Indie Explosion Lights Up MFA

The Books

Friday, April 29

Settling into her seat last Friday night in the Museum of Fine Arts’ sterile auditorium, a young woman sighed.

“This is not normal for a concert,” she muttered to her companion.

A look around the white-walled, gray-carpeted room confirmed her consternation. On a polished-hardwood platform sat two sleek silver laptops, an array of wires, a variety of indeterminate stringed instruments, a single cymbal, and a jar of mayonnaise. It was a science lecture gone gonzo, a scene that seemed to cry out for several dusty volumes—or, for that matter, the electro-acoustic duo the Books, who were scheduled to headline the MFA’s latest indie rock concert.

“Normal” is just about the last thing you’d expect a Books show to be. It took them five years and three well-received albums to make it to this, the second date on their first-ever U.S. tour—for good reason. Their releases are meticulous, alien, and almost impossible to imagine taking form on stage: spare collisions of folk and studio where left-field vocal samples interrupt twilight plucks and crescendos are spliced and diced.

Is it any wonder that, before last week, guitarist Nick Zammuto and violinist Paul de Jong largely preferred to hide behind cryptically punning song titles and austere album artwork?

In the first surprise of a night that held many, most of the impressive apparatus on stage turned out to belong to openers Keith Fullerton Whitman and Greg Davis, who hunched over looping decks to produce artfully droning, clicking, shearing, squealing ambient suites. As the genial, bearded gents accreted countless sound fragments—seemingly random shards that synched perfectly with the epileptic video collages projected above them—they accomplished the estimable feat of getting the audience genuinely excited for the comparatively familiar pop craft of the Books.

And when the main act made it onstage, they revealed the surprisingly simple equation behind their recordings: a chilled-out folkie and a Dutch chamber musician, jamming like nobody’s business. There was Zammuto, a Williams College alum, half-closing his eyes to commune with an acoustic guitar. To his right sat de Jong, accented and eccentric, tearing mean riffs with his bow. At far left, frequent Book collaborator Ann Doerner offered tense keys and ethereal vocal harmonies (including a haunting Creole folk solo).

With nary a laptop in sight (though a sequencer perched front and center), the trio of third wheels began playing off each other, competing and cohering for soulful, precise versions of their most defiantly choppy material. A mid-set video projection invited the audience to surrender to jokey anagrams of the word “meditation,” emphasizing the Books’ Dada Zen aesthetic.

The acoustic instruments grooved seamlessly, somersaulting over blaring samples of found pronouncements in “That Right Ain’t Shit” and “A True Story of True Love,” while “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps” transformed the polite instruments into a percussive gale.

The live lineup shone brightest on material from the Books’ April album, “Lost and Safe,” where they flirt with a more song-oriented approach. Zammuto let loose his inner Paul Simon on “Smells Like Content” and “It Never Changes to Stop”; his soft, unassuming croon, free from the disembodied echoes and effects of the album, was pure mellow gold.

For a project whose studio recordings often sound so divorced from any physical presence, the Books’ humble humanity was charming. Unused to applause, the band members grinned shyly as every song earned hearty appreciation. Towards the end of the set, Zammuto’s younger brother Mikey joined them on stage wearing a backwards baseball cap and shouting “Go Sox!” before a nimble tumble through “Classy Penguin,” a Mikey’s original composition. As Zammuto home videos were projected and the Books continued to play as a foursome, they made a warmly off-beat and decidedly twenty-first century musical family.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.

Magnolia Electric Co.

Thursday, April 14