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A cut above

The Books, live at the ICA, April 10, 2009
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 14, 2009

From out of blearily luminous pools of spiraling orange fractals, the disembodied head of a stately-looking man emerged, coaxing us to attention with little more than his calming gaze and an invitation to “a new beginning.” This wasn’t a scene from that time I tried mescaline at Whalom Park; it was the Books’ brand new opening song — though “song” seems to cheat things. A brand new integration of precision-damaged audio salvage and context-exploding visual editrickery is more like it. But, as the Western Mass duo demonstrate again and again with their sound-and-video montages, there’s a reason language isn’t always cut out for the task of saying things.

Cobbled together from aphoristic fragments uttered by dozens of floating VHS self-help therapists, “Group Therapy” was one of only a handful of new songs among a hearty helping of old favorites (made old favorites by the Books’ 2007 Play All DVD). Another, “Cold Freezing Night,” was assembled from collected soliloquies offered by (surprisingly violent) children of the early ’90s into their respective Talkboys (now rescued from thrift stores — and the realm of the private — by the duo). Still another (title unknown, but “about geese, male geese” according to Paul de Jong) found two hunter types gently honking at each other through their goose calls; it’s an oddly tender extended moment until the sweet nothings work and the sky darkens with impending goose doom.

The first movement of a still-untitled triptych (done in collaboration with a North Adams film archivist) was prefaced by Nick Zammuto’s warning that we might be entering downer territory. But its carefully skewed montage of stunning disaster footage and small, long-gone interpersonal gestures was truly moving — in several directions. An encore performance of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” (which they recently recorded with José González for the Dark Was the Night compilation) shimmered coolly along with its understated visuals. A/V marvels aside, it was Zammuto’s trickling acoustic-guitar figures and de Jong’s groaning cello notes that gave the songs their blood and guts — others might simply have settled for clips and cuts.

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