I’ve been a fan of Nick Zammuto since I happened to have breakfast with him back in 2005 in North Adams, MA. He lived there and I was in town to watch a friend play at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival. “I’m in a band called the Books,” he said to me. As I would find out as I followed Zammuto and the Books over the next seven years, his unassuming, aw geez personality belies an incredible fount of creativity that became more and more well known throughout the musical world. (The following January, the Books’ third album, Lost and Safe, received the top spot in the annual record review by The Wire.) That personality hasn’t seemed to have changed much as Zammuto released more music with his partner in the Books, Paul de Jong and, after their surprising breakup, the formation of Zammuto’s latest project, simply called Zammuto.
The band, which includes Nick’s brother Mikey on bass, released their first record earlier this year and completed their first tour at the Walker’s McGuire theater last night. The show was both a triumphant return to an institution that has long admired the Books, but also a chance for Zammuto to reveal the new directions and chances he’s taking with his music. Joining the brothers were drummer Sean Dixon and guitarist/keyboardist Gene Back. The band played the majority of the new album, and I could hear many continuities with the Books, especially their final album, The Way Out. Whereas the first three albums, as good as they are, all felt part of the same philosophical, quirky, sample-based aesthetic, their last album stretched to include more instruments, more rhythmic textures, and more cacophony on songs like “A Cold Freezin’ Night” and “I Am Who I Am.”
The quirky titles and, in the live performance, projected visuals that included home movies, re-edited found footage, and text, all hearkened back to the Books’ last performance at the Walker a few years ago. (A personal favorite of mine from last night’s show was from the song “Groan Man, Don’t Cry,” which featured movies of road trips, and included a poignant image of a smiling woman through water droplets splattered onto the lens by Old Faithful, a Friedlander-esque image of the poetic amidst the prosaic.)
The most striking new element of Zammuto (both the band and the album) is Sean Dixon’s drums. Whereas drums before could have been mistaken for just another sound palette contributing to the Books’ sonic collages, with Dixon, they rock, especially on songs like album opener “Yay,” “Zebra Butt,” and the downright funky, auto-tuned “Too Late to Topologize.” Dixon, however, showed off his versatility and details on an incredible solo that led into a cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” And as for Zammuto himself, he has embraced a multitude of vocal effects for his songs, extending and expanding his falsetto to include not just the above-mentioned auto-tune, but also the digitally-spliced harmonies that gave his voice a Megatron-ish quality on “Groan Man, Don’t Cry” and a bouncing-sine wave effect on “Yay.”
By no means, though, has Zammuto left the Books behind. In addition to remastered versions of the first three Books albums for sale in the lobby, the band played new arrangements of a number of songs, including “That Right Ain’t Shit” and “Classy Penguin” (complete with that wonderful image of a metal-mouthed Nick making a cameo in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video).
Zammuto chose to close the night’s encore with “Smells Like Content,” off Lost and Safe, and the arrangement simultaneously managed to sound stripped down even with the addition of bass and drums, his unprocessed vocals giving the song’s exploratory nature of philosophical longing an after-the-fall character, not simply seeking wisdom and wholeness in themselves, but as a means of comfort and continuation. (Elsewhere in the show, in a quick-moving video montage of human pain both spinal and existential that accompanied “Yay,” one of the sufferers was attempting to lift a box labeled “Books.”) It’s clear from reading interviews with Zammuto that the breakup of the Books was not easy, but last night’s performance at the Walker shows that Zammuto has embraced these new sonic forays, without leaving such an important part of his musical identity behind.