Monday, November 16, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 34 - The Talking Heads

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I have an inherent fascination with exploring band fights. The Beatles are the most famous example of a band that eventually ended up hating one another, but they're not the only ones by a long shot. Other groups with memorable rivalries I've explored for this project include Pink Floyd, Oasis and Guns n' Roses. The clash of larger-than-life personalities can be thoroughly captivating.

But I'm not a complete sadist. The most interesting aspect of band fights is not the fight itself, but the fact that the band is still capable of making damn good music even if all the members hate each other's guts. Perhaps sometimes an intra-band rivalry is needed to push the members to the peak of their creative potential. Certainly it doesn't work for all groups, and it could very well be a recipe for disaster. But when one has to prove oneself and claim a place in the band, that pushes the band further than perhaps they would otherwise go. Of course, friendly competition can transform into bitter hatred very quickly.

It's even more amazing if the band still functions as a cohesive unit during these squabbles. The paradox of the band that hates each other but plays well together is nothing short of amazing. Take a look at the Talking Heads, my act for the week. The relationship between frontman David Byrne and bassist Tina Weymouth is legendary. Byrne made Weymouth reaudition for the band after they got a record contract. He tried to prevent all other band members from getting any songwriting credit. He told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that the band was broken up for good…without bothering to tell his bandmates first.

For her part, Weymouth has declared Byrne of being incapable of returning friendship. She went behind his back to try and replace him as the lead guitarist. She called up his friends to tell them that Byrne has a "baby penis". And, bizarrely, she accused him of killing a Brazilian boy using voodoo magic.

Yet watching the group play onstage on the Stop Making Sense movie, you'd never be able to guess any of this. The group is all smiles. They have a great stage presence, they look like they're having a wonderful time. Who'd have guessed that by this point, Byrne was speaking to the rest of the band mainly through his secretary?

For me, the most interesting thing is not that bands falling apart can produce such good music. It's that the same people capable of creating great art can also be so petty and quarrelsome.


Artist of the Week: The Talking Heads

What I Knew Before: I had actually checked the soundtrack CD of Stop Making Sense out of my public library last month, which got me interested in the Talking Heads. Before that, I was familiar with singles such as "Once in a Lifetime" and "Burning Down the House", and I knew they had worked with Brian Eno, but I had never really listened to an entire album of their stuff.

My Listening:

I listened to Remain in Light (1980) every day this week. I listened to Talking Heads: 77 (1977), More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) and Fear of Music (1979) three times, and Speaking In Tongues (1983) and Little Creatures (1985) twice. To finish off the week, I took your recommendations and watched the Stop Making Sense concert film from 1984. It was the perfect finale to a great week of music.

I might have overextended myself this week. I thought, with Veteran's Day off, I could get some extra listening done. It's a testament to how much I liked the band that I listened to so much, but instead I think I just spread myself too thin, and I might not be as familiar with the albums as I would like.

What I Liked:

First of all, the Talking Heads are just so listenable. All their music immediately sounds interesting. Clearly what they're doing is outside the mainstream, but their music is never difficult to get into. The songs, while not necessarily melodic, are all incredibly catchy. It might be impossible to sing a long to an entire Talking Heads song, but they have a large number of one-line hooks with which you can join in. ("This ain't no party/This ain't no disco", "Same as it ever was", or "Run run run, run run run away").

Most of their songs are pretty upbeat, even though a lot of them have to do with despair and destruction. "Once in a Lifetime" is fun and energetic, and if you didn't listen to the words you'd never guess it was about a midlife crisis. Similarly, you wouldn't expect, after looking at the titles of "Life During Wartime", "Road to Nowhere", or "Burning Down the House", that they would be all such bouncy, almost joyous tunes.

I liked the lyrics, as opaque as they are. In a way, I think these kind of lyrics are better at getting a message across. The few times David Byrne gets all serious and direct, like in "Listening Wind", he comes across as preachy and pretentious. But the lyrics work a lot better in songs like "Crosseyed and Painless" or "Born Under Punches", in which a bunch of cryptic lines are repeated over and over, small snippets woven together to create a song. At first, you don't understand what the hell Byrne's talking about (though you don't really care, because the music still sounds good). Gradually, as you listen to the track a few times, the song starts to make sense and come together, jigsaw style. The key is not to try to interpret the lyrics, but just let the entire song wash over you. The Talking Heads are all about the complete sonic experience.

At the same time, they're not afraid to write some nonsense songs. With "Burning Down the House", for example, I'm pretty sure the song doesn't mean a damn thing. It's a great song though, and again, the band is trying just to create a fun listening experience. Sometimes the Talking Heads get all art-school on you, but other times they're just having a good time and writing something that's fun to listen to.

Finally, I like the groove of a lot of their songs. Once Brian Eno joined the group to produce their second album, the band borrowed some non-Western polyrhythms and combined it with a funk aesthetic to create some amazing beats. Contrary to the title, it makes perfect sense that former musicians from Parliament-Funkadelic joined the band for their "Stop Making Sense" tour. Their funk roots come across on "Take Me to the River", while other songs, such as the majority on Remain in Light, carry more of the so-called "world music" influence, with their repetitive rhythmic loops. Regardless, it's impressive that a bunch of nerdy white kids can pull this sort of thing off with such conviction.

What I Didn't Like:

Like last week, I liked almost everything. But as I hinted at earlier, sometimes Byrne's lyrics skew toward the pretentious. The aforementioned "Listening Wind" is about a terrorist in a foreign country full of American tourists, who is planning to set off a package bomb. I suppose it's supposed to be about the perils of globalization or something, but the cynical side of me resents a privileged New Yorker art school student pretending he understands the plight of Third World countries just because he vacationed there once or twice.

Also, I must say I like the band's output the best when famed producer (and crossword puzzle favorite) Brian Eno was assisting. He helped them out with three albums - More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, is decent enough, but it has a minimalism that isn't as interesting as their later stuff. Luckily, that goes out the window after Eno joins. He pushed the band toward adopting their funk/world music aesthetic, and to incorporate a bunch of non-traditional sounds. The band's post-Eno album Little Creatures still incorporates "world" influences, but comes across more as schmaltzy pop music rather than funky alternative.

Both Talking Heads: 77 and Little Creatures do have memorable tracks - "Psycho Killer" and "And She Was" respectively. But, as a whole, the albums aren't nearly as diverse or interesting as the four that came in between them.

What I Learned:

I already told you about all the fun gossip about the band fighting among themselves. I haven't yet figured out of Byrne really was the indispensable creative force behind the band, or simply an egomaniac who took credit for everything. It's probably somewhere in between.

I also learned how much the Talking Heads' art-school heritage helped them out. All four members met at the Rhode Island School of Design. Just looking at the set-up of their concert in Stop Making Sense, or the music video for "Once in a Lifetime", one can see how they tried to make their music more than just something to listen to, but a full-on artistic experience.

Cool Fact of the Week:

If you're in your early to mid-twenties, you probably remember an old cartoon on Nickelodeon called Doug. On one episode, Doug formed a band with his friends. After getting inspiration from a dream, he decided that they should all wear big suits in their concerts.

15 years later, I discover that this is all based on David Byrne's big suit in the Stop Making Sense film. So that's one childhood mystery cleared up.

Further Exploration Would Entail:

At some point, I'll probably listen to the Talking Heads' final two albums, True Stories (1986) and Naked (1988), just for the sake of being a completist. Beyond that, the group reunited sans-David Byrne to create 1996's No Talking, Just Head. It might be interesting to see just how talented they are without Byrne around.

There's also lots of side projects to check out. Married couple Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth created a band called The Tom Tom Club in their spare time, and their first album, at least, seems to get pretty good reviews. David Byrne has a bunch of solo albums, though the two he collaborated with Brian Eno on - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008), seem to get the best press.

Beyond that, where should I go? The Talking Heads seem like such a unique phenomenon that it's hard to find other similar acts to explore. I suppose I could check out Devo, the other quirky art-rock Brian Eno-produced band that was big circa 1980.

Best Song You've Heard: "Once in a Lifetime", though "Life During Wartime" and "Burning Down the House" are all close runners-up.

Best Song You Haven't Heard: "And She Was" (Okay, you might have heard this. But it doesn't get as nearly as much play as their earlier stuff).

Next Week's Artist:

The Smashing Pumpkins