By The Kansas City Star
Ex- Talking Head Proves It's Better to Byrne Out Than Fade Away:
The first song Talking Heads covered with distinction was Al Green's "Take Me to the River," a natural fit for a band that made dance songs for people who frequent museums.
That was in 1978, on "More Songs About Buildings and Food," the band's second album. David Byrne didn't have to explain the Al Green cover, but 26 years later he does need to justify a few covers on his latest solo album, "Grown Backwards." One is "The Man Who Loved Beer," by the sad-core band Lambchop – another good fit lyrically and musically.
The two others, however, are more conspicuous: "Un di felice eterea" from "La Traviata" by Giuseppe Verdi and "Au fond du temple saint" from "Les Pêcheurs de Perles" ("The Pearl Fishers") by Georges Bizet, which Byrne sings as a duet with Rufus Wainwright.
"I heard the Verdi opera," Byrne told The Star recently, "and I thought this piece was a really beautiful, catchy tune. It was overflowing with emotions and feelings. I couldn't imagine that I could write something so beautiful. So I decided to try and imagine it as sort of a pop song without adding anything like electronic beats or turning it into something it's not."
"Then I thought, 'Well, if I do one I've got to do another, or it's going to look like a complete aberration.' Once can be interpreted as an accident; two means you meant to do it. I had in my computer 'The Pearl Fishers' duet, another incredible tune."
"When I was considering who might be available to sing it with me, Rufus was really the super-obvious choice. He lives in town, and he's a huge opera fan. So I called him up, and he said, yes, he knew it, and he would let me hear his favorite version, and he'd help me with my French."
Musician as listener:
Anyone who has been following Byrne since he refashioned American soul knows he's not the type to stand still and wait for ideas to tap his shoulder. In fact, he's more likely to turn left sharply, without signaling or braking. After "Buildings and Food," the Heads released "Fear of Music" and "Remain in Light," Byrne's earliest experiments with rock and African music. Not long after that, Byrne hooked up with Brian Eno and toyed with the musique concrète techniques of composer Steve Reich. Then he wrote an album's worth of music for choreographer Twyla Tharp.
So tinkering with Verdi and collaborating with the Tosca Strings, who play on "Backwards," shouldn't be much of a risk, even for a guy best known for deadpan post-punk whimsy like "Psycho Killer" and "Pulled Up." But Byrne acknowledged that he pauses to consider what his listeners are going to think.
"It occurs to me a little bit during the process," he said. "But only a little bit. It occurred a lot to other people who were thinking about things like radio play and marketing. I was more concerned that the record fit together as a whole, that those two pieces in particular didn't stand out as complete aberrations."
But an aberration can exist only where there is a pattern, and the only discernible patterns in his career came during a couple of phases of the Heads' 11-year reign. His career since then has been one long and winding journey. Like every guy who goes solo and leaves behind the band that made him famous, Byrne speaks lukewarmly about his past and what it means to him today. He recently helped with the CD debut of "The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads," the band's beloved live album.
“Because it was first released on vinyl, there were space limitations,” he said. “It was nice to do it right, to be able to include stuff that had to be cut or edited. Listening to it again was fine. I like the record, and I'm proud of what we did. But I don't sit around and listen to our old music for pleasure. Sometimes when you're the musician, it becomes a different listening experience.”
Fans who see him perform on the "Grown Backwards" tour will get a dose of Heads music, Byrne said — "about a third of the show"— but they'll also get lots of solo material. Byrne swears it's just what his most loyal fans want.
"I'm aware that many want to hear ‘Burning Down the House,' but I've also found that they don't want to hear just that,” he said. “They tend to go along with the new stuff and absorb it and react to it. I mean, it's not like everyone starts talking or running to the bar when I play something they don't know real well. Half the time they start dancing to it."
Byrne, who turned 52 in May, said he has a few vague ideas about what kind of music he wants to put on his next record but nothing concrete. Chances are it'll fall somewhere between Al Green and Giuseppe Verdi. Or maybe not.
In "Glass, Concrete and Stone," the lead track on "Backwards," he sounds like a guy with no roots and a commitment to change: "My bags are down and packed/For traveling/Looking at happiness/Keeping my flavor fresh …"