Music

Talking Heads: Talking Heads: 77 / More Songs About Buildings and Food / Fear of Music / Remain in

Zeth Lundy

Following last year's career-spanning Brick box set, the first four studio albums from the seminal art-pop band are reissued as individual DualDiscs.


Talking Heads

Talking Heads: 77More Songs About Buildings and FoodFear of MusicRemain in Light[DualDisc reissues]

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2006-01-10
UK Release Date: 2006-01-16
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Three albums and two years in, Talking Heads stood flush against a wall. They'd gotten there, to the oppressive and paranoid Fear of Music (1979), quickly and economically; they'd reached the logical end to their nerve-frayed means. If there were to be a future for this crew of three RISD students and one ex-Modern Lover, it would have to exist skyward. Up and out.

The band would take its leap of faith and find release one year later with Remain in Light, the best album it ever made; until then, there was darkness that needed confronting. Fear of Music was stifling, hyperventilating music made at the dawn of the Reagan era, a new-wave rendering of a social hypochondriac's conspiratorial rant. The utilitarian song titles -- "Mind", "Paper", "Cities", "Air", "Heaven", "Drugs" -- are low-profile attempts to draw attention away from the Big Brother ruminations within: here are secrets about your government, about your life, about futility and existence, but shhhh you didn't hear it from me... they're listening.

At times the lyrics are claustrophobic inner dialogues made audible. In "Cities", David Byrne answers his own questions in a darting, spooked-out delivery that suggests the best thing for the narrator would be to stay away from urban areas; elsewhere, they're explicitly instructional and harried, like the detailed scare tactics disseminated in "Life During Wartime": "You oughta know not to stand by the window / Somebody might see you up there." There are fleeting moments when we're compelled to believe Byrne's paranoia, like when his voice is nearly consumed by synthesizers on "Mind", every vowel sound he exhaustively hangs onto perilously exposed and at the mercy of machines.

Still, Fear of Music is an album that opens with a song of chanted nonsense ("I Zimbra"), so although the flashing red lights are everywhere, it's hard to know who we should be trusting. Since their convulsive, anxious debut, Talking Heads: 77, Talking Heads had been difficult to pin down. The music they made, jolted and nervous like that of the emerging new wave, was anything but linear: images and ideas were but part of a fleeting randomness; words resisted rhyme and endured somewhat maniacal repeating; and Byrne's vocal delivery, like that of a rabid recluse, was a bloodshot lunge of anti-pop. Bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz were, along with Byrne, students from the Rhode Island School of Design who, after forming the band, packed up and headed off to New York City. They didn't look like rockers or punks were expected to look in 1977; they dressed up in deceptive normality, in plaid shirts and lecture-attending attire, even when opening for the leather-clad Ramones at NYC's famed CBGB club.

After picking up Jerry Harrison from Jonathon Richman's Modern Lovers, Talking Heads released Talking Heads: 77 in the fall of the same year. It was an album built on an alien, eccentric group characteristic, one that was simultaneously herky-jerky, prickly, and funny. Amid the thorny guitars, 77 is stuffed with boasts ("I've been to college, I've been to school / I've met the people that you read about in books" goes one of the first admissions in "Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town"), non sequiturs ("Don't Worry About the Government" is about...buildings?), and the downright bizarro ("Psycho Killer" being one of the oddest songs to ever find a place in classic rock radio rotation -- proving that your weirdness will be unconditionally embraced as long as it comes with a catchy hook). There was also evidence of the band's gale-force live show in songs like "Pulled Up", which matched the rhythm section's groove obsession with Byrne's unpredictable vocals careening off the rails.

1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food (its title a self-referential jab at 77 and the sophomore album "syndrome") sounds like the work of a band that suddenly got it: the quirks and the tugs are more calculated, the twitching ends come together and fuse into one gyrating whole. Suddenly the lil' arty band-that-could possessed a sense of purpose, as if it were on a road to somewhere. Recorded in the Bahamas, More Songs About Building and Food was Talking Heads' first collaboration (of many) with producer Brian Eno, who helped rein in their panicky sound. The opening track "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel", for example, carries the wound-up tension of 77, but the nervousness is cleanly taut. The chord changes are announced in little Townshendian gestures, windmills that explode like awakened synapses -- but it's never big music (Frantz's militaristic drum pattern pays no mind to it all, as he never touches a cymbal for the song's entire two minutes). The looming chorus of "The Good Thing" is executed in robotic cadences; even the lines themselves ("A straight line exists between me and the good things / I have found the line and its direction is known to me") are clinical and eerily matter-of-fact.

Whether it was under the influence of Eno, the album's geographical setting, or merely the band's influences, funk began to emanate from Talking Heads: songs like "Found a Job", "Artists Only", and "I'm Not in Love" were dictated by wiry punches, and the left-field cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" implied that the band had more than pieces of New York's punk scene in its fractured head. The explicit R&B connection that "Take Me to the River" made was perhaps a way to validate the band's decisive branching-out; its wooden-legged rhythm and somewhat zealous intensity were both obsessive and detached, giving the band (perhaps unexpectedly) its first hit single.

By the time they made it to Remain in Light (1980), Talking Heads had thoroughly integrated numerous elements of African music into their own. Repetitive electric guitar motifs (reminiscent of Afropop), polyrhythmic percussion, and multi-voiced melodies in unison are as central to the album's sound as Byrne's idiosyncratic songs. "Born Under Punches (The Beat Goes On") and "Crosseyed and Painless" use the foundations of African and American funk music as liberators, not constrictors (which was perhaps Fear of Music's inaccessible mistake) -- as a result, they're bigger, more breathtaking loops of expressive pulsations. "Houses in Motion" and "Seen and Not Seen" are more reserved instances of this newfound freedom; the band had learned that subtle, airtight vamps didn't necessarily require a stranglehold to build tension. If Talking Heads harbored hopes of transforming themselves into a new definition of an R&B band, then Remain in Light was the closest they ever got to realizing that goal.

Byrne's lyrics are as obtuse and impressionistic as always on Remain in Light, but he had become increasingly preoccupied with the concept of shape-shifting -- relevant, no doubt, to Talking Heads' continued transformation. The very first line of the album ("Take a look at these hands") is not only an invitation, but a self-conscious narrative awakening. The line is repeated numerous times, as if Byrne himself can't quite believe what he's seeing. Later, Byrne notes that he "lost [his] shape" and is "changing [his] shape"; he's "walking a line" in a consciousness where "facts all come with points of view...facts just twist the truth around". The spoken word monologue in "Seen and Not Seen" describes the altering of appearances through some kind of visual osmosis or intense willpower. The most famous instance of this acknowledgment of transformation is "Once in a Lifetime", which spawned the iconic big-suit video, a question-heavy meditation on what's real, what's only perceived as real, and, most importantly, what's changed, all played out over a gurgling backing track that bubbles with a similar curiosity.

Here, at the moment of Talking Heads' first major reinvention, they still thirst for answers and hunger for reasons; at the height of a fertile three-year period, the band plays as though all of its discoveries were only mere clues leading to an even greater revelation. Whether or not they lost the thread following their next album, Speaking in Tongues (which, incidentally, took them three years to make), is up for debate. It's also irrelevant. As their first four albums demonstrate, Talking Heads had already found something wholly indefinable by 1980, something instigated by quirk, stimulated by fear, and liberated by possibility.

Following last year's career-spanning Brick box set (which replaced the cumbersome Once in a Lifetime box from 2003), Rhino Records is now releasing all of the Talking Heads' albums as individual DualDiscs. The first four albums discussed here have just hit shelves with the final four to arrive in one month. Per usual, the Rhino editions present a considerable upgrade in both audio quality and packaging, especially considering that Talking Heads' catalog had previously only been available on CD as horribly outdated, flat transfers. The fidelity sounds resurrected, or at least revitalized, ushering crucial bass lines to the front of the mix (the booming bass of "I Zimbra" had been inaudible on the original CD transfer), making the punchy bits punchier (both 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food snap like untouched elastic), and, in the case of Fear of Music and Remain in Light, allowing the mixes to breath. There isn't a wealth of new bonus tracks included: songs like "Love --> Building on Fire" and "Sugar on My Tongue" have already been made available on past collections, while alternate versions of a few songs from More Songs and Fear of Music are unfocused and impenetrable, respectively. The DVD sides of the DualDiscs offer, in addition to the now-trendy 5.1 surround sound mixes, a few live videos per disc, most of which are viciously relentless. Regardless, the extras here are supplemental, incidental stuff, taking a backseat to the original albums themselves.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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