52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?

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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.

Viva El Eno


An anxious nation can officially be put to rest. This past week Coldplay, planet Earth’s favorite big emotional sound troupe, officially announced some details regarding its “highly” anticipated fourth studio album. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is a mouthful of a record title especially when compared to 2005s oh so subtle, X&Y. The album is set for a mid June release with tracks ranging from the spooky sounding “Cemeteries of London,” the mysterious “Lost!” and the possibly philosophy riddled “Glass of Water.” Half full or half empty Mr. Martin?

I admittedly found Coldplay’s first two endeavors–2000s “Parachutes” and 2004s titanic release “A Rush of Blood to the Head”–to be rather enjoyable. Sure tracks like “Yellow” and “Clocks” were almost too catchy and quickly became poison to the ears after radio stations continued to spin the record raw but both albums as a whole were pretty solid. If you were to put all the mega stardom and celebrity buzz over babies named after pieces or produce aside Coldplay have always done pure unadulterated pop music well.

I suppose what eventually turned me off was the band’s popularity explosion immediately following Rush. When the eagerly awaited X&Y was finally unveiled in 2005 not only did the mediocre third act sound like merely more of the same or an entire album set out to emulate a blockbuster like “Clocks” but its unnecessary media buzz was more of a buzz kill.

So why even write about Coldplay? Why devote an entire column to some recent tidbits about the band’s upcoming fourth album? The answer is simple: Eno.

Comparisons have always been made between Coldplay and groups like Radiohead or U2. While a more appropriate Coldplay link would be to Brit pop acts like The Stone Roses or Oasis, Chris Martin’s bleak but fairly uninspired lyrics always seem to bunch the band into the former group. On Viva la Vida… (seriously what’s with the title? What about Frida Kahlo interests Mr. Martin?) ambient sound pioneer Brian Eno stepped in as producer a move that not only raises the album’s intrigue from blah to BLAH? but also brings the band closer to U2s career path.

ImageEno was at one point (and, quite frankly, still is) the producer to work with. During the 1970s and 80s he overlooked some of the greatest albums ever made by some music’s finest acts. Bowie’s avant-garde Berlin Trilogy, a handful of Talking Heads’ masterpieces, Devo’s premiere record, and of course U2s unadulterated run of album greats starting with 1984s The Unforgettable Fire and ending with 1993s overlooked Zooropa, all received that Eno touch. 

One would hope that Coldplay’s decision to take on Eno as a producer shows that the band is ready for a change. Eno has always been a master of taking an artist or band and helping them find a new direction. Case in point, U2s Achtung Baby(1991). Undoubtedly Bono and company’s most sophisticated and musically interesting record to date, the album helped the band enter their second decade with a new slate to work on. He even helped the band accomplish this same feat entering the new millennium with the fresh and highly popular, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

People often say that Eno is the go-to man for acquiring that worldly sound. African drums, bizarre instrumentation, and layered rhythms seem to be his forte. While this is partially true (he did help David Byrne channel his inner Afro-pop demons during Talking Heads magnificent album progression in the early 1980s) Eno is more attuned to helping musicians take that next big step from mass appreciation to critical appreciation. In the case of U2 he helped the band find both.

In many ways Viva la Vida will be a test to see if Coldplay can propel itself from merely soft pop rock stardom to a band willing to take risks no matter what the costs are. They could make and remake the some album rooted in “Clocks”esque anthems for another ten years and they would no doubt still sell millions of records and continue to fill arenas. The ultimate question though is how will they ultimately be viewed by future music fans and critics writing their columns for the best acts of the early millennium? Where will Coldplay fit in rock and roll history?

According to a press release of the new album on Coldplay’s website:

“The sights, sounds and flavours of Latin America and Spain have definitely been infused into this album…No maracas or castanets, but a vibrancy and colourfulness that owes much to the atmospheres of Buenos Aires and Barcelona. The effect is subtle but important.”

There you have it. Subtle but important. The question now is can singer/songwriter Chris Martin shed his unnecessary knack for depressing lyrics (you’re married to Gwyneth Paltrow, you probably have more money than the Queen and you get to tour the world playing recycled keyboard licks, why such a glum disposition sir?)? Will this spicy new direction work for the band? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

I was talking to a very good friend of mine about the band. Unlike myself he has always stood by all things Coldplay. WhenX&Y’s single “Fix You” was leaked on the internet its play count on his iTunes library stretched into the 1000s (to be fair he used to leave the emotional ballad on a repeat loop at night. Nothing like a little cushy Brit pop to lull you to sleep). His argument has always been Coldplay’s music sounds good and it’s consistent. Shouldn’t interesting music steer clear of consistency? Aren’t the ones who take risks the true greats?

For this column I went and revisited X&Y on his recommendation just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Sure enough I didn’t miss anything. That said, I’m still interested to see what this new album has in store for the band if anything because they are a hard super-force to ignore. Plus as a fan of Eno there is a spark of hope that maybe Coldplay was just testing the waters with their first couple albums. Who knows, with Viva la Vida maybe the band followed the oh-so-wise Monty Python motto, ‘and now for something completely different.’

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?”

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)


Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995’s To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949’s Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959’s Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979’s Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.