By Gene Stout
An innovator to the core, singer-songwriter David Byrne took a new approach to writing songs for his current album, "Grown Backwards."
Byrne, who started his career as frontman for the Talking Heads, hummed melodies into a micro-cassette recorder and then unscrambled the fragments to create the 15 songs in the album. It was a departure from his usual practice of adding melodies to improvised sounds and textures.
The album is an absolute delight, blending vocals, guitar, a rhythm section and strings in a madcap fusion of rock, swing, jazz and opera. It's among the best solo releases from the world's foremost "egghead" rocker, who founded indie label Luaka Bop and whose résumé includes photographer, film director and author. Two opera arias, "Un di Felice" from Verdi's La Traviata and "Au Fond Du Temple Saint" from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" (the latter featuring a duet with Rufus Wainwright), add depth and variety to an album that features 11 original songs.
Singing arias provided "the opportunity for an emotional release and catharsis -- one that opened a door that allowed some of the other songs to be written," Bryne says in a self-penned essay on the new album.
In the song "She Only Sleeps," Bryne sings playfully about dating a free-spirited stripper "who only sleeps with me." Just as fun is a version of "The Man Who Loved Beer" by Lambchop (the avant-garde country-soul band and not the TV puppet).
But Byrne is more serious in "Empire," a commentary about the state of the nation: "Young artists and writers/ Please heed the call/ What's good for business/ Is good for us all."
Though "Grown Backwards" lacks a central theme, Byrne describes the collection of songs and lyrics as an expression of "love, anger, sadness and frustration."
"There were two wars, one out of revenge and the second to consolidate oil interests," he writes. "Along with many others, I did my best to stop the second one, but it seemed inevitable and the misdirected legacy of a nation still reeling."
Bryne's tour in support of "Grown Backwards" began earlier this month and includes a concert Sunday night at Pier 62/63. Performing with Byrne is Austin's Tosca Strings, which played on album, along with album collaborators Mauro Refosco (percussion and mallet instruments) and Paul Frazier (bass), who has performed with Chic and Imani Coppola. Drummer for the tour is Graham Hawthorne, who has worked with Paul McCartney and Faith Hill.
The Tosca Strings have been playing in Austin for years, usually at the Continental, an eclectic rock, swing and alternative-country hangout known to anyone who has attended the city's annual South by Southwest music conference and festival.
Leader Glover Gill is a veteran of Austin's punk scene who, surprisingly, turned his attention to tango with the Tosca Strings and developed a following with weekly showcases at the Continental. The Tosca Strings have played with local avant-garde musicians as well as the Austin Symphony. Byrne has fully integrated them into his live show, not as "icing and sweetening," but as part of his band.