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Not just a pretty voice: Peyroux at the Egg.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Branching Out

By David Greenberger

Madeleine Peyroux, Kate McGarry

The Egg, Mach 6

Madeleine Peyroux kicked off the tour in support of her new album, Bare Bones, in Albany last Friday at the Egg. With the exception of the handful of press members, those in attendance were given a rare opportunity to be given their first exposure to new music live, rather than from a recording. It’s a testament to the friendly patina of Peyroux’s music, as well as the venue’s pristine acoustics, that the 90-minute set was able to be drawn primarily from an album that wasn’t released until four days after the show.

Bare Bones marks a departure and expansion on the part of Peyroux, with its 11 new songs all being originals, cowritten with a host of collaborators (including Walter Becker, Joe Henry, Julian Coryell, and her producer Larry Klein). With the exception of keyboardist Larry Goldings, the members of her live quartet were not among the players on the new release, but they handled all the material, familiar and new, with equal aplomb. Soloing was the domain of Goldings (hooray for a Hammond organ with a Leslie cabinet!) and guitarist Jon Herington. Peyroux projected a sort of casual elegance, speaking only occasionally but with a confidence on a par with her music. While she’s often compared to jazz singers (most obviously Billie Holiday, but more accurately Abbey Lincoln, herself influenced by Lady Day), she draws equally from pop, cabaret, folk, and art songs. Bass guitarist Barak Mori, a noted jazz player on string bass, was playing parts that had R&B swagger and gentle funkish propulsion, but nary a whiff of the J word.

After Kate McGarry’s opening set I overheard a man saying to his companion, “I like jazz singing, but I don’t like jazz music.” Ah, there’s the rub! Audiences are trained to respond to labels—they’re an important marketing tool. Jazz encompasses everything from the dense thicket of Cecil Taylor to the soulful compositions of Horace Silver, and from the sugar-on-everything hairstylings of Kenny G to the gutbucket wallop of David Murray. Folk runs the gamut from the Kingston Trio to the Incredible String Band; rock broadly includes the Byrds and Metallica. Artists end up defining their own realm, and we’re all the better for it. Try something new every day. It may not lengthen your life, but it’s bound to deepen it. A museum is a fine place to visit, but who’d want to live there?


Well-Read

The Books

Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass. March 7

It’s not with a sense of irony, per se, that Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong perform under the moniker the Books, but there is something cute about it. Pioneers of a form of music variously known as “folktronica” or “future folk,” the band are about as multimedia as a guitar-and-cello duo can get. Press materials like to boast that they are either the most inventive band in pop music or the most accessible band in experimental music, and it’s this ambiguity, fomented by a sea of samples, found sounds, beats and video projections, that requires a listener to, ahem, read the Books.

After a week in residence at Mass MoCA, Zammuto and de Jong had added five new pieces to their repertoire, and they premiered them at this, the band’s first show in two years. The first, titled “Group Therapy,” inverted a clinical scenario whereby the listener was subjected to a fleet of psychiatrists who ap peared on the overhead screen. As the band worked through sooth ing material, the characters scratched their chins, spouted heady platitudes, and prescribed self-important remedies. But while humor was a frequent result of the band’s wonky media collage, it wasn’t necessarily their strongest suit.

Without aiming to confound, the band’s best work kept easy meaning at a postmodern arm’s length, and so required audience members to actively synthesize the bits and pieces they were apprehending. When Zammuto offered live vocals, they were often mixed to a secondary level and accompanied by found dialogue. Both performers processed their instruments such that it became difficult to distinguish what was being performed live and what had been synched to the video track. Meanwhile, the images themselves were obscure and paired in defiance of conventional context.

There was a time when all of this would have been edgy and utterly unpalatable for the average listener/viewer, but the Books approach their media not as lifeless simulacra, but with the sense that all phenomena is emotionally loaded. Following an assertion that “all is sacred; there is nothing natural in nature,” snowy mountains, bubbles bursting, popcorn popping, cans being opened, and people pole-vaulting can all be equally sublime. Even the most insipid camp can be imbued with meaning, often by simply removing the image or soundbite from its context and doing as Zammuto suggests in one of his lyrics: “Let’s notice everything/Let’s be thorough to a fault.”

Drawing on the notion of “infinite connectivity” that comes up in the song “Smells Like Content,” the band seems to consider every cultural relic as valid source material. For one track they used thrift-store-mined Talkboy recordings to spin an oddly humorous amalgam of sibling death threats. For another, they collaborated with Emmy-winning archivist Rich Remsberg. Most striking about all of this is how personal they make the material seem. It’s as if, in the info age, the scrapbook of our lives has been stretched to encompass every image and sound we’ve ever encountered, regardless of how foreign it may be to our lived experience. With “The Class Penguin,” Zammuto brought the process full circle by using home video of his brother Michael.

As we tend to be visual creatures, it was easy to let the video projections trump the band’s instrumental prowess throughout the show, but this should not diminish their musical talent. Zammuto’s fingerpicking on both guitar and electric bass was excellent, and de Jong’s work on electric cello is largely responsible for the bucolic character of most tunes. Much has been—and should be—made of the Books’ multimedia trickery, but earnest, emotive songwriting is at the core of what they do, so when the band encored with Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” it was a fitting surprise.

—Josh Potter


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