Music preferences can be seasonal. Summer brings sweaty, bass-heavy backbeats and punchy, sing-along choruses, while the colder months demand slower, deeper, quieter but more complex and nourishing fare. When the elements are at their harshest, we start craving aural comfort — and not the mindless kind we get from Super Mondo Rad Dance Party Hits of the '80s. We want something serene yet challenging, something that warms us on the inside while still acknowledging the deep freeze outside. In other words, The Books are as perfect for mid-winter as wool sweaters and ice skates. Lucky for me (and the rest of the assembled crowd), the rest of the night’s bill was not only equally appropriate for January, but also a refreshing departure from indie rock as usual.
Singer-songwriter Essie Jain set the tranquil mood for the night, sharing a cozy corner of the Webster Hall stage with only a keyboard and her guitar player. Her folk-tinged music recalled late-'60s Joni Mitchell, with a broader vocal range and thicker sound. Essie’s personal lyrics and powerful voice were most prominent, bolstered by simple, deliberate instrumentals. Though I had never heard her music before, every song felt like a familiar lullaby.
Jack Rose was so unassuming that it took me a few minutes to notice his performance had begun. An acoustic guitar soloist, his instrumental music conjured string traditions from around the world, flowing seamlessly between idioms as disparate as Indian raga and Appalachian folk. Each song was an intricate, meandering journey. I spent much of the set just watching his fingers move across the strings and wondering how he managed to get so much sound out of just one guitar.
As for The Books, here’s my theory: There are two types of transcendent concerts. The first, more common, kind is an active, intense experience. You drink; you dance; you scream the lyrics; you make new friends and share in a room-wide adrenaline rush. You come home drained but sated. And that rare second type? Well, that’s the concert that expands your mind.
How it expands your mind, exactly, depends on the concert. This one wasn’t so much about the music itself (though I have no complaints on that front), but about the entire experience. Before I really get into it, you’re going to have to allow me one little anecdote that I’m pretty much only including because it amuses me. Humor me the way you would your verbose grandpa, huh? So the first thing Nick Zammuto said when he got onstage was, “The only people that used to come to our concerts were a lot of nerdy Pitchfork-type writers.” He remarked that he was seeing a lot more couples at The Books’ shows, and that made him happy. My first thought was, “Haha, Pitchfork.” Then I looked down at my notepad and pen and remembered that I was in no way exempt from the nerddom Zammuto described. End of anecdote. Back to transcendence.
The band warned us that they didn’t have much “radically new” material, but what they lacked in previews, they more than compensated for with their unique combination of visual and aural elements. This may seem like nothing new — from Le Tigre to The Faint, it seems like every other band is integrating video elements into their live performances. The Books themselves have been accompanying their performances with video for a few years now. The real innovation comes in the way Zammuto and Paul de Jong have begun to meld video-making and songwriting into something simultaneous and interconnected. The few new pieces that the band did play featured complex, often witty and pointed, interplay between live performance, pre-recorded audio samples, and video elements. For one song, they explained, they synched the frame rate of the video to the tempo of the music. During the slow introduction, the video appeared as a series of still shots, with glitchy transitions in between. As the tempo picked up, the video speed approached 24 frames per second (the traditional frame rate for color film) and eventually exceeded it, images flying by almost too quickly to process.
There were other memorable moments, including The Books’ rendition of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” Zammuto’s brother, Mike, joined the band onstage for his own impressive song, “The Classy Penguin,” while the screen showed a series of photos of the musicians as children. The duo left the stage completely as the clever, Japanese-themed video for (what else?) “Tokyo” played, challenging the entire notion of what live performances can and should be.
The Books have always been an idea band, and it’s exciting to see them expand further into multimedia experimentation. I left the show wondering whether I should call what I just saw a “concert” or whether it was time to invent a new word altogether. It made a lot of sense when Zammuto announced the band doesn’t have a new album in the works but is planning to release a DVD of their videos — The Books may be the first band in the world to evolve past the LP.
Photo: Sean Ruch