May 13, 2005

Books speak volumes with wordplay, unique sound

Anyone that went to the Hive's first show this quarter, featuring Animal Collective, probably left the cloister club satisfied but drained in a kind of aural catharsis that can only be obtained by a tetanus of the eardrum.

Their second show which brought the Books to Hutch Commons this past Saturday night, while no less affecting, radiated with a different form of energy—the kind that comes from watching expert musicians pushing the limits of their genre, while still providing the kind of accessibility that seems so lacking in indie music these days. On Saturday, The Books proved that classical/folk-rock crossover doesn't have to be dense and experimental to be original. While the band borders on electronica with their unique style of splicing up and sampling acoustic riffs, the result is surprisingly organic, a trait that just doesn't show up in most modern independent music, which is either confined to the strata of guitar distortion or the realm of computer bleeps.

What surprised me the most when the modest trio took the stage was the utter absence of laptops or computer equipment of any kind. Besides a cello, a clavichord, a violin, and a bass, the only piece of electronic equipment onstage was a small sampler which one of the members periodically used to reproduce the Books' trademark vocal snippets. This is remarkable for a band one could probably, without hesitation, call "electronic."

After the obligatory remark from local poet Thax Douglas, the three members (who were later accompanied on a second bass by Nick Zammuto's younger brother) leaped into a set of music that radiated with both the kind of musical adeptness that comes with formal classical training and the humor and excitement that seems only present in new bands who are genuinely happy that people have gathered for the sole purpose of hearing them perform. This vibe gave the whole show the feel of a coffee shop performance. When a fan called out a request, Zammuto answered by thanking them and that they would get to the song in a few minutes. The feeling throughout the concert was so comfortable. It was as if that line between the performer and the audience were blurred, and the animosity that bands usually show their audiences was nowhere to be seen. The amount of respect the Books showed the crowd was astounding and refreshing. And they did it with a lot of humor.

Their humor came across in their folksy noodling, wordplay sampling, and "home movies" that they projected on a screen during their set. A lot of the Books' music arises from finding subtleties in words and musing on common folk riffs. A particularly compelling piece involved a karaoke-like projection of the words to the song "Smells Like Content," from their new album Lost and Safe, but instead of the original lyrics, homonyms were used, adding a whole new dimension of meaning to the piece. Many of the Books' samples also included variations on clichés that gave off different meanings out of context.

Every aspect of the performance took on this informal air. In fact before the show, I didn't even know who the musicians were until my friend casually asked Anne Doerner (who backed up the core duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong on keyboards, violin, and vocals) what instruments she played. The conversation eventually led to her musing about how she accidentally discovered the recipe for Pepsi when trying to make chai tea.

The Books are the kind of band that can pull off the crossover-artist gig in the least pretentious way possible. Despite being indie-rock darlings, they are also getting attention from people who are serious about music. This is why their performance at Hutch, while attracting the obligatory gaggle of hipsters, also brought in sound professors from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Books created a sensitive sound collage that, while undeniably electronic, was also completely natural. Unlike chamber pop, which simply appropriates strings to more traditional rock patterns, the Books' sound is completely unique. And while I was worried their disjunctive cut-up style wouldn't translate well to live performance (Cellist Paul de Jong even made a comment during the show about having to learn how to play "our own songs"), the performance, using only traditional instruments and a sampler, was wildly successful.