Synapse SUMMER 1979 - by Colin Gardner


One problem when a group of art school friends form a band is that critics immediately jump to categorise their music as artsy, clever, or often, pretentious. Alternately, earnest art purists immediately wonder why they are no longer creating visual art. Music seems to be merely a second best, an admission of failure, a selling out into commercialism. Of course one could argue that in music they are simply finding another form of expression, as valid as visual art, and in the case of tape collage, plastic also.

Talking Heads manage to break down these dogmatic categorisations, although they too are not without their detractors. Based in New York, they have toured the club circuit, originally as a trio, played with bands such as Blondie at CBGBs, and in some ways seem to derive from the "school" of music that produced The Velvet Underground and Television. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, was considered to be one of the best LPs of that year, largely on the accessibility of the very popular Psycho Killer. Led by vocals/guitarist David Byrne, the band combined solid riffs, catchy melodies, idiosyncratic vocals, and fascinating lyrics by Byrne. Don't Worry About The Government, for example, portrayed Civil Servants as humans too: "Just like my loved ones"; and extolled the conveniences of highways and buildings.

With their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, they have advanced remarkably under the production of Brian Eno. Recorded at the Compass Point Studios in The Bahamas, the basic tracks were laid down live in just five days. Another month and a great deal of care was then spent on overdubs and mixing, guided largely by Eno's Oblique Strategies system of random experimentation.

The most immediate impact of the band is David Byrne's voice. It is completely unique, and although he occasionally sounds like Bryan Ferry, he gives the band its unmistakable sound, built upon a stuttering, shouting hiccup. The songs appear to be very complex, with constant changes of pace and colouring, yet beneath the surface the rhythm section of Chris Frantz (drums), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards and guitar) is basically funk oriented. Indeed, the backing tracks on this album could easily accompany James Brown or Wilson Pickett, and Byrne's lead guitar often reinforces this. Thus the songs have a great deal of rhythmic attack, tempered and modified by the fragmented mosaic of the melodies. In this way Talking Heads' sound seems simultaneously dense and minimal.

Eno's production has been geared towards taking each idea as far as it will go before it collapses under its own weight. This has led to a vast number of ideas per minute, each cut being a concise synthesis of something that could easily be twice its length. This often saturates the listener and we wish for a breathing space in order to take stock of what we have heard. For the most part however, we are carried along successfully through the musical changes, although this album takes repeated listenings to gain familiarity. Once achieved, it is difficult to take it off the turntable. Eno plays synthesizer on most of the tracks and has treated many of the instruments, particularly the drums. synthesizer is used largely as a melodic reinforcement, creating a denser sound, although occasionally it provides a percussive rhythm.

The lyrical philosophy behind the album seems to be directly out of Samuel Smiles' Self Help, a nineteenth century tome advocating self improvement through hard work and determination. Thus The Good Thing is essentially about strength: "Straight line exists between me and the good thing / I have found the line and its direction is known to me / Absolute trust keeps me going in the right direction / Any intrusion is met with a heart full of the good thing."

The song is built around a pleasant guitar riff and Tina Weymouth's bass, with a warbling chorus provided by "Tina and the Typing Pool" that in some ways sounds like a Gregorian Chant. As Byrne sings, "As we economise, efficiency is multiplied" - "Watch me work", so the band goes to work also, building up the rhythm as Byrne and Jerry Harrison's guitars mesh in duet.

If the bands philosophy can be summed up in one song it would be Found A Job. A couple argue over the bad reception on a TV show, "Fighting over little things and wasting precious time". Then they decide to do something practical about it and start their own shows. Now, "Judy's in the bedroom, inventing situations". Thus, by taking charge of your own life and doing something about it instead of complaining, you can advance into wider fields - ie. self help. Byrne sings in an earnest, aggravated style over a funk-dominated rhythm, before the song breaks into an extended ending (in contrast to the economy of the other songs) featuring the percussive synthesizers of Eno and Harrison, sounding very much like a Jamaican steel band. The tightness of this song is phenomenal considering that the final take was a rehearsal.

Many of the tracks feature electronic effects. Warning Sign, for example, features considerable echo on Byrne's voice as he imitates a loud speaker announcement - "Warning sign! Hear my voice! It's saying something that's not very nice. Pay attention!" The drums are treated to produce a tinny, but dulled sound, combining with a solid, bass-built riff to produce a sinister, totalitarian feel to the song. Girls Want To Be With The Girls has treated guitar and some phasing alongside Eno'synthesizer.

Perhaps the most interesting autobiographical song is Artists Only, a self-persuasive lyric about the creative process. "I'm painting, I'm painting OK. Cleaning my brain". The track builds upon a simple organ melody with guitar lines very reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive, particularly with the driving bass, which could easily be played by Roger Waters. The vocal is very earnest, almost paranoid, as Byrne asserts, "I don't have to prove I am creative". He informs us that pretty soon he will be better, and not to worry, because all his pictures are confused.

The commercial highlight of the album is a rendering of Al Green's classic Take Me To The River, which, given the band's preoccupation with funk rhythm, is not a surprising choice of song. It is slightly slower than the original and more obviously built around the bass. Chris Frantz's drums are, as ever, simply effective, and in this case treated, while Harrison's organ pounds a percussive accompaniment. Byrne's voice is a little slight for this type of song; we wish for an Otis Redding to take the vocals by the scruff of the neck, but musically it is excellent and a welcome change of pace from the rest of the album which, if it is to be faulted, suffers from an over-concentration of songs of similar tempo.

The album closes with The Big Country, Byrne's view of suburbia from an airplane window: "I see the shapes I remember from maps", "A baseball diamond - nice weather down there. Place to park by the factories and buildings". After painting a smug picture of comfortable life, reinforced by a pleasant, slow riff on a slide guitar, he pulls the matt from under us: "I wouldn't live there if you paid me. No sirree". He would rather Stay Hungry.