April 4, 2010

Don’t Judge a Band By Their Genre

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It is a Smalls’ world after all. No, not that damn six degrees of separation thing again. I’m talking about Dan Smalls ’92. Beloved by Ithacans and Cornellians alike for the plethora of quality musical acts he has brought to town, Dan Smalls has led a musical revival to Ithaca during the past couple of years. Most recently, Dan Smalls Presents Inc. and The Books teamed up for a spectacular, eye-opening show at Cornell Cinema on Mar. 30.

The Books are an American music duo consisting of vocalist and guitarist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong. Zammuto and de Jong met in New York City serendipitously, and they immediately discovered that they shared not only similar musical dispositions, but also a mutual respect for each other’s talents and musical collections. De Jong’s accumulations included not only music samples, but video samples on mini-disks hand-picked from piles he sorted through in thrift stores. The marriage of video and audio proved to be key to The Books’ development, and more than ten years later they have released three critically-acclaimed and unique albums (Thought for Food, The Pink of Lemon, Lost and Safe) and are working hard on another (entitled The Way Out).

Listening to The Books’ music solely by ear would be missing half of the experience, and neglecting half of their creative song development; the entirety of their work is visible only upon pairing the audio half of their songs with the video half. Thus, Cornell Cinema is a perfect venue for Zammuto and de Jong’s band, and the musical duo took full advantage of the big screen to show us their highly developed work.

Zammuto and de Jong began with a pair of songs from their upcoming fourth album, The Way Out. The first was a veritable mash-up of different video clips, many of them derived from hypnotherapy tapes. The song followed a narrative led by several presumable hypnotherapists, with Zammuto playing guitar and de Jong strumming his cut-up cello. Immediately, the audience realized that they were in for a unique experience. The Books’ brand of music has been described with a multitude of musical terms, perhaps the most notable and hilarious being “electronic-folk,” but The Books experience should be kept at arm’s length when seen live; each song played as a story or a commercial, an educational lecture or a thematic documentary. The second song of their set may have been the most thought-provoking yet simply enjoyable video-music combinations, depicting clips of the founders of the Mormon Church taking off their hats in black and white film.

Done with their preview of their fourth album, Zammuto and de Jong took us on a whirlwind tour of their past discography, performing songs such as “Be Good to Them Always,” which contains video of pole-vaulters in rewind and a clown jumping on an inflatable playground; “Cold Freezin’ Night,” a mash-up borne out of home videos; “A Chain of Missing Links,” which features movie derived from the splicing of various movies about the circulatory system, acupressure and home hypnotherapy.

Zammuto and de Jong were never without material, so when one of de Jong’s cello strings broke, Zammuto quickly reached down and started searching for filler videos on his laptop. For this brief interlude, the audience was treated to a fetching video based on anagrams of the word Meditation. Thankfully, de Jong let us know that this was only the second time that he had broken a string. The other was a result of catching his big toe on one in his bedroom.

“8 Frame” might have been the closest Zammuto and de Jong came to social commentary with their songs. Employing the technique of video loops, “8 Frame” played on themes of nationalism and military power. Since each video clip looped at least twice, the process of seeing the material once more made each scene of soldiers marching or an exploding house becomes a little more overwhelming in its representation and scope.

In contrast to “8 Frame,” their song “Classy Penguin” was a simple expression of joy. In fact, the video portion of “Classy Penguin” combined many of Zammuto and de Jong’s own home videos. As the audience was told, “In this one, you get to see Paul as a baby.”  “Classy Penguin” was one of a handful of songs devoid of lyrics, but what it lacked in verbal narration it made up in pure charm. Combining scenes of brothers rocking the canoe until it tips over, Zammuto’s brother Mikey playing the guitar, and of course the infamous video of the penguin slapping its kin upside the head and knocking it into the water, this was a video that exemplifies just how fun this novel audio-visual genre can be.

After concluding their set, Zammuto declared that there would be no encore because “they’re stupid,” and instead, they would host a Question and Answer session. Although Zammuto mentioned that they had tried this before in a bar and failed miserably, they appreciably gave it another go. As if to validate their decision, audience members’ hands shot up like a bamboo forest.

Zammuto and de Jong took and answered questions about the apparent themes in their videos. Asked if “Cold Freezin’ Night” was commentary on the way kids are growing up these days, they bluntly said “No.” Questioned on the development of their songs, they made it apparent that the development of their song takes much longer than the recording. They develop the video and the audio synergistically, crafting some video and then adapting music and vocals to it, and vice versa. Perhaps most importantly, Zammuto and de Jong talked about the future of The Books, which enticingly will include a third member soon. While responding to a question about pairing the actual, physical playing of live music with the video being displayed during the performance and making them synergistically connected, Zammuto voiced frustration at their inability to control the video with their music and their reliance on a laptop to play video. If this is difficult to imagine, just think iTunes visualizer, and imagine that the digitization and output image produced on your computer is what you would see at a future Books’ show. At the end of the night, Zammuto and de Jong needed to start driving home and thus could not hear from every audience member. The audience answered them with a standing ovation.

Original Author: Roger Strang