When we first met (at the Capital M hit back in March), composer Jennifer Stock mentioned that she was a huge fan of The Books, an indie duo that layers "found sound" samples and hypnotic electronic patterns over a rootsy acoustic guitar+cello foundation. Jen's been into The Books since way back, but had always been thwarted in her attempts to see them perform live. Luckily, last night we were able to catch their free show at the World Financial Center's Courtyard Gallery (actually a narrow white box of a room) -- the gig was part of Ben Neill's PlayVision series. I went in as basically a complete Books neophyte, having heard only a couple of clips from their website, and really didn't know what to expect.
By about halfway through the first song, "That Right Ain't Shit," I was completely smitten. First off, being a Calexico fan, I'm a sucker for the acoustic guitar-cello combination, especially when the cello is used so rhythmically and propulsively. Jen told me that Paul de Jong's cello playing was a lot more aggressive and prominent live than on the recordings -- he seamlessly integrated harmonics, crunch tones, sul tasto playing and the like into kinetic minimalist-inspired grooves. The moody, sweeping, slowly-evolving musical narratives and Nick Zammuto's hushed vocals were also reminiscent of early Calexico, but without the explicitly Southwestern sense of place. The Books have a much more ambiguous, difficult-to-pin-down sound -- you can hear all of their influences clearly enough (minimalism, academic and semi-academic electronic music, Chicago-scene postrock, folksy Americana, etc.), but the results are often completely counter to what you'd expect if you were presented with that laundry list. They're far more spacious and patient then most sample-based bands, and the acoustic instruments and quiet, strained lyricism grounds their more esoteric tendencies in a refreshingly down-to-earth sound world.
Their music was accompanied by video projections, often involving footage purloined from old VHS tapes obtained at second-hand stores over the course of their tour. Jen was more skeptical than I was about the video presentation -- I admit it's not nearly as sophisticated and tightly integrated as, say, Coldcut, but I enjoyed their video collages all the same, especially the first one of various early Mormon leaders taking off their hats. That said, the music was so entrancing on its own that, with just a few exceptions ("That Right Ain't Shit," "Smells Like Content," and "Tokyo," the one tune that included no live playing) I think the show would have been just as effective if the screen had stayed dark.
More here, from a real fan -- someone much more representative of the surprisingly young crowd. Also check out this NewMusicBox piece from last month. Their in-studio appearance on WNYC's Soundcheck is also highly recommended.