It must be difficult to emerge from the shadow of a ten-year-long, critically acclaimed project as prolific as The Books. Few solo projects reach the heights of the acts that begot them, and in Nick Zammuto's case, the hope here is that his new output – creatively titled “Zammuto” - will somehow be comparable to one of the most innovative and beloved projects in experimental pop and sound collage in the last decade. It would be nice if it was possible to separate the two acts and evaluate this new venture on its own individual terms, but the reality is that there's probably no one who will write about Zammuto (the band) without mentioning Zammuto (the musician's) resume, and in this case especially, it's extremely difficult to avoid.
Nick Zammuto has a lot going for his first self-titled album. Some of the elements and ideas that made The Books' recordings so compelling make appearances here from time to time - the curated snippets of bizarre audio from anonymous sources, carefully constructed but sometimes chaotic sounding progression, digitally processed vocals, exacting wit and clever wordplay. There are a few songs (“Too Late Topologize” “Harlequin” “The Shape Of Things To Come”) which would be right at home on any Books record, and then there are those that would somehow not. These contain a kind of straight-forwardness that obliterates the mystery, beauty, precision, and whimsy that made The Books what it is. At best, the indignant, driving undertones of “F U C-3PO” improve on the ambiguity that marked Zammuto's prior work (though what he has against beloved the Star Wars character is not made apparent). But at its most cloying, the jam-band tendencies of “Groan Man, Don't Cry” might make some Books fans want to groan and cry, and the disembodied female androids “rapping” through the entirety of “Zebra Butt” seem, well, asinine. Overall, however, the record is a triumphant experiment in the same spirited vein as the music Zammuto made as one half of The Books, yet sets itself apart just enough for these explorations and new additions to remain interesting (stream it below via the band's soundcloud).
Nick Zammuto met Paul de Jong in 1999 as tenants in the same New York City apartment building, but it wasn't until six years and two and half albums later that they finally started touring, screening unique and often hilarious video collages of found material during the shows. For Zammuto, Nick's wasted no time in assembling a group of considerably talented band members and embarking on a proper tour, borrowing some elements from his former musical project but creating something that is wholly different. That tour culminated at Glasslands last Monday, with Lymbyc Systym opening.
When Zammuto took the stage it was not Nick as soloist, but Zammuto as a full band, joined by brother Mikey on bass, Sean Dixon on drums, and Gene Back (who had also played intermittently with The Books) on keys and additional guitars. Like an actual extension of the mood introduced by album's first track (entitled “Yay”) there was a collective, ecstatic enthusiasm so apparent it could have been a fifth band member. The sense that it gave me was so different from having seen The Books; whereas The Books wanted to tickle at thought processes, Zammuto's live show is all about the act of playing. Nick in particular seems so motivated by desire to expand on a live sound and share it with anyone willing to bear witness that it's hard not to respect - though it is slightly ironic when you consider that he manufactures most of these sounds by himself, holed up in a shed behind the eco-house which he inhabits with his wife and children in the sprawling countryside of rural Vermont.
The only real low-point of the show, for me, was a crunchy version of Paul Simon's “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” that fell flat mostly because it lacked imagination and also because in Paul Simon's oeuvre “50 Ways” has got to be one of the weakest, most trite tunes.
The encore of Zammuto's set was the big payoff for fans expecting another Books show. In attempting to present “Zebra Butt” live, there had been some unexplained technical difficulties. Nick had promised to come back to it, even offering to hook up another computer that supposedly would have had the necessary files. For whatever reason, these plans were to no avail and resulted in one of the most awkward interstices between set and encore I've ever observed. But out of that wreckage came the first twangs of “Smells Like Content”, the seminal philosophical love-letter to living from 2005's Lost And Safe. I've been trying to decide whether this was a cheap shot – if picking out the most instantly recognizable and moving track that you've built your musical career on as an encore to one of your new band's first shows is somehow a weak move. Would I have felt more gratified if he'd chosen a “deep cut” as opposed to a “hit”? Did I feel slightly pandered to, being reminded in such an obvious way of one of the greatest contributions The Books made to independent music? Yes, but also no.
There's this beautiful and sort of tragically funny truism that appears as a sound-byte at the end of the recorded version of “Smells Like Content” (Expectation leads to disappointment. If you don't expect something big, huge, and exciting.... usually uhhhh... I don't know... you're just not as... yeah) and though Zammuto didn't roll the clip at the end of playing the song, its unforgettable to anyone who's listened to that song as much as I have. Thinking of it served almost as a caution not to expect Books-caliber output from only half of the band, that it would by its nature be the same in some ways, different in others, and there was simply no reason to obsess over the particulars when you should just try to enjoy it. While the high-minded creativity that propelled The Books is present in some aspects of this project and absent in others, Zammuto (as a band) is a new iteration in that direction. Even if in the end Zammuto doesn't feel as wholly imagined as its predecessor (because one half of it is literally missing), there's plenty of merit and beauty in the music that Nick Zammuto is still more than willing to create. And whether its fair or not to evaluate this album against The Books' releases will stop being a question the longer he continues to produce work and come into his own, shedding those expectations and freeing himself for further sonic exploration.