The Books school Northampton in folktronica

By Garth Brody

There are concerts and there are great concerts, and then there are Books Concerts. Friday night, the universe was treated to a Books Concert in Northampton and it was good.

The night commenced without much fanfare, starting with a pared-down lineup from Black Heart Procession. Their gothic folk sound, though soulfully delivered, did not translate very smoothly to the venue. Especially considering their percussionless setup, the band’s subtle, brooding balladry fell a little flat.

The two band members (plus Gene Back, the third, touring member of The Books) remained seated for the entire set, and the projected visuals above them seemed to be a slide-show of every image contained on a band member’s MacBook. It was an apathetic set, to say the least.

The apathy dried up pretty quickly as The Books took the stage. The musicians and their audience entered immediately into the kind of harmonious unity only achieved with home field advantage. The atmosphere was – to use a perfectly applicable cliché – electric.

The opening three or four songs, all from the latest album, “The Way Out,” were accompanied by some of the most intricately layered video art ever set to music. The display was also relentlessly funny, not to mention surprisingly full for a performance by one cellist (Paul de Jong), one guitarist and vocalist (Nick Zammuto), and one multi-instrumentalist (Gene Back),albeit supported by some prerecorded tracks.

The first track off the album, “Group Autogenics I,” which is comprised largely of manipulated hypnotherapy samples from old New Age instructional VHS tapes, opened the show. The dozens of different soothing speakers, each making a statement more absurd than the one before, became floating heads traversing a dated looking psychedelic backdrop. Said one of the absurd voices, “On this recording, music specifically created for its pleasurable effects upon your mind, body, and emotions is mixed with a warm, orange-colored liquid.” The editing was gloriously amateurish, hurling a barrage of simple but effective techniques that were sequenced and combined so delicately that the effect was inescapable.

The Books’ Zammuto described the concert visuals in a previous interview as something akin to the band’s lead singer (which would otherwise be his role). Not only does this description explain the way the projections functioned, as the visual focus of the audience, but it frames them in a fascinating way. How many more dimensions are available to the artist through projected visuals than through merely standing at a microphone? The Books know the answer to that question pretty well.

What was really stunning about the visuals on the first few tracks was how something seemingly incongruous with the sampled lyrics, which themselves were often incongruous with one another, would be thrown against yet another arbitrary image. And just when the effect should have disintegrated into nonsense, something indescribable would resonate so sharply that it pierced through the obfuscation. A hand would point to an ear as a glass on the other side of the speaker’s head is filled with the aforementioned orange liquid as the speaker tells the audience that they can smell what they are being shown.

The high watermark of this opening section was “I Didn’t Know That,” a very funky track about enthusiasm. As Zammuto wryly put it, “What we didn’t know about was that it’s about golf.” What followed was (and this can’t be overstated) one of the funniest three-and-a-half minute segments ever produced. Hilariously earnest golf instructional tapes were rhythmically cut and their endless parade of grinning golfers were given the rainbow exaltation they undoubtedly knew they deserved. If this doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. Just try to picture the hallucinations of a mid-90s amateur golfer after hitting a ball really far while holding his club in one hand. Genius.

The set cooled down a bit after the opening salvo. A video-free rendition of the soft and folky “Free Translator” marked a transition to the more euphonic side of The Books. The visuals from that point forward were, for the most part, much older and therefore much less obsessed over. The simple techniques were more repetitive; a series of clips would play backwards in slow motion or a thin horizontal strip of one video would be dropped unceremoniously in the middle of a larger video as they played simultaneously.

Still, the visuals were always beautifully matched to the music. “We Bought the Flood” featured recovered footage from the depression alongside the song’s somber death march for a chillingly poignant effect. The dramatically slowed clip of an elderly woman, in hysterics, standing by the side of the road was particularly moving.

A gorgeous rendition of “Take Time” closed the main set, accompanied by a collection of somewhat silly images whose outdated aesthetic felt intimately human. The encore was a foregone conclusion, revealed by the DVD menu set-list projected for all to see, but surely the Northampton crowd would have dragged the band back out on stage either way.

Love was in the air; the very special kind of love felt by a municipal population for a folktronica duo. Every note was warm and orange. It has been five years since The Books have released an album, and the world is ready. Everything was right. The Books are back.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]