Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Day 2

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 2

Taxi Cab Confessions—Bus to Malacca—A Mosque—Curry Under the Finger Nails—A Disappointing Chinatown—David Byrne—Strange Fruit—Tales From Kampung Baru Night Market: First Night— Hookah and Tim Allen—The Durian Nightcap

When making plans for Kuala Lumpur, I gave myself an extra day to venture out of the city. I knew the main focus of this trip would be KL and all its glory, but what about the rest of Peninsular Malaysia? I went through my Lonely Planet, talked with a friend who traveled in Malaysia last fall, and ultimately settled on the former colonial port town of Malacca, from which the Straights of Malacca are named.

This historical port city once served as the landing point for the Dutch and Portuguese to make their claims of parts of Malaysia for trade in the East Indies. The city, which is protected under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was written up as having a surprisingly European feel with all the diversity of modern day Malaysia. Situated a mere two hours south of KL by bus, it seemed like the perfect day trip and a chance to be near the coast.

I woke up twenty minutes before my alarm was set to chime due in part to an older Australian lady who checked into the mixed-dorm room at dawn and made all kind of ruckus. I would later run into said woman after showering, while I was applying my contacts at the communal sink and mirror.

“Oh my, you’re a tall boy, aren’t you?” she said padding my shoulders, mid left contact lens application.


I made casual small talk, trying to be friendly though I was not quite awake and ultimately granted her the podium. I gathered from her rambling story that she was on an extended two-four month tour of Southeast Asia, solo, and had just come down from Thailand where she told me she has many friends. The woman seemed friendly enough, albeit a bit chatty for 7:00 in the morning. I’m always impressed at the older travelers you meet in hostels, which are no longer globally type-casted as Youth Hostels. Most older wanderers either fall into the category of veteran travelers who favor lively hostel settings to lonely hotel rooms or of travel newbies who seem to be touring to fulfill the “better late than never” mentality.

As I gathered my day pack and was heading out of the dark dorm room, I passed her in the long hostel corridor heading towards our slumbering room in a long white nightgown with two shopping bags full of 7-11 goods. I pitied the sleeping souls who were about to awake to plastic bag wake-up call she was surely going to issue onto the fellow travelers.

I caught a taxi to the bus station and was pleasantly surprised to find the driver spoke perfect English and was instantly curious to talk to me. The man was from KL, originally, but had spent much of his life working on a freight-shipping vessel that took him all over the world. He instantly had an opinion of Chicago, a city he had stayed in back in the 70s after living in New York City with a brother for six months.

He told me that I would like Malacca and recommended that I take advantage of the seafood offerings. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem.

He seemed excited to talk about world travel and I got the feeling that while he was happy in KL with his family and his job (he hinted to making a decent living working as a driver and owning a shop on the side) he enjoyed the freedom of his shipping days, particularly pulling into foreign ports. It was obvious that man had a number of stories he was dying to share but sadly the cab ride only lasted ten minutes.

The bus to Malacca was uneventful, though the scenery shifted from the suburban sprawl of KL to lush rolling green hills and palm trees that seemed to go on forever in every direction. The main bus terminal for Malacca was actually outside of the town’s center, which meant I had to find a local bus to take me into the town. Here’s where the trip started to get interesting.

The local bus fare rang up to about 20 US cents and my carriage to the city looked like it had seen better days. Aboard were several Muslim women in headscarves, including one woman’s daughter who navigated her way around some melted pocket chocolate for the majority of the ride. A loud Chinese gentleman made his presence known early on and continued to chat with people around him (his is the louder voice heard in the video below).

I reached the city center and instantly realized that this was a hot spot for tourism. In the city’s main square, which is situated around the Christ Church that was built by Dutch settlers circa the mid 18th century, there were countless Chinese and Indian tourists with cameras perusing the local market and pricing the many bicycle rickshaws that run tours of the city.

The rickshaws were especially fun to watch. Most were ornately decorated with colorful flowers, umbrellas and many were outfitted with some sort of make-shift speaker system that blasted obnoxious Western and Eastern pop music, as if the drivers were competing for loudest bike. One nervous-looking older Western couple seemed unsure of their rickshaw choice as they were pedaled away to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” blaring from the sleigh’s florally vibrant canopy.

Malacca is a charming city that does truly have a European feel to it. It’s a bit overrun by tourists but there are still untouched sections of the village that are perfect for the more ambitious walker. Malacca’s most obvious connection to Europe comes not from the Dutch and Portuguese architecture but rather from the fact that the city is built around a series of canals and river boardwalks, all of which flow into the Straights.

I checked out the usual sights–the aforementioned Christ Church, a Portuguese fort, a shipping vessel turned museum on water, and the Stadhuy town hall. The most striking sights were the two major Mosques in Malacca, the Tranquerah and Kampung Hulu Mosque, both fully active and quite beautiful.

At the Kampung Hulu Mosque I came across a Muslim man throwing buckets of water on a car parked outside the Mosque entrance. I watched for a good ten minutes from across the street as the man would casually walk out with a plastic pale full of water, throw the contents all over the car’s hood and windshield, all while mumbling something to the driver. He would then return to the Mosque’s cleansing pool to refill. I’m not sure if the car wash was out of anger for her parking choice or if he was truly cleansing the woman’s Nissan hatchback.

Inside the Mosque I did my best to keep myself out of sight, out of mind. The aforementioned water thrower was very kind and told me to meander around even before I had a chance to ask. There were men conversing on the outside porch, a woman and her kids were in a small female prayer room off to the side and one long-haired man was praying near a large drum situated above the main entrance gate.

After wandering around Malacca’s Indian neighborhood I found a small restaurant that looked promising, that is to say there were a number of people eating at long, communal tables.

The food was served on large banana leaves and not a single person was seen using a fork. Custom calls for using your right hand to scoop the food into your mouth, usually by taking clumps of rice or bread to soak up the sauces. The technique is a lot harder than it sounds as you must rely partially on gravity to help drop the food from the hand to the mouth.

I ordered banana leaf rice, which includes rice or freshly baked nan bread and FOUR different side dishes, which are spooned onto the leaf by a man carrying a giant metal tiffin set. Later another more flesh oriented waiter comes around with various meat, vegetable and fish dishes that have already been prepared and portioned out for guests. I was given a fork without even asking for one but decided to do like the locals and dove in, my left hand sitting idle to the side.

Picking up the rice proved to be harder than I had thought, especially after a waiter poured a hefty portion of steaming lentils over the then nicely clumped rice, as if to challenge my competence. The experience felt primitive in a good way.

After I gorged myself on spicy curried lamb and fresh fish, cucumber salad, lentils, and various stewed vegetables I headed back out to explore. My stomach was full, my pores were sweating turmeric and there was a good deal of curry getting cozy under the fingernails.

After seeking out Malacca’s other notable Mosque I headed towards Jonker Street, also known as Malacca’s Chinatown. The main drag was flooded with window shoppers and was clearly the one part of the city that was truly overrun by tourists.

Tacky gift shops ran most of the street. Every restaurant advertised chicken rice ball, the unofficial delicacy of Malacca’s Chinatown. One thing I’ve noticed having lived in East Asia for the past seven months is how locals here are drawn towards anything that is advertised as being a specialty. Long lines immediately constitute a place as being, “a must-visit” and hype goes a long way.

Taiwan’s many regions and cities are all famous for one or more items that one must either buy or see when visiting. If you visit say, for example, the port city of Keelung north of Taipei it is expected that you seek out the Keelung sandwich, a greasy donut like submarine roll that is slathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with diced cucumber, green tomatoes, and given a helping serving of hard-boiled eggs and Chinese sausage. It doesn’t matter if said sight or delicacy is good or not, it’s expected that as a tourists you must make the pilgrimage to seek it out. The same applied to Jonker Street, particularly with the Chicken Rice Ball. At one particularly restaurant it looked as if an entire tour bus of Chinese tourists had been dropped off in front of the building and were waiting to taste what this place (most likely written up in a guide of some sorts) had to offer.

I wandered around for another hour or so snapping pictures and popping in various shops. There were a number of cool antique stalls selling relics of the old Malaysia, particularly cool hard currency from yesteryears. Still, all goodies were being sold for antique prices.

Eventually, I made my way back to the Christ Church where the city bus had dropped me off. At around 4PM there were already a number of travelers waiting to get back to the central bus station for a return to either KL or possibly down south to Singapore. It should be noted that the city bus ride TO Malacca’s center took roughly 20 minutes or so. The trip back to the bus station during Malacca’s “rush hour” would’ve taken up to an hour, maybe longer, according to the ticket seller and another passenger who spoke perfect English. Understandable considering Malacca’s tight European streets aren’t made for giant busses and hundreds motorbikes to share.

Knowing that I had to be back for the 5PM bus back to KL that I had already bought a ticket for, I jumped off the bus and walked to a cab stand of sorts to flag a taxi to the station.

The first driver who saw me instantly flagged me over and started his engine. He gave me a good price up front to get me to the station and assured me that I would definitely make my bus.

“No problem. We fly there. You’ll see,” he said.

The driver was friendly in a casual sort of way, jumping right into the basic precursors to small talk. I told him where I was from in the States, what I was doing in Taiwan, and why I had come to his country. While he hadn’t traveled to Chicago, the city’s reputation preceded him. He even referenced John Dillinger, which may or may not be a result of the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger film, considering the biggest gangster reference linked to Chicago is always Al Capone.

We chatted about Malacca and K.L. His name, I would learn, was Pak Frankee and besides driving the taxi (which he said was merely a part-time gig for supplementing his income) he ran boat trips over the Malacca Strait into Indonesia, ran a hostel in Malacca and also conducted jungle tours of the Cameroon Highlands in inner-Southwest Malaysia. Like the driver before him who had taken me to the bus station in KL, it was clear this man had his share of stories to share. One in particular caught my attention instantly.

“Do you know David Byrne? Musician. From America,” the driver said, as my ears perked up with intrigue.

“Well, it just so happens…” I said, carrying on about my lifelong admiration for Byrne and Talking Heads.

Turns out Pak Frankee once gave David Byrne a ride from Kuala Lumpur into the Cameroon Highlands for a jungle trek to record orangutan sounds. While he couldn’t recall the exact year he said he thought it was in the early-80s, right around the time Byrne was wrapping up Talking Heads’ masterpiece, Remain in LIght, as well as 1981s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his “recorded-sound collaboration with Brian Eno that prominently features found sounds recorded around the world and paired with synthesizer symphonies.

Frankee told me that Byrne (who was also accompanied by his girlfriend at the time) was “down to earth,” his words, and that he was very interested in learning about Frankee’s life and the history of the region.

The story was too bizarre to be made up (and Byrne is too abstract an artist for Frankee to just make the story up, had he said say, Michael Jackson or Jon Bon Jovi, I might have called his bluff). The ride to the bus station was enjoyable and when I was let off a part of me wanted to find out more. He gave me his card and told me that if I were ever back in Malaysia that I should call him out for a tour. I will take him up on this offer should I ever return.

After a long and rainy bus ride back to KL through rush hour traffic, I met Stuart at the hostel and we set out for a late dinner at the nearby Kampung Baru night market that the proprietor of the hostel told me was a must-eat destination.

Night markets in Asia just might be the single greatest culinary offering to the world. They are bustling havens where eating is not merely a refueling for the body but rather an exploration for the taste buds. While I am spoiled here in Taiwan with the plentiful night markets at my disposal, the Kampung Baru market ended up being the highlight of my trip to Malaysia and would be the one constant throughout the rest of my time in KL.

The market, which runs the length of three fairly unassuming streets in Chow Kit is an amalgamation of different cuisines, often all sharing the same roof. A fruit and meat market lies at its entrance offering a multitude of bizarre fruit choices, including one that both Stuart and I were virgins to.

Photo c/o Stuart Wallace

The small, hard fruit called salak looks like a medium garlic clove that has been covered with reptile skin, creating something that is truly unique to Southeast Asia, possibly only in Malaysia. The taste was bitter sweet, with a hint of banana, which is why, I suppose, one online blogger referred to the fruit as “a banana wrapped in a snakeskin”. I ate what I could but was ultimately more excited about the prospects of trying a new fruit than the actual flavors the salak had to offer.

For our proper dinner we settled on the first open-air seating establishment we could find that smelled good and more importantly had people eating. Our first stop was commenced with a toast of teh tarik frothy tea and two steamy bowls of peasant soup–one with the always good base of oxtail, the other a sour seafood stew.

Moving on with bellies not quite content, we stopped at a place across the street that sold grilled whole fish of the mysterious family. Served with a bit of spicy soy on the side, the fish was fresh with a nice hint of smokiness. By this time it was about 9:45 and the places around us were packed with locals socializing and eating.

Afterwards, we moved to a larger open-air food bazaar that had a large projection screen TV playing local KL channels. It makes sense that the satay man and his makeshift habachi grill was set up at the market’s entrance, and it makes even more sense that without thinking we ordered up fifteen pieces of the mixed variety. At pocket change prices, these glorious skewered offerings were more like meat lollipops.

We ordered some regular hot tea (which we found out would be sweet nevertheless) and sat near a hookah stall in the corner while Tim Allen’s 1994 “everyday man becomes Santa Claus” family comedy, The Santa Claus was projected onto the large screen for the mostly Muslim audience to enjoy.

We shared a fruit-flavored nargila, which used a piece of fresh pineapple as the base for the tobacco and coals to burn, over conversation and the reality that yeah, we’re sitting in Kuala Lumpur, smoking, eating skewered meat and looking at the Petronas Towers lighting the distant sky to comfort us. The scene was perfect and we knew that we would return again, and as it turns out, again until we both left the city.

After a couple of hours we decided to head back, first insisting on stopping at an equally bustling stall across the way that sold freshly baked, sweet rodi bread with a standard yellow curry for dipping. On the walk home we tested our stomach’s durability one last time with a night cap of “The King of Fruits” and a staple of Malaysia: the durian.

Photo c/o The Internet

The durian is the kind of fruit that makes you wonder, “who ever thought to eat it this bizarre alien fruit?” For starters, the fruit’s spiky exterior shell places it nicely in the “treacherous-poke-your-eye-out” genus of weird Asian super fruit. The fleshy interior, which has the feel of three-day-old pudding skin, emits an odor that can be best described as ass meets rot. Still, the taste is something truly unique and dare I say, besides the mess involved with eating this fruit, it’s pretty good. I had had durian in Taiwan but Malaysia is where it reigns king and the quality and freshness was unprecedented.

Content and exuding funkiness from our pores, we returned to the hostel, checked email and eventually crashed for some much needed rest before another adventure in KL the following, Christmas Day!

To be continued…


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Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By


Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Island Records

If Polly Jean Harvey ever wanted to avoid the often inevitable record company ‘Best Of’ compilation album, A Woman a Man Walked By (released tomorrow) would suffice as a nice little retrospective of her music thus far. While the record features all new material, and technically exists as the second collaboration LP with musician and longtime producer John Parish, Walked By manages to sum up an exciting career, spanning almost two decades. 

To take care of some of the technicalities behind this record it should be noted that A Woman a Man Walked By is the musical love child of both Harvey and Parish–the former writing all lyrics and taking care of the vocals, with the latter writing and performing the music. Parish has been a longtime friend and musical partner, having produced and played on three of Harvey’s past studio albums, as well as a prior collaboration project, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. Here it’s as if Harvey was able to focus solely on her writing and vocal stylings (a similar collaboration worked wonders last year for David Byrne and Brian Eno).

The result of this recent partnership is a genre-bending album from Harvey’s past and present. From the heavy alternative blues rock of Dry and To Bring You My Love, to the atmospheric folk tunes from 2007’s bizarre concept departure, White Chalk, Harvey skips from one familiar sound to the next with the confidence of an artist summing up her artistic existence, while also bringing to the forefront a bevy of some of her best songs to date.

Is the album as ambitious as White Chalk or as prolific as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea? No. Does it showcase her abilities as a raging blues guitar banshee? Not quite. Where A Woman a Man Walked By succeeds is in is Harvey’s knack for writing haunting alt-rock songs and her full-fledged vocals, which casually shift from grunge to ethereal folk.

On the rip-roaring opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a welcomed heavy rock song that is worlds apart from White Chalk’s exercise in cryptic piano lullabies, Harvey aptly sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know.” It’s as if she’s asking us if we’re ready to embark on whatever lies ahead. The short answer to this instant classic–yes.

On “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” Parish’s acoustic guitar riffs pick up where Jimmy Page left off on Zeppelin III’s “Friends,” while Harvey croons about an ill-fated game of hide and seek.

“Leaving California,” The Soldiers,” “April” are the record’s three unofficial continuations from White Chalk, relying heavily on Harvey’s newfound love of soothing child like piano/organ riffs and falsettos. The latter of the trio features one of the most chilling musical ascents of any song Harvey has ever recorded behind a sparse drum march and a Hammond B3 Organ tuned to ‘haunting.’  

The album’s title track–a two-part anti-love song (?) culminating with a rather jarring but beautiful instrumental piece–pays homage to Harvey’s gritty punk past circa Dry, and may be the only song to ever feature the lines “he had chicken liver heart made of chicken liver parts / liver little parts” followed by “I want his fucking ass.” Sung with the same razor sharp virtuosic pipes that once established Harvey as badass singer songwriter she’s evolved from, this is one of the album’s highlights. one that definitely grows on the ears after its initial lyrical shock and awe.

A Woman a Man Walked By’s most surprising tracks also couldn’t be farther apart in nature. “Pig Will Not” might be the record’s most forgettable track, although its screeching guitar/vocal distortion will appease the fans of past songs like To Bring You My Love’s “Long Snake Moan.” At the other end of Harvey’s spectrum is the record’s closer, “Cracks in the Canvas,” an atmospheric two-minute spoken word exercise that would feel right at home in a David Lynch film, most likely sung by a perfect ‘10’ blonde with a This Mortal Coilesque, dream-pop voice. At the end she leaves us with:

I’m looking for an answer
Me and a million others
Disbelievers
Desserted lovers
Dear God, you’d better not let me down this time
Cracks in the canvas
Look like roads that never end

It could be that A Woman a Man Walked By is yet another side project/segue to Polly Jean’s next musical direction, similarly to her last collaboration with Parish, which followed the extremely successful To Bring You My Love. Perhaps it’s simply just a pet project of the two that had been long overdue. Whatever the album’s goal might be is trivial. The ten songs that fill this album channel an unprecedented career from one of finer musicians working today. For Harvey fans this may ultimately serve as a bridge to her future endeavors. For anyone just jumping into her music it just might be the perfect catalyst for a an appreciation of Harvey’s music.  

Ten Great Albums of 2008

It was a great year for music with lots of destined to be classic albums to pick from. This shortlist represents the records that will no doubt be stand the test of time. Vampire Weekend had a good year but will the whitest band around really be remembered twenty years from now? Lil Wayne stirred things up but was he the best Hip Hop had to offer this year?

We’ll see how this list stands up to time. Until then here they are, Ten Great Albums of the year in no particular order.

Portishead, Third

Of all the comebacks and regroupings–Guns and Roses’ overly hyped Chinese Democracy, My Blood Valentine’s magnificent tour but lack of new material, or The Smashing Pumpkins unnecessary half-reunion–the most rewarding return came from Portishead. After two equally exciting trip-hop outings from the early 90s, the Bristol, England trio went on a twelve-year hiatus destined to drift into nostalgia. The group’s third record, appropriately titled Third, showed a musical maturation that few bands ever achieve. Instead of resurrecting its trip hop roots Portishead went an entirely different route blending carefully orchestrated electronic harmonies and rhythms with Beth Gibbons’ ethereal pipes. While each of the album’s tracks stand out in their own way the absolute moments of brilliance come with the opener, “Silence,” guided by a driving bass and drum beat and featuring an otherworldly vocal sample (in this case a recording of someone speaking in Portuguese) and “The Rip,” a dreamy ballad with a crescendo of electronics and vocal range that make it the album’s one true repeat track. That Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead both covered this song extensively during the sound checks on their last tour only adds to the song and this album’s genius.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

Sure Lil Wayne will probably steal the thunder of best of Hip Hop this year (and Tha Carter III is indeed a great album) but one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to be released was from one Jonathan Davis, known around the Hip Hop community as Q-Tip. It seems like ages since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and it’s been a striking nine years since Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified hit the streets. The Renaissance is a closer venture to Quest’s jazz funk influenced, socially conscious hip hop than Amplified and shows that Q-Tip still remains one of rap’s best lyricists–nasally, sarcastic, and electrifying. The album features a number of guests most notably from Norah Jones whose appearance on “Life is Better” dwarfs her work on Outkast’s The Love Below. “Believe” makes good use of D’Angelo’s still active pipes while Raphael Saadiq (whose 2008 album The Way I See It is just shy of being a top contender) shines on the hook of “We Fight/Love.” Q-Tip has long been a hip hop favorite but has been out of the spotlight in recent years primarily landing guest spots on other artist’s records. The Renaissance may not end up being as important or timeless as The Low End Theory but amidst other hip hop artists working today it’s nice to see that one of raps pioneers still has what it takes. 

Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Much like Radiohead’s pleasant internet download surprise with last year’s In Rainbows, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s unexpected collaboration and subsequent internet stream/release of new material was the stuff of music geek’s dreams. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is a testament to just how perfect some musical matches are. Absent were the now predictable African polyrhythms and worldly samples of the duo’s previous collaborations–the stand alone project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three peat of Talking Heads masterpieces culminating with Remain in Light–instead loyal fans were treated to a rare mix of uplifting electro pop gospel songs the likes of which neither musician has ventured towards before. Sure a bit of nitpicking would find flaws in the album’s two minor tracks–the penultimate “Poor Boy” or “Feel My Stuff,” a track that needs to be heard/seen live in order to truly appreciate–but overall this is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. “The River” alludes to early Heads quick hit pop tunes. “Strange Overtones” brings the duo’s appreciation of groove and funk to the forefront and the album’s title track–a heavenly ballad anchored by the album’s hopeful money line From the milk of human kindness/From the breast we all partake­­­–is quite simply a joy for the ears. Both artists have continued with solo and producing careers over years but nothing comes close to matching the masterful music they produce together.  

M83, Saturdays = Youth

Often donned this year’s ultimate homage to the 1980s, M83’s latest album is much more an ode to the teenage wildlife. Musically the album carries on the torch of electro and synth pop outfits like The Orb and dream pop pioneers like Cocteau Twins, while lyrically referencing adolescent angst, naïve love and wonder. On “Kim and Jessie” M83’s chief Anthony Gonzalez sings, Kids outside worlds / They are crazy about romance and illusion behind a blanket of keyboards and thunder drums. “Up!” alludes to cosmic travels of two characters who may or may not be carefree intergalactic vampires (of the galaxy we fly we feed we suck we bleed we need…), while “Skin of the Night” feels like a forgotten soundtrack to the countless fantasy films of the 1980s, from Labyrinth to, as a friend hinted to in her enthusiasm for the album, Ridley Scott’s “so bad it’s good” Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Saturday = Youth is the ultimate ode to the synthesizer, a relic from the advent of sampling and electro pop that has seen a resurgence in years past mainly in the hip-hop world (Common’s recent lackluster release, Universal Mind Control is very much a similar wink and nod to the electro funk forefathers) but rather than merely a silly collection of dated melodies M83 gives us fresh, modern take on the 80s electro pop glory days.


TV on the Radio, Dear Science

TV on the Radio’s follow up to the universally celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain somehow got lost in a sea of other new albums and failed to get the monumental release it deserved. Sure it was instantly a critic’s darling with many claiming that it improves on its predecessor by straying away from the dark undertones and ultimately being more accessible musically but in terms of popularity it didn’t make as big a splash. Dear Science is proof once again that there are few groups working today as unique and innovative as TV on the Radio. Musically trying to classify the songs that make up Dear Science is a futile exercise for Radio has always been a band to just soak up and experience. Funk, hip-hop, art-rock, EMO…the list could go on. Lyrically the messages on Dear Science aren’t as bleak as its predecessor but still manage to convey a level of political and social unrest. 

TV on the Radio is a band that doesn’t require adoration. It has realized its place in modern music and is currently in the state of simply showing off the extents that it can take its sound. “Halfway Home,” arguably one of the best opening tracks to any album in recent years (world’s apart from Mountain’s terribly bleak opening “I was your lover, before this war”), is a promising start to what ends up being a flawless album from start to finish. “Family Tree” propelled by an electronic symphony of strings and reverb drenched piano is a heartbreaking love song set, one would assume, during times of slavery, alluded to in the verse, “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There’s a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.” “Crying” returns to the band’s penchant for commentating on society’s woes with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe crooning, “Gold is another word for culture / Leads to fattening / Of the vultures” while the album’s closer “Lover’s Day” may be the closest thing to an unadulterated, uplifting love song the group’s ever released–a highly erotic and exuberant tribute to the physical act of love. TV on the Radio established itself as the “IT” band to keep an eye on with Return to Cookie Mountain. Dear Science secures their future legacy as one of the few bands that mattered during the 00s. 

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

Like TV on the Radio’s follow-up to their massive hit The Odd Couple didn’t make nearly as big a splash as its predecessor, St. Elsewhere. Much of this might be attributed to Barkley’s refusal to provide another runaway hit single. “Crazy” was arguably the song of 2006 and up their with “Hey Ya” as possibly one of the best of the decade. Many viewed Elsewhere as nothing more than a vehicle for “Crazy,” an attitude that hindered an otherwise triumphant debut record. 

The Odd Couple continues Barkley’s mission of blending psychedelic rock with soul, funk and hip-hop in a bizarre melting pot of sounds and influences. To truly respect what these two innovators are doing you have to appreciate Cee-Lo’s soulful pipes and DJ Danger Mouse’s tight production. The Odd Couple is not only better than its predecessor but arguably one of the forgotten gems of the year. The lyrics are more poignant (i.e. “Got some bad news this morning / Which in turn made my day”), the production more varied and interesting and Cee-Lo’s vocals have never been better. Add this to a bizarre internet download leak of the album played backwards in its entirety from the group themselves and you have one of the year’s most weirdly rewarding releases from a band that proved its beyond a mere one-hit-wonder legacy.


Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Those who said the neo-soul movement was ancient history were only half correct. It seemed fitting that the artist who helped start this budding genre would be the one to help propel it in a completely new direction. It had been eight years since Erykah Badu’s last proper album, five since her 2003 EP Worldwide Underground and fans were starting to fear Ms. Badu had gone the way of D’Angelo. New Amerykah: Part One is the first of what appears to be a series or duo of albums with Part Two: Return of the Ankh slated for release next year. The album is a hodgepodge of sounds from soul’s varied past brought to a modern, politically fueled stage. Its opening track “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like a forgotten piece of the Parliament catalogue featuring sirens, sound effects, driving funk guitar and dance rhythms unlike anything Badu has ever done before. What follows are a series of wildly varied tunes borrowing sounds and styles from damn near every genre even remotely linked to soul and R&B. “The Healer/Hip-Hop” takes the album down a notch to a dark bumping groove, while on “Me” Badu dishes out a down to earth personal message about getting old and becoming one with herself and her surroundings. New Amerykah is one of the early albums of 2008 that may have been forgotten amidst what followed it. Its release marks a new day for Badu and a radically different musical direction that is not only fascinating but also welcomed. Part One’s only flaw is that we must wait till sometime next year to see how she continues this new project.

Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós continues to release music that can’t really be described with words; it must be experienced firsthand. Much of the band’s success over the years is its blending of traditional and new sounds with lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s signature falsetto. To say that Sigur Rós is a bit of a one-note wonder may be a bit of a stretch but the fact is album after album they continue a formula that consistently works. A little ambient pop, a bit of building crescendo for each song and lyrics that are only familiar to Icelanders and sometimes solely the band itself. If one were to categorize Með suo… among Rós’ other albums it could be described as the most stripped down and folk oriented release to date. There are few songs that utilize the band’s signature bowed electric guitar sound instead the group rely on acoustics and an array of live horn arrangements. Sigur Rós will remain one of those rare groups that are embraced no matter what they put out. Ranking this album among the rest is pointless. They are band to see live, a band whose albums should be listened to whole, and preferably with good headphones, and so far the group can’t seem to go wrong.

She & Him, Vol. 1

The move from music to acting has always been an easier feat to accomplish than the opposite. Zooey Deschanel is the last person who you’d expect to be part of one of the best albums of the year but here we are. Deschanel is the She of the duo with indie darling Matt Ward wearing the shoes of Him. Together they have crafted one of the most enjoyable albums of the year–a collection of pure, unadulterated catchy throwback pop tunes. Unlike other actors making the jump to music (Scarlet Johannson’s failed Tom Waits covers album comes to mind) Deschanel has long been an amateur songwriter with a voice of gold. On Vol. 1, which is comprised of all original songs (may written when Deschanel was younger) and two memorable renditions of standards, Zooey sings of love lost, broken hearts, love found, dreams come true, and being “alone on a bicycle for two.” M. Ward’s music mixes acoustic folk rock with the big sound production of yesteryears, fully equipped with string arrangements, female backup singers and plenty of “ooooohs,” “lalalala’s,” and “oooh dum dee-das”–enough finesse to make The Supremes proud. “Sweet Darling” feels like a time capsule from the wall of sound production days, “I Thought I Saw Your Face” features some of the best whistling solos of any album this year, and the duo’s acoustic picking cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There have been many throwback albums from female artists in recent years, particularly post Amy Winehouse but none feel as honest or unique as She & Him’s debut. Deschanel and Ward have both stated in interviews that Vol. 2 is just around the corner and will be even better and it’s in the opinion of this writer that they just keep ‘em coming. 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s fitting that Nick Cave, a well-seasoned veteran who’s been writing and performing for over thirty years now is currently making some of the best records of his career. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! comes on the heels of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side project Grinderman and its eponymous debut album and is in many ways its continuation. Gritty guitar heavy garage rock married with Cave’s densely written lyrics, and Ellis’ penchant for traditional instrumentation. Cave has always been an intriguing writer with his lyrics and crooning voice being his trademark. At 51 Cave is at the peak of his talents. The album’s opening title track alludes to the tale of Lazarus set in modern day with the subsequent tracks referencing other biblical common themes–love, war, murder, sin, etc. Cave has always been a storyteller first and foremost and the tales he weaves song after song are fascinating. Venturing into the Southwest on “Albert Goes West,” and tackling the day in the life of a hooker in “Today’s Lesson.” On “We Call Upon the Authors” Cave references his influences in the literary world, fellow storytellers who use the written word to comment on the world around them. Musically Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showcases the influence that Warren Ellis has had on The Bad Seeds since his arrival in the band in the mid 90s. The multi-talented musician shines on the album’s most tender moments, primarily when he’s behind the viola and mandolin. The two have gotten closer than ever over the years having collaborated on side projects including Grinderman and two memorable film scores, most notably for The Proposition. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! may not be as personal as past Bad Seeds efforts (The Boatman’s Call comes to mind) but its refreshing testament to just how well Cave has aged and matured over the years.  

NOTABLE RUNNER UPS

The Roots, Rising Down-The talented lineup from Philly continues to release poignant, socially conscious hip hop that reflects the past and present. Musically they remain the crème of the crop in instrumental hip-hop.

Raphael Saadiq, The Way It Is-Motown harmonies and production blended with modern day, adult-themed vocals make this yet another successful throwback to the past.

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes-Stunning debut album from some of best vocalists working in the indie rock arena.

King Khan and the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines-Technically a compilation album this first official wide release from Khan and his funk star orchestra is the most fun dance record you’ll find this year. James Brown style soul combined with often slapstick dirty lyrics makes Khan a rising name in the genre bending psychedelic rock genre.

AC-DC, Black Ice-The hard rocking album Axel Rose wishes he could put out. AC-DC does, well, AC-DC, again. But it’s still some of the best sounding roadhouse rock around. 

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals-The second best dance record this year. 50 minutes of the finest mish-mosh of pop music history money can’t buy. 

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV-It was a good year for Trent Reznor. This collection of inspired instrumental cuts shows NIN is currently making the most of its independent musical freedom. 

Two albums that will undoubtedly be appreciated more with time: Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Morning Jacket’s, Evil Urges 

Best stand along song: The so good its worth buying: “I will Possess Your Heart” Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Best Underrated Release From an Underrated Musical Powerhouse: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Best Epic Album Closer of the Year: “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

 

 

The Wait Is Finally Over


It has been 27 years since Brian Eno and David Byrne released their first collaboration project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The album, a hodgepodge of recorded worldly beats and dance grooves, seemed at first like a more polarizing extension of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, but was really the lovechild of two musical geniuses. Flash-forward to 2008 and Eno and Byrne have unleashed their follow up collaboration record, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today.

The beauty of Everything that Happens is that even the casual listener, with no prior knowledge of Eno and Byrne’s history, can appreciate the album for what it is at its core – a collection of up-tempo tunes supporting socially charged lyrics about life. For music geeks the album serves as much more.
Eno and Byrne first teamed up with Talking Heads second LP, More Songs About Buildings and Food, the beginning of the band’s brilliant three record, genre-bending stint that included its follow-up Fear of Music and the aforementioned masterpiece, Remain in Light. Eno has always gone way beyond merely the title of producer. In many cases he becomes a member of the band and serves as not only an influence but also a master of deconstructing tired sounds and channeling in the new. His work on the trio of Heads records remain its finest and paved the way for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a challenging album that continued Eno and Byrne’s quest to bridge the gap between global and popular music.
Since Ghosts was released Eno and Byrne have both benefited from prosperous solo careers–Eno as the go-to producer for giants like U2 and most recently Coldplay, and Byrne releasing a handful fairly successful post Talking Heads solo projects as well as the occasional film score (his work for Bernardo Bertulucci’s The Last Emperor is breathtaking). Still while both remain household names one could argue, especially when talking about Byrne, that neither has topped their work together in the early 80s. That is until now.
During a preliminary listen Everything that Happens appears to be more tuned into Talking Heads’ early records, rather than continuing the sounds on Ghosts. Gone are the global rhythms and sampled vocals, instead we get a straightforward pop album with the Eno/Byrne touch.
ImageAccording to interviews with both artists Eno took the reigns on the majority of the music and overall sound for Everything that Happens, while Byrne focused on the lyrics. The two collaborated by phone and email, with Eno sending samples to Byrne and vice versa. Still the album never feels like a distant project between the two.
Eno and Byrne jumpstart the album with “Home” the first of many breezy tracks with bleak messages. When Byrne sings, “Heaven knows- what keeps mankind alive” and later in the chorus, “Home- where my world is breaking in two” over an upbeat tempo and dreamy guitar and synth melodies Eno and Byrne present the framework for the entire album–while things appear to be okay, there is a darker side brewing. While this album could be viewed as political (undoubtedly commenting on the current state of the world) Eno and Byrne go beyond by questioning what is happening to the human race as a whole.
“I Feel My Stuff,” one of the album’s sole dark tracks in which the dreary sound actually pairs up with the lyrical gloom, feels like a lost track from David Bowie/Eno’s 1995 urban concept album, Outside 1. On the disco turned upside down track “Strange Overtones” Byrne sings, “This groove is out of fashion /These beats are 20 years old,” and while much of the album borrows from the sounds of past projects from both artists the tracks bizarre blend of 70s soul dance grooves and gospel vocals still manages to feel fresh.
Besides being a completely addictive record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is also proof that both these artists still play at the top of their game when together. Some collaborations just plain work and the Eno/Byrne duo appear to be an unstoppable force.
If there is one fault on this album (and this coming from an extremely nitpicky point of view) it’s that Eno’s signature ethereal vocals are completely underused (he’s credited as backing vocals for only a handful of tracks) with Byrne taking the lead on all tracks. Both artists have radically unique pipes and while Byrne’s vocals during this outing have never sounded better it would have been nice to get a couple Eno tracks to mix things up. Still when it’s all said and done Eno’s compositions manage to make up for his vocal absence, not to mention his lack of creativity on past solo projects and Coldplay’s most recent album of which he produced.
David Byrne is currently starting a world tour supporting the new album that will also encompass and the entire Byrne/Eno back catalogue. While Eno has given no signs of joining his friend on the road (to be fair he’s been busy producing U2’s upcoming album) the idea of seeing Byrne take on a collection of songs like this is enough to send shivers down this writer’s spine. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is currently available as a purchasable download or a free stream exclusively from davidbyrne.com and following the current Radiohead internet trend, the album will soon be available in hard deluxe CD and LP formats. It could be that fans will have to wait another quarter century for another collaboration like this but until then we’ll have this brilliant record to tide us over.
 

Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.

Heads Makes Sense



Just how good is Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Stop Making Sense, his masterful collaboration piece with Talking Heads? Put it in your DVD player and you’ll be amazed by just how fresh and exciting the viewing experience is even twenty years since it was first unleashed on audiences.

This past weekend I revisited the film with two friends both of whom I believe were virgins to the cinema event. The duo were for the most part familiar with the band’s music–staple cuts like “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Psycho Killer” seem to be emblems of 80s pop music. After watching it with some fresh eyes at either side of me I was reminded of just how brilliant and unprecedented the film is even today.

It seems almost pointless to give Stop Making Sense even more praise than it already has collected. After all it has long been regarded as one of the finest concert films ever made, joining the ranks of Scorsese’s documentation of The Band’s final soiree in The Last Waltz, or The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. Still after revisiting the film yet again (it may be the one DVD I own that he has seen the most wear and tear) and watching at least one of my friends get lost in the performance I began to realize more than ever why this may be the finest marriage of film and music out there. 

To be fair Stop Making Sense is not exactly a concert film. Sure it was filmed over the course of three performances during the band’s tour for its hugely successful fifth album, Speaking In Tongues, but audience aside this is a conceptualized piece of art. Unlike most recorded concerts where a band plays off the audience and the sensation is supposed to mimic the feeling of being a part of the show, Stop Making Sense is about simply focusing on a band in its prime showing their musical evolution on stage. The film’s concept, which was designed by the band, lead singer David Byrne and director Jonathan Demme is nothing short of brilliant. 

Brilliance is knowing that leading off with a stripped down, perfectly performed version of the hit “Psycho Killer” (nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a electronic drum sample) can send shivers of anticipation down the viewer’s spine. Brilliance is realizing that you don’t need fancy lighting or elaborate sets to successfully perform music that has always treaded the waters of minimalism. Brilliance is envisioning that something as simple and bizarre as a thin man in an over-sized suit could become eye candy. 

From the start of Stop Making Sense it seemed almost too obvious that the film was the kind of culmination piece the band had been working up to throughout its career. Sure the band would later release three more albums following the success of Sense and Speaking In Tongues, but the material covered during this film is undoubtedly a comprehensive overlook of the band’s progression and wide range of sounds. 

Stop Making Sense starts with Heads’ leading man, David Byrne alone on stage with a guitar, a tape player and a vision. The opening opus, “Psycho Killer” is followed up with the beautiful ballad, “Heaven” with Byrne being joined by bass player and glue of the band Tina Weymouth (it’s often easy to miss just how crucial and surprisingly complex her bass lines are for all Heads songs). Drummer Chris Frantz, a musician with a freaky mastering of rhythm and time, comes out for the perfectly calculated “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” forming the band’s original lineup from its art school days.

Jerry Harrison, formerly of The Modern Lovers, joins the trio for the funkier “Found A Job,” followed by the addition of two female backup singers, a percussionist and the ultra bizarre keyboardist/sound effect wizard, Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic acclaim for “Slippery People.” By the time the final member of the lineup, the wonderfully alive rhythm guitarist Alex Weir, joins the band for “Burning Down the House,” the song sheds its radio friendly hit skin and instead serves as a testament for what the band has in store for the rest of the performance. 

The layering of sound and build up from minimalist garage rock to full-blown Afro-funk dance music perfectly mimics the band’s career and is without a doubt where the concept for the film/performance is fully realized. While the band no doubt dabbles in the genres of funk and dance the line “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco” from the masterful “Life During Wartime” is proof enough that what the Heads were doing on stage was something fresh and to this day unmatched.

Like all great bands of current and past times Talking Heads were always morphing its sound and experimenting with the possibilities. While watching the film my friend said he liked what he saw but wasn’t hesitant to point out the weirdness of not only Byrne but the whole band. He wasn’t wrong. 

The Talking Heads were a bizarre band. Byrne plays the quirky, nerd rocker persona better than most and the band’s wide range of influences–African Fela Kuti rhythm, New York garage rock/punk sounds, George Clintonesque funk and theatrics, gospel traditional vocal styling, to name a few–go against the norm of pop music of now and then.  Still it’s this uniqueness and willingness to put the art ahead of the fame that made this band so fascinating. 

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After some early hits the band could have gone the way of The Police or U2 or countless other big name acts from that period but instead they stretched the limit of their sound thus maintaining their status as quite possibly the best American band ever. Stop Making Sense is their manifesto. Behind the bizarre dance moves, the big suit, the nonsensical lyrics, the quirky synth sound effects, or the tender tango with a floor lamp there is a group of musicians playing their hearts out and revisiting the already impressive career behind them. 

Stop Making Sense is a perfectly calculated, perfectly choreographed declaration of a band that wasn’t afraid to follow its vision of what music should be and how it doesn’t always have to make sense. At the end of “Life During Wartime” Byrne briefly interacts with the rarely seen theater audience and pretty much sums up the intent of the film, the concert and the music itself when he says, “Does anyone have any questions?”