Global Rhythm JANUARY 30, 2006 - by Phil Freeman


The Brick

Talking Heads' complete studio catalogue has been reissued as a strange-looking object. It's a boxed set, sure; but until the shrink-wrap's broken, it's also a weapon, made of hard white plastic with sharp corners and a nice heft in the palm. As with so many things, of course, it's what's on the inside that counts, and inside are eight albums, at least three of which were, for their time, somewhat groundbreaking importations of world music into brainy rock.

The first two Heads discs, Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings And Food, are good enough, for what they are. The tunes are somewhat catchy, and David Byrne's naïve yelp gives the quotidian observations of his lyrics some extra impact. But on the third disc, Fear Of Music, they start to seem like they're onto something. They bring in Brian Eno as producer, and he tosses some psychedelic African ideas at them, particularly on opening cut I Zimbra. The band chants nonsense over a rhythm that's busier and more interesting than almost anything they've played before; it sounds not only unlike their back catalogue, but unlike anything else in American rock. Fear Of Music also contains one of their most anthemic songs (Life During Wartime) and possibly their most starkly beautiful (Heaven).

Remain In Light, the fourth disc in the box, is the gleaming diamond of the Talking Heads discography. It's also the album on which their (or maybe just David Byrne's and Brian Eno's) fascination with African rhythms and tonalities really came to the fore. The choppy guitar chords, often provided by guest Adrian Belew (who'd backed David Bowie and King Crimson, sometimes in collaboration with Eno), stole riffs and feel from juju and Afrobeat; the female backup vocals also recalled Fela's sardonic Greek chorus of wives and girlfriends. Peter Gabriel was working with similar ideas at the same time; there are strong links between, say, The Overload from Remain In Light and San Jacinto on Gabriel's 1982 self-titled album (AKA Security). Lyrically, too, Byrne is moving out of his comfort zone of neurotic New Yorkers and their anxieties, and beginning to attempt to look at the world through others' eyes, as on Listening Wind, the story of a terrorist attempting to force Americans out of his country.

After Remain In Light, though, Talking Heads retreated back into American musical forms. They explored funk on Speaking In Tongues, and mixed country, gospel and New Wave, to limited success, on their next two discs, Little Creatures and True Stories. Only on their final studio album, Naked, did they once again attempt to blend their own music with the sounds of the larger world, and while some of the gentle tropical grooves are pleasant enough (Nothing But Flowers, Mr. Jones), the album as a whole is still somewhat disappointing.

The biggest disappointment of the box, though, is that it limits itself to studio recordings. As great as Remain In Light was, its songs really came to life in performance, so the best way to hear them is the double-disc The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, released last year, also by Rhino. Tracks like Houses In Motion and Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) gain a staggering rhythmic power, virtually forcing the listener's body to react in a way that the sometimes overly processed and thought-out studio versions don't.

Talking Heads' studio albums are being issued individually, in two sets of four. Talking Heads: 77, More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light are out now; Speaking In Tongues, Little Creatures, True Stories and Naked will be released on February 14. The best bet for the casual consumer is simply to grab Remain In Light and The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, with Fear Of Music, Speaking In Tongues and the expanded reissue of Stop Making Sense (another live album, this one from the 1983 tour supporting Tongues) as chasers.