The Books, at UVa this afternoon & new venue tonight!

September 25th, 2009 · 7 Comments · By

The Books are coming to town today! If you’re not familiar, they’re a duo who make a strange and intriguing mix of electronic and acoustic music which is both very avant-garde and highly accessible; it’s like laptop-collage with flavors of appalachian folk, if that makes any sense…

They’ll be doing a colloquium with the UVa Music Department this afternoon, in which they “will talk about their unique compositional process and their position on being an artist outside of academia. There will be plenty of time for questions.”   That’s at Old Cabell Hall, Room #107 at 3:30pm today!

Then they’re playing a show tonight, at what I believe is the grand opening of a new (sorta) Charlottesville venue, The Southern! That’s the thing that’s going in the old Gravity Lounge space; it was supposed to open last weekend, but last-minute construction meant that this weekend will actually host the first shows there. Doors are at 8:00pm, tickets are $15, and the opener is a band called Lymbyc System whom I’m not familiar with.

I’m glad they’re coming to town, although I must admit I have some pretty intense mixed feelings about The Books. I had actually heard their first record, Thought For Food, before it came out (through some mutual friends with the band). The first time I heard it, it just sounded absolutely thrilling and perfect. The first track alone (“Enjoy Your Worries…”) is pretty ear-opening; it’s got gentle string instruments and weird, cut-pasted pots-and-pans percussion integrated with haphazard cascade of found sounds (field records of birds, snippets of old radio broadcasts, weird conversational fragments); it doesn’t follow any discernable pattern or logic, but it’s intensely listenable and interesting; it’s one of those rare, completely-accessible and immediately-lovable pieces of musique-concrète, like “Revolution 9” or Vladimir Ussachevsky’s “Wireless Fantasy.”  The rest of the record mostly holds up; there’s the gentle nap-time interlude “Read, Eat, Sleep” (with it’s clever cut-up spelling bee samples), the thrilling and manic “All Bad Ends All” which foregrounds the sampled percussion and catchy ragtime riffs, the weirdly erotic “Contempt” (with dialogue re-recited from the Godard film), and the stunning “All Our Base Are Belong to Them,” which magically manages to be about listening and context as much as it is about performance and content (and it’s totally charming, not the slightest bit pretentious or aloof.) The late-album track “Getting the Done Job” made it onto almost every mix tape I made over the next year, and there were enough other little fascinating bits-and-pieces to keep things lively and worthwhile.

Not realizing that the album wasn’t due to be released for months, I went to every record store in New York asking if they knew anything about it (they didn’t, although it was on many of those same folks’ best-of lists at the end of the year.) All told, it’s probably one of my 10 favorite albums of the past 10 years. It’s superbly excellent, and I recommend checking it out immediately.

A year later they released “The Lemon of Pink,” and I vividly remember making the one-hour drive to Amoeba Records in Hollywood in the middle of the afternoon just so I could buy it on opening day; such high expectations are difficult to live up to, but it’s a worthwhile record nonetheless. It features slightly more singing & live instruments (at least to my ears; it’s always a little difficult to tell where stuff is coming from on a Books album becuase it’s so well-integrated and balanced), but I think it’s fair to say that it’s one step closer to conventional song-structure, albeit still firmly grounded in some really strange territory. A lot of people know and like this one (and if you do, I again recommend checking out it’s predecessor as well.)  It’s not a perfect record, but it’s got enough amazing moments on it that it’s totally solid and good.

Their third album (“Lost and Safe”) was coming out right as some word-of-mouth was starting to accumulate around the band, and it was when mp3 blogs were the hot new thing (summer of 2004, I believe? or 2005?) A few tracks leaked out early, and I downloaded them ravenously, but felt strangely underwhelmed; at the time, I hoped they weren’t representative of the rest of the record (after all, there’s always albums like Secret Mommy’s “Plays,” on which the only two tracks which might be considered “radio-friendly” are the only two bad songs on the CD.)

But when the album was finally released, I felt crushed. What had happened to the band I loved? All of the literal elements (cello, archival snippets, etc) were still in place, but all of the qualities I had admired about their first record were completely gone, replaced with an blunt obviousness which falls completely flat. The album’s second track, “Be Good to Them Always,” is structured around the incredible awkward conceit of having someone sing along with the backgrounded vocal samples; it sound embarrassing and forced, and it’s sort of painful for me to listen to (I just revisited it for the first time in years, and it’s still tough going. I cringed.)  This band had somehow gone from “perfect” to “amateurish” in the course of only three albums. How is that possible? (The band Múm did the same thing around the same time; it was a rough season for my self-defined favorite contemporary bands, when those two records came out…)

Around this time The Books started putting together a previously non-existant live show, which featured an extended band line-up, as well a synchronized video clips to go along with their songs.  I was intrigued, and I caught what was maybe their 3rd or 4th show ever — which I suffered through with the same profound disappointment and disaffection. The rest of the audience loved it, and I constantly encountered people who only knew their recent record and were thrilled. Was the effect ruined for me by my premature exposure to their first albums, and my anticipation? Or did everyone else simply lack the proper perspective, and flock towards the seeming novelty of their sound? It’s tough to say, but I still can’t listen to that record without getting a little angry and depressed.

In fairness to their live show, though I should mention that I was having an incredibly bad day when I saw them, so that may have played a factor (it was, oddly enough, the day I graduated from college.)  I know some people caught them at Satellite Ballroom much later on the same tour, and enjoyed the set.

They haven’t put out a record in almost five years, unless you count the EP-length collaboration with Prefuse 73, in which he essentially took their source material and made some solid Prefuse-y sounding tracks out of it (it’s also the last truly great record that he put out, although that’s a different conversation entirely.) So I’m pretty curious about what, if anything, has happened to their sound in recent years; unfortunately I can’t make the show tonight (I have to work late), but I do hope to see their lecture Q&A at UVA this afternoon (If I make it there, I promise to be nice, and I intend approach it with an open mind.)

Anyhow, go check out the show if you’re interested, and track down their first album (again, it’s 2002’s “Thought for Food” on Tomlab records) if you don’t know it yet.

Tags: feature · news · preview · rants & rambles

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Feedback // Sep 25, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Second the “Thought For Food” sentiment, and think my own experience with Books albums mirrors yours. If I were to rank the frequency with which I listened to individual songs from albums, “Lemon of Pink” might eke out “Thought for Food.” “Lost and Safe,” however? A bit further down the list.

  • 2 jon bray // Sep 25, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    i just ran into those dudes looking for the southern, so i walked them there but they stayed like 15 ft behind me the whole time. it was fucking weird. but that prefuse shit is tight as bitch!

  • 3 James // Sep 25, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Ha! that is weird. Maybe you looked untrustworthy…

    also, Jon, is there any truth to the rumor that y’all are playing a Frat Party tonight? What time? I’ll blog it up later while I’m at work, if Michael doesn’t get to it first… and I’ll come by after closing up, if it’s still going.

  • 4 James // Sep 25, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    urp, that Fratty show is in two weeks. my mistake. I’ll be sure to mention / attend then.

    saw the Books talk at UVA, it was cool. more details later.

    Word is, down at the Southern, they’re literally finishing putting the venue together RIGHT NOW, as the show is about to start… I’m stuck at work, but does anybody have reports from the front lines?

  • 5 Jacob // Sep 25, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Stopped by The Southern last night. All I can say is that Andy and Amanda and the rest of their crew are accomplishing a feat of astonishing proportions. Everybody should wish them a lot of luck. And buy them a beer if you see them. Actually, they’d probably just be thrilled if you go to the show and buy several drinks for yourself.

  • 6 baconfat // Sep 25, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    figures you would namedrop ussachevsky. can’t you find somebody that everyone hasn’t already heard of? it’s like talking about pop music solely in the terms of michael jackson, we’re so OVER vladimir and his ubiquity already.

  • 7 sarah // Sep 26, 2009 at 9:49 am

    did starr hill end up donating beer to the show? was there free beer? did i miss that?