INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express OCTOBER 25, 1980 - by Max Bell
TALKING HEADS: REMAIN IN LIGHT
Byrne and Eno enlist extra hands for a rewarding trip into ambient African funk
The desire to (re)discover the African continent has been burning deep in the bowels of curious imagination ever since the New York Herald packed Mr Stanley off in search of Livingstone with nothing more to sustain him than a packet of cheese sandwiches and a compass.
The white man's burden? Could be, but even those Caucasian settlers who missed Rorke's Drift have remained fascinated by the spell of the place. Colonisers, politicians, anthropologists, missionaries and now musicians flock to Africa in an effort to test its pulse, many of them ending up defeated by the process; one doesn't like to sound churlish, but most of these cultural attachés were about as good for Africa as Cecil Rhodes.
In recent times the Back To Africa movement has raised its head from a gamut of different positions, in Rasta's spiritual journey to roots and now in the lighter-tinted efforts of folk like Brian Eno, David Byrne and their collaborations for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, as well as this new Talking Heads album - Remain In Light.
A memorandum from Byrne intended for the reviewing fraternity (I think) makes it clear that: "This record is the product of the studio and interest in African rhythms and sensibilities." Byrne goes on to explain that the album was prepared according to an improvisational framework, eschewing the practice of jamming and soloing in order to develop "skills and attitudes... an understanding of African musical concepts, of interlocking and interdependent parts and rhythms." The memorandum finishes by recommending a select bibliography of African-related texts, themselves concomitant with the gist of NME's recent interview with Brian Eno. I was unable to secure these volumes over the weekend.
Initial familiarity with the record has disappointed those people who locked onto Fear Of Music so readily; the new attitude seems to deliberately play down Talking Heads' evolving tension in favour of a broader, enigmatic and ambient funk - its hard core extracted over a selection of chants and barely modulated moods that have been par for Eno's course at least since the days of Here Come The Warm Jets - and can readily be pinpointed by anyone familiar with the work of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and George Clinton on the one hand or Can, Berlioz and Wendy Carlos on the other.
The implied raison d'être of the record - to strike a blow for highlife timbres - falters on the grounds that more than ever Byrne and Eno are cracking the whips while our old pals, the Talking Heads, blend into the background along with an invited cast of technical experts, Adrian Belew, José Rossy, Jon Hassell. The subjugation of this personality is further proved by the band's recent live appearances where Bernie Worrell and Busta "Cherry" Jones (a long-time Eno associate) have been drafted in to supplement rations. Whither Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth in the current regime?
In fact a steadier appraisal of Remain In Light does uncover a host of hypnotic ideas, tentatively linked to Byrne's concept of guerilla freedom fighters and government men overcome by their environment. The old monosyllabic textures of Fear Of Music have been transplanted into a smoother setting, but even so the sounds of the former band are recognisable eventually, bubbling against the primary colours of percussion and electronic treatment.
The opening Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) takes the fade of Life During Wartime and I Zimbra as a beginning, with Byrne exiled from some Graham Greene entertainment, intoning in his customary intelligent insane way, "Take a look at these hands!" Meanwhile foreign bodies bleep and jump to the fore, approaching a strong funk that you last heard at length on One Nation Under A Groove.
Staying in the disco (with brains) is Cross Eyed And Painless, a sublime synthesis of frothing rhythms (Fenders and drums), a cloying harmony from Eno and one of Byrne's engagingly tetchy monologues on the unwieldy nature of facts.
The Great Curve, which closes Side One, grapples with a potentially lethal exposition of African sensuality, finding the world in a woman's hips, anthropomorphic motions, listening to the earth beat. It's heady stuff that induces a pleasant surrender until Adrian Belew chips in with the record's only two traditional solos, both of them having more in common with rock'n'roll than is good for the track - though there can be no argument about the effect of the side as a whole. Talking Heads' psychedelic hoovering musicians kick up a hedonistic dust storm that enthralls and excites just as surely as it doesn't go far enough to induce the intended sense of abandonment.
Side Two is made up of five related episodes, all of them linked to the power of the elements. Byrne's western terrorist persona is found questioning his domestic and financial values in the light of the African experience. Once In A Lifetime puts him in deep water, rather like Eliot's peaceful but very dead Phoenician, while Eno and the cast set up a Greek chorus of call and response, simulating the ocean blues and echoing snatches of Take Me To The River.
Houses In Motion contrasts this simple permanence with the man on the move bereft of "style or grace... digging his own grave". Byrne chants/talks this lyric over a building tempo of clavinet, formula funk guitars and Jon Hassell's ethereal horn arrangement. Your own body will tell you how good that feels.
The spoken technique doesn't suit Seen And Not Seen so immediately; the subject matter, concerning the ability to transform physical attributes by will power in order to take on another ideal appearance, may have some resonance for other cultures but its overtones of self-obsession and pride are too cumbersome here to convince.
The album's closing songs, Listening Wind and The Overload, both of which make a substantial nod at Can's Soon Over Babaluma, are perhaps the most intriguing moments on a side of music which strips off its early dance rhythms and re-places them into a beautifully visual and cinematic context. Listening Wind may be the most complex song that Byrne has yet written. It certainly stands as the pivotal point on what is undoubtedly a transitional record. The protagonist, a noble savage type who communes with the breeze, is fired with an instinctive desire to rid his locale (could be anywhere from Kinshasa to Phnom Penh) of the Yankee imperialists. The tone is strangely optimistic and sad at the same time, implying the death of those qualities which will eventually persuade the Third World nations to overthrow their oppressors (the strange rumblings in The Overload are not just an uprising in spirit).
Without wishing to burden Remain In Light with any further critical lumber, it is obvious that the Talking Heads, whatever they are now, have attempted something enterprising and fresh - the signposts are clear enough to direct them into new spaces. Given time to lower preconceptions and heighten senses, I found myself overtaken by an album of brave intentions and haunting textures.
Safari, so good.