of your childhood or computer bleeps, yet they never tell you what it is they want you to get out of their music.

Instead, their music comes across as a scroll of open-ended questions posed to the listener, with the musicians never betraying their neutrality or stepping down from their throne of electronic purity to become human enough so that you can relate to them.

Seeing The Books in concert, one is reminded that they are indeed human, but one never really gets to understand what type of humans they are.


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