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The Books + High Places @ The Zoo, 19.2.11

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A little birdy told me that intriguing New York aural-collage weavers The Books had sold so few of their Australian tour tickets, LA ethereal pop-electronica duo High Places were summoned to bolster the show into a double bill. This mandate seemed all to evident in High Places’ cold (pun intended) demeanours on stage. It was all too obvious they were not that thrilled to be there.

Dressed for the cloying, sticky Zoo atmosphere in oversized T-shirts and denim shorts, the duo lacked the engaging quality of their elegant and airy past Brisbane performances. Crouched over their samplers, sporadically wiping away sweat and fanning themselves, they largely ignored the scarce, unobservant crowd except for when guitarist Rob Barber attempted to quip while pinching at his sweat drenched shirt: “They need to move the beach closer to Brisbane! Other than that, this is great!” While the set was technically immaculate, even the majesty of ‘From Stardust To Sentience’ was gutted by the stifling air and disinterested attitude of the band and crowd. Their set was greeted with lukewarm applause which received languid thank-yous and a hurried scuttling off stage.

The crowd’s enthusiasm revved up palpably in anticipation for The Books, who have never played Australia previously. I was curious to see just how The Books would pull off a live show: their music is best described as a collage of mismatched soundbites from a library of old 80s and 90s promotional or personal videos, stitched together into a florid array of folktronica or embroidered atop subdued vocals of singer/guitarist Nick Zammuto. It’s something that wouldn’t lend itself well to live performances. “I’ve been waiting eight years for this!” trilled an ecstatic fan in front of me as the band stepped onto the stage to tumultuous applause, an audio-visual projector displaying their band logo onto a screen just behind their set up. As they picked up an array of instruments which initially surprised me, a guitar, violin and electronic cello, the projector screen was revealed to be a visual aide to the intricate, sound-collaged songs: a face appeared upon the projection screen of a bearded middle-aged man who began the spoken word sound bite intro for ‘Group Autogenics I’, the first track off their new record The Way Out.

The Books

This visual aid became the lifblood of the gig. The projections coloured the songs by providing their backstory: by synching up footage of the video the soundbite was pinched from with the live music, the origin of the songs could be told. The band members simply smiled wryly at the visual aid behind them and let it do the majority of the crowd interaction. Their remarkably organic instrumentation, with heavy reliance on violin and little on their on-stage computer, left the unfurling of the songs themselves as the centerpiece of the show, focussed by the projection’s kitchy self-help home-video vibe.

This visual enrichment of the songs was glorious to some fans, who would whoop as a song’s back story was stitched together by the projections: ‘Cold Freezin’ Night’, a collage of children’s voices sniping infantile jibes at each other, was revealed to be footage found on Home Alone promotional video cameras handed into charity stores in the 90s and rescued by the band. The visual aid also acted to augment some of the band’s more subdued songs; notably towards the end of the set, during the glowing ‘Smells Like Content’, a visualisation of the song’s obtuse lyrics being projected behind the band’s heads in rapid succession as the song wound up in tempo was affectingly visceral.

Surprised at the engaging quality of a band I usually put on to fall asleep to, I joined in the raucous call for encore with gusto.

Photography: Reuben Beer

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