Not for the Faint of Heart
I’m not exactly sure how I discovered punk rock in high school. I remember attending a big radio-sponsored festival and a couple of Warped tours and catching bands like the Phunk Junkeez, NOFX, Fishbone, Rocket from the Crypt, L7, Butthole Surfers, and, on two different occasions, Sublime (although I did fall asleep during the first one). But I never truly followed any of these bands. I think the light may finally have dawned on me at one of the all ages shows at the Raven in Denver, Colorado, where $5 bought admission to see 5 punk bands: a parade of dyed liberty spikes, strange piercings, local punk zines, and the biggest disco ball west of the Mississippi. At these shows I saw some of the era’s best (and worst) underground punk acts, including Swinging Udders, AFI, Bouncing Souls, the Queers, and the Suicide Machines. My love of live music was thus born.
My tastes quickly turned to other genres. Punk rock brought me to ska-punk, which in turn led to other flavors of ska, followed by swing music, ’60s jazz, late ’70s fusion jazz and funk, Phish, ambient house (the Orb), minimalism (Steve Reich), classical, jazzy house, deep house, and, finally, Wilco and alt-country. Lately, I’m almost back where I started, as I find myself once more really liking modern indie-rock. Yet, throughout this whole genre journey, only one band has stayed in consistent rotation: Talking Heads.
I had heard Talking Heads on the radio occasionally, but it was only after a high school friend gave me tapes with “Psycho Killer” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” that I really got hooked and started to dig deeper into their catalog. While I think Speaking in Tongues might be the band’s best album, it’s the first side of Remain in Light that, at least for me, has come to define the ingenuity of Brian Eno, David Byrne, and company. The three songs that comprise the first side of the album, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”, “Crosseyed and Painless”, and “The Great Curve”, sound incredibly fresh today, more than 25 years after their initial release. All three follow a similar musical theme, but don’t easily fit into any one specific genre. These three songs demonstrated music that could groove and rock decades before the Rapture or LCD Soundsystem dreamed up dance-punk.
A sense of paranoia emanates from the first few notes of “Born Under Punches”, and this tension holds up through the entire first side of the album. Electronic talking drums and the Heads’ trademark clean rhythm guitar combine to create a flawlessly danceable beat. With one of most uniquely eerie bass lines in rock history, and David Bryne making strange animal calls and noises before shouting, “Take a look at these hands”, this is not pop music for the faint of heart.
The underlying groove continues for the entire song, layering more rhythmic elements between abstract lyrics, an incredible noise oriented synth solo, and more vocal squeaks and squawks. There is no verse/chorus structure, just the repeated singing of “and the heat goes on”. Despite lack of a guitar hook and very little vocal melody, “Born Under Punches” still manages to be incredibly catchy.
The energetic grooves get deeper on “Crosseyed and Painless”, driven by a continuous cowbell pattern, sparse bass line, and overdubbed guitar. Again we see noise elements stressed over melody, as embodied in a guitar “solo” using effects instead of fret board dexterity to create texturing against the percussive beat. And the lyrics are Byrne at his finest: “The island of doubt / It’s like the taste of medicine”, “I’m changing my shape / I feel like an accident”, and the infamous “Facts are…” list.
The final song, “The Great Curve”, pushes this theme of unwavering groove further, adding horn blasts, Adrian Belew’s wailing guitar solo, and several sections of rhythmic vocal counterpoint which manage to layer four simultaneous vocal parts without bogging down the rhythm section.
The real genius of these songs is how seamlessly they fuse Brian Eno’s idea for a totally new kind of pop music made of seemingly disparate styles (see Another Green World) with Talking Heads’ concept of groove-oriented music that could rock, while avoiding ego-fueled guitar soloing (see the origins on “I Zimbra”, “Cities”, and “Life During Wartime” from Fear of Music). Unlike Another Green World, the songs here don’t feel experimental; the ideas are fully realized. The large, multi-piece, percussion-backed band first used by the Heads to a limited degree on Fear of Music seems completely developed here. The compositions work for the entire ensemble; there is no feeling of simply adding an extra part to an already established band. The grooves are tight and dense while maintaining a human looseness often lost in modern computer-created dance music. This gives the music a timeless character — for instance, played a few BPM fast, the beat from “Born Under Punches” is practically modern house, and “Crosseyed and Painless” becomes drum ‘n’ bass. I think this is the reason Talking Heads have always found a place in my stereo through all of my musical listening phases. They are able to embody the energy of punk rock, employ the layering of minimalism, use the synths and processing of electronic music, draw on the energy of a large diverse band like late ’70s Miles Davis fusion, and keep a dance edge. The spirit of the music is matched by Byrne’s abstract lyrics often repeating simple phrases for extended periods. Each of the three tracks fades out without a clear end, giving the sense that the songs could go on endlessly.
During the last few years of musical developments and throwbacks, these questions keep coming up: What is rock music that you can dance to? What is dance music that rocks? These three songs may have some answers.
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Jesse Miller plays bass for Lotus, which is currently touring the US and Japan in support of their new album The Strength of Weak Ties, which has been described as “[digging] deep into musical connections and explores where the familiar meets foreign — glitch-hop programming meets rock ‘n’ roll drums, overdriven guitars meet overdriven synthesizers, primitive drum machines meet funky back beats, and post-rock meets electronica.” (from band website) [multiple songs at MySpace]
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