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The Books mesmerize sold-out Ladies Literary Club

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It’s hard to tell exactly what has changed in the three years since The Books last graced the stage of Calvin College’s Ladies Literary Club. Back in April of 2006, The North Adams, MA-based “collage/chamber-pop” band were the first artists to headline the College’s then recently acquired venue at 61 Sheldon SE 49503. Between then and selling out the same room on Sept. 18th, The Books have toured a little and recorded a soundtrack for an elevator at the French Ministry of Culture in Paris (literally), but have spent most of their time cataloging sounds and images for the band’s upcoming 4th studio album. As guitarist and occasional vocalist Nick Zummato put it in a 20-minute post-set question and answer session: “We hang out in our libraries a lot.”

The Books, comprised of Zummato and Dutch-born cellist and video artist Paul de Jong, create melodic sound collages that willfully conflate the sensibilities of conceptual art and popular music. Comprised of acoustic and electric guitars, cello, and programmed drum loops - the bulk of their compositions are instrumental save the plethora of audio clips sampling television newscasts, abandoned thrift-store cassettes, and field recordings of dialogue overheard at public aquariums. Motherless Bastard, a track on The Book’s first studio album, 2002’s Thought for Food, samples an old man tormenting a lost child (“You have no Mother or Father… They left; they went somewhere else”). Another begins with the opening lines of Jean Luc-Godard’s French-language film Contempt (for which the track is named), but deadpanned in cross-gendered English.

Synchronized video, a logical next step from sampled film soundtracks, has been a critical component of both of the band’s Ladies Literary Club performances. The video presented at Friday night’s set, which consisted primarily of material from the band’s most recent studio album, Lost and Safe (2006) and newer, seemed so effortlessly a part of what The Books are all about that it is now difficult to imagine the band without these images.m. Each of The Book’s components, the recorded samples, live instrumentation, and video, can and do work on their own, but seem feel as though they are meant to be experienced as they were Friday night – all at once. In that regard, The Books call to mind the sweeping multimedia series of artist Matthew Barney’s, which consist of feature length films, performances, text, and sculpture all meant to form a cohesive conceptual whole.

However, Zummato and DeJong are quick to point out that simultaneously creating the video, audio, and musical elements is relatively recent addition to their creative process. “We had made three records before we even considered going on the road,” Zummato said. “...all of the original work to get the show up and running was kind of retrofitted… But now, since we have a large video collection and a large audio collection we can kind of make them simultaneously.” “We started creating the video for our live show,” de Jong adds, “to divert attention from us as performers, anyways, but to bring video in not as the main performer, but as a third band member.”

The heightened prominence video now enjoys in The Book’s work was evident right from the bat. Show opener “Group Therapy,” a new song consisting of the band’s familiar combination of loping cello and acoustic guitar, is interspliced with the simultaneous audio and video of floating heads of new-age therapists talking about the benefits of hypnotherapy. This theme continues in the fourth song, "Hypnotherapy," where music’s percussive “breathing” matches the medical imagery on screen. Additional new work included a collaboration with North Adams-based image researcher Rich Remsberg, called “We Bought The Flood”- a funeral dirge set to seemingly the most depressing clips in their collections.

Other highlights included: Geese, a compilation of footage of geese in flight set to a cacophony of game calls culminating in a humorous "call battle" between two very serious looking camo-clad hunters ; and "Cold Freezin’ Night," which consists of samples of young children culled from thrift-store tapes recorded on early ‘90s Talk Boy recorders. Samples include a rather hilarious and lengthy audio letter detailing the outrageous ways in which a young boy is going to kill its recipient and a young girl repeating “I wish I was a boy” throughout the song’s entirety. “It turns out that when you give a kid a tape recorder,” Zummato quipped, “they just go crazy!”

The Books ended their nearly hour long set with Lost and Safe's "Smells Like Content," arguably the duo’s biggest hit. The song features sound clips and dialogue inspired by Zummato’s younger brother Mark, whom he describes as “the kind of guy who just goes off into the woods for hours with a tape recorder.” The video illustrates The Books at their most playful, using clever word puns to undermine the serious tone of the songs content. The hour-long performance, which garnered two standing ovations, was followed by a 12-minute encore consisting of a cover of Nick Drake’s "Cello Song", which they recently recorded with Swedish Singer-Songwriter Jose Gonzalez (another past performer at Calvin's Ladies Lit.) for the Dark Was The Night AIDs-benefit compilation. The final song of the evening was 2005’s "An Owl With Knees."

The only drawbrack to seeing The Books live, and there really is only one, is that their performance style resembles their recordings a little too closely. Unless it was incredibly subtle, there was no improvisational flair - much of the fun of experiencing music live. This is perhaps what de Jong meant when he regarded the video as a third member of the group, an added value over merely listening to the music at home. But what a value it adds. As de Jong put: "I think our performances are so crammed full with things to see and to hear... I think they are best enjoyed pretty sober."

Attendee Sarah Rozek, a 20 year-old Western Michigan University student, was certainly not disapointed."I am a big fan," she said, "I just love their music!"

Openers, Lymbyc System, played competent instrumental post-rock that separated itself from the all too typical snowboard video set with the inclusion of a violin. The Brooklyn and Austin-based trio received a well deserved standing ovation, a seldom occurrence for opening bands.

The Student Activities Office at Calvin College, which seeks to “Change the conversation about popular culture.” Has posted an audio recording of the artist conversation here (.MP3).

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