Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Heads Up!

Talking Heads finally got around to remastering their albums and have released the results as an 8-disc set called The Brick. The albums were remastered by Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison and feature expanded artwork, bonus tracks, and extra DVD content. This is heaven for a Heads enthusiast such as myself. But one quibble: For a band that always prided themselves on their artistic sensibilities, it seems ludicrous to put these albums out with no back artwork or side labels. It's all just white, making the albums indistinguishable from one another on the shelf.

That aside, I thought I'd guide you on a tour through the Talking Heads recorded career. It's a journey that spans 11 years, countless musicians, and 1 big suit.

87. Talking Heads - Talking Heads: '77 (1977)

In artistic terms this is a rough sketch for the larger masterpiece. It features the building blocks of the band's future structure: rhythm, live energy, strange lyrics and goofy singing. Though they came in right on the heels of the punk movement, the most punk thing about the band was the fact that their songs sounded nothing like punk. And their look! Take a peek at that back cover image. These guys are nerds! Short hair? Izod shirts?

The album includes their signature tune, Psycho Killer, as well as some overlooked gems like Don't Worry About The Government and the opener, Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town. The latter has to be one of the best first-song-first-album titles for any band ever.

Overall, much less embarrassing than other debuts from the Heads' contemporaries (sorry XTC). The new version features some great bonus tracks, and is basically the only disc that does. No alternate versions, just rare early songs, including the band's first single Love - Building On Fire.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town


88. Talking Heads - More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)

First there's that title. What does it mean? Is it referring to the fact that two early Talking Heads songs were about a building (Love - Building On Fire) and food (Sugar On My Tongue)? Does it even matter? It's a great title. And then there's the cover image, a life-size distorted mosaic of the four band members created with close-up polaroids. It's amazing.

If anything, those two attributes showed that this was going to be an interesting band, especially after the bland first album title and artwork. But musically it's almost a continuation of the first album, and those with a casual awareness of the Talking Heads would find only one song they recognize, the jolting cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River.

But there's some great work here, including the paranoid Artists Only ("You can't see it till it's finished!") and the somber closer The Big Country. Previously, David Byrne's lyrics seemed to hold a wide-eyed innocence but this is the first time we see melancholy, even pessimism, creeping in. The weary narrator of the song is up in a plane, surveying the land below, and he doesn't like what he sees. "I wouldn't live there if you paid me," he keeps saying. The song has a twangy Americana sound that the Heads would soon completely abandon, only to pick up again later.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Artists Only


89. Talking Heads - Fear Of Music (1979)

Like the black metal siding on the cover of the album
, this CD presents a more obscure and enigmatic Talking Heads. Singer David Byrne experimented with French phrases on Psycho Killer, but in the opener I Zimbra he abandons English altogether. It's a startling start. The standout Life During Wartime is appropriately apocalyptic, at least until Byrne starts shouting "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco," and namechecks CBGB's.

And I guess that's the theme throughout. Things are kinda dark, but humor shines through. Cities gallops along as it tickles the funnybone, especially when we learn that a dry ice factory is a "good place to get some thinking done" and that Memphis is the "home of Elvis a
nd the ancient Greeks."

Heaven is the first authentically soulful Talking Heads song, imagining that heaven is a bar that everyone wants to get into, but also where "nothing really happens." Howev
er, something was obviously happening with the Heads' sound. They opened up into something more on this album, and would explore that even further on the next. It's what the critics might call "transitional."

Grade: B
Fave Song: Cities


90. Talking Heads - Remain In Light (1980)

If the quality of the Talking Heads' recorded output is a bell curve,
and I guess I'm saying it is, then this album shares the top of the curve. Though the hit Once In A Lifetime claimed "same as it ever was," that clearly wasn't the case.

To start we have the cover image, four closeups of the band members, with their faces digitally scribbled in red. You might see them as masks, or as a way to depart from
their past. They didn't really need to make it obvious, because the music took care of that well enough. Though it contains a couple of standout singles (Lifetime, and Crosseyed And Painless) the album is a whole listening experience from beginning to end.

The influence on these tracks were African rhythms and '70s funk, neither of which was absent from their early work, just not as obvious or embellished as they are here. The results are ass-shakingly good, and in some cases quite creepy as well. The one-two punch of Seen And Not Seen (a weird spoken fable) and The Listening Wind near the end of the record is haunting.

The only drawback to this album is the relative lack of humor, especially when compared to its predecessor. Oh, Byrne gets a couple of good ones in, calling himself a "government man" on Born Under Punches and the famous "this is not my beautiful wife" rant in Once In A Lifetime, but overall these are SERIOUS lyrics meant to accompany the artistic leap
made by the band.

Mission accomplished on that.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Once In A Lifetime


91. Talking Heads - Speaking In Tongues (1983)

The band's high point continued through this 1983 opus, which comes on like a looser, more fun version of its predecessor (you wouldn't have found a line like "I got a girlfriend with bows in her hair / and nothing is better than that" on Remain In Light). The band suddenly bloomed into 9 members, adding a second guitarist, keyboardist, percussionist, and two backup singers.

Kicking off with the hit Burning Down The House, the album is groovy and energetic from start to finish. Making Flippy Floppy is so propulsive that Byrne sounds like he's making up the lyrics just to keep up with the groove, though he does get one lucid shot in, and a depressing one at that: "Our president's crazy / did you hear what he said?" Girlfriend Is Better is one of th
e most intriguing songs they ever created, and Swamp is like some futuristic version of the blues.

But the best song comes last. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) is my favorite Talking Heads track ever. In contrast with the rest of the album, the tone of the song is meditative, but there's still a very strong groove behind it. And the lyrics! When Byrne sings them, they don't sound like a mash note, but read them and you'll find they are. Or just listen to Shawn Colvin's version.

The band would tour behind this album and create the definitive
concert film Stop Making Sense, released in 1984. The soundtrack to that movie is not included with these Talking Heads remasters, but it is essential to any Talking Heads collection, and may be the album I would recommend if you were only getting one.

Grade: A
Fave Song: This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)


92. Talking Heads - Little Creatures (1985)

After the extended triumph of Remain In Light, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (a 1982 live album), Speaking In Tongues, and Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads took a curious step. They downsized and started writing pop songs again. It seemed almost as if their ambition was tapped out. That's not to say this is a bad album, just a tiny bit disappointing.


Highlights include And She Was, which is about a girl who disappears. Strangely the music and lyrics find the joy and freedom in it. Stay Up Late is a disarmingly direct and simple song about playing with a baby (what?). Creatures Of Love is basically a country tune (hearkening all the way back to 1978 and The Big Country; I told you they'd pick it back up). And Ro
ad To Nowhere is a grandiose epic that captures some of the energy the band displayed so much of in 1983.

But other songs fall just a tiny bit flat, as though the band were just going through the motions. In retrospect, this can be seen as the beginning of the end.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: And She Was



93. Talking Heads - True Stories (1986)

In 1986 David Byrne decided to become a film director, and his first effort was a kind of charming semi-musical about odd characters living in a Texas town. That movie was called True Stories, and the album of the same name features the Talking Heads' versions of songs from the film. Despite that complicated origin, the album is basically of a piece with Little Creatures. That is to say, these are pop songs.

This album is largely regarded as the band's weakest, even despite some strong
moments. Love For Sale kinda rocks, and so does the hit Wild Wild Life (though the guitar bit is a dead ringer for the one in The Rolling Stones' Shattered). People Like Us is a sweet country tune in the vein of The Big Country and Creatures Of Love. And City Of Dreams is a sister to Road To Nowhere, but cops a much more optimistic tone ("if we can live together / the dream might come true").

Other songs just kind of blend in, the only other real notable tune being Radio Head, but only because it gave a name to a different pioneering band. And while True Stories is not a bad album, it suffers in comparison. Pop songs were simply not what fans looked for in a band like Talking Heads, especially when there were countless bands doing pop so much be
tter at the time.

Grade: C
Fave Song: City Of Dreams



94. Talking Heads - Naked (1988)

The Talking Heads' swan song was an attempt to reclaim the innovation of their peak of the early '80s. It was a minor return to form for the band, combining the pop elements of their previous two records with the groove-oriented style of Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues, sometimes to exciting effect.

The best songs are the first two. Blind and Mr. Jones are a return to the days when the Heads made music to shake your ass to. The grooves come on strong, the horns are hot, and David Byrne's lyrics are once again a series of images and bon mots and onomatopoeia, and he delivers them with a renewed energy.

Unfortunately that doesn't last. After eight years under Reagan, it seems Byrne was pissed. Songs like The Democratic Circus and Facts Of Life are shocking in their bitterness ("and now who's boss / and who's he leaving behind?" or "we cannot resist so I will not fight"). This might be palatable, or even exciting, if the music behind it wasn't so laborious and dark and at times even grating. Another tune, Bill, even seems to be about a child molester. It's disturbing, especially from a band that used to tell give us such funny lyrical fodder.

(Nothing But) Flowers is also socially-minded, but handles itself much better. The music and melody are catchy, and the lyrics are a completely ironic rumination on nature overtaking civilization ("this was a Pizza Hut / now it's all covered with daisies.")

Frankly though, this album is not a deserving final chapter for a band that gave us so much. Too many songs are non-descript and boring. The new remastered version salvages things slightly by adding the lively bonus track Sax and Violins as a closer, but it's not enough to overcome a lackluster tone that likely reflected the nature of the band's inner conflict than anything else. After four years of inactivity they would officially break up in 1992.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Mr. Jones

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Robbie Fulks - "Fountains Of Wayne Hotline"

Another from the curiosity department:

I came across this single on iTunes and was immediately intrigued. For one thing, Robbie Fulks appeared on my radar this year with Georgia Hard, a better than decent country throwback album. Also, who what Fountains Of Wayne fan could pass up that title?

Turns out it's basically a metasong, a song about writing a song. That's not especially rare, especially if you're a Weird Al Fan ("This Song Is Just Six Words Long" anyone?). What's so curious is that one can't tell if Fulks is paying tribute to FOW, or deriding them for being formulaic.

The song is broken into three parts. The first is a quiet verse wherein Fulks tells us he's tired of having zero success as a country music writer/performer and needs a new sound. So he calls the Fountains Of Wayne Hotline, a musical advice service. He speaks to Gerald, who tells him to spice up the second verse with a "radical dynamic shift" and a "full band entry."

At this point it basically becomes Fountains Of Wayne song, and Fulks doesn't pull any punches, saying he'll now be "beating these three chords into early middle age." Again, is he making fun of the guys from FOW? From my perspective, they've had relatively little success and don't deserve to be a target, especially with so many truly crappy bands out there making it big (sorry Nickelback fans).

After an announced "slightly distorted melodic guitar solo" Fulks calls the hotline again and this time gets Grant, a Jack Nicholson soundalike who works in the Department Of Bridges And Infrastructure. Fulks gets technical on us, describing the chords and textual variations he's used in the song so far. Grant suggests that he keep the same chords, and "slather the whole hell out of the thing with a semi-ironic Beach Boys vocal pad."

That's just what Fulks does. And it's pretty thrilling. If he really is making the point that this is just a formula and anyone could do it, then why does he make it sound so good?!

On the Yep Roc website, Fulks claims that the single was done out of admiration, and the Fountains Of Wayne website is even promoting the song! But I think there's something else bubbling underneath. We may never know the true story.

Album: Single Only
Fave Moment: The harmonies on the line: "turn my muddy waters into sweet Mexican wine."