By Steve Klinge
The signs point toward a pretentious disaster: On Grown Backwards, David Byrne enlists Austin, Texas' Tosca Strings, classically trained musicians, as his primary backing band. He sings two opera arias, one with Rufus Wainwright. And for the most part, he skirts the funky grooves he's been exploring since his Talking Heads days.
However, this is no vanity project - it's a lighthearted, occasionally satiric romp.
On past solo albums, Byrne's ironic non sequiturs could seem forced or superficial, but this disc is full of amusing observations set to tightly constructed melodies and plucky strings.
"Glass, Concrete & Stone" compares the surface materials of "a house, not a home" to the "skin/ that covers me from head to toe/ except a couple tiny holes/ and openings." "Civilization," with They Might Be Giants' John Linnell on accordion, considers dinner-table etiquette as a means of seduction. "Empire" is a condemnation of Darwinian politics set to a fanfare courtesy of jazz iconoclast Carla Bley's big band.
By keeping the focus on the songs rather than conceptual trappings, Byrne has created his best solo album.