At the sold out Luminary Center for the Arts, the Books capped off a pre-encore set with a strangely self-aware message, which was both spoken in a pre-recorded voice and projected on the video screen that hung below the seated duo: "Expectations usually lead to disappointment." On record, the group makes mostly acoustic, ambient folksy headphone music that relies heavily upon samples discovered on used cassette and video tapes. In other words, the Books are not as much of a band as they are a living multimedia presentation. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have been open about the difficulty of translating their unclassifiable creations from headphones to thousand-watt P.A. systems -- in fact,the pair's first tour took place four years after the release of debut album, Thought For Food. The duo's reluctance to take the stage further increases the size of the question mark at the end of "Are the Books any good live?"
The video screen dominated the interest in the Books' performance, but that was arguably the point. If Zammuto and de Jong wanted the audience to focus on their actual playing, they would not have projected educational science videos edited in the quick-cut epileptic style of Wonder Showzen behind them. The backing tracks that synched up to the videos provided the duo's trademark vocal samples and inhumanly chopped up drum beats. These pre-programmed sequences exposed a double-edged sword for live performance; the things that make the Books' music unique are the exact things that cannot be re-created by a guitar and a cello. As unfair as the accusation seems in this context, live instrumentation was easily the least captivating part of the set.
Still, there was some fun in wondering which guitar parts or cello melodies were actually being played and which were recorded in advance. The Books fared best when the three elements -- audio, video, human -- played off of each other. Looping images of self-help groups playing musical chairs with hugs melded perfectly with Lemon of Pink highlight "Take Time," as Zammuto harmonized the song's title along with a choir of pre-recorded Zammutos. A tune introduced by the simple statement of "This is a song about geese" recontextualized hunting videos into a playful instrumental tune loaded with artificial duck calls as the Books coyly strummed and bowed with smiles plastered their faces.
After a brief intermission -- a short video based on the word "meditation" and its many anagrams -- the Books' bag of tricks began to seem rather shallow. The sleepy "We Brought The Flood," built around clips of pre-1930 films, crawled by like a lethargic turtle playing a song from Notwist's Neon Golden. Another new song, "8 Frame," suffered from poor sequencing. The track showed promising hints of Philip Glass-like polymetric repetition, but its video, as well as a few others, overcompensated in an attempt at achieving some sort of greater significance. Instead, thanks to an overabundance of clichÃ©d images, some of The Books' songs felt like they were soundtracking a senior year high school video yearbook.
Lymbyc Systym opened the show with a surprisingly rousing set of dramatic post-rock. Although the band's reference points are fairly standard - Explosions in the Sky and ( )-era Sigur Ros come to mind -- the trio raised the bar with glitchy electronic drum sequences, thoughtful percussion textures and an electric violin played through a vast array of guitar pedals. Hypnotic melodies built up to heavenly climaxes built around feel-good drum beats that made audience members' heads nod even though they were mostly sitting on the ground. Thanks to the band's enthusiasm, proficiency, and creativity, Lymbyc Systym did the best and worst thing that opening bands can do: It upstaged the headliner.