By Jim Farber
Everyone knows one plus one equals two. But what if it sometimes adds up to three?
That’s sort of what happened with the surprising new collaboration between Talking Head legend David Byrne and New York indie darling Annie Clark, who goes under the stage name St. Vincent.
The inventive disc they’ve just released (“Love This Giant”) may honor the quirks of the stars’ different styles. But they’ve twisted them into a third thing that sounds nothing like any music either artist has released before.
The eureka element of “Giant” isn’t Byrne's bemused style, or Clark’s fanciful one, but the punch provided by a full 26-piece section of brass. They cheerfully barge into every track, adding brusque and exciting punctuations. “Horns are so versatile,” Clark says. “They have so many colors.”
Which explains why the stars will bring eight of them to their joint shows at the Beacon Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The idea for the onslaught of saxes, tubas and French horns started with Clark. “It seemed like, in a collaboration, we needed a way to focus our energies,” she says.
Byrne fell for the notion right away. “I liked the fact that it confined the album to one sound universe,” he says. “Also, I thought, ‘Ooh nice, this will make it distinct from a St. Vincent record or from one of my own.’”
Though Byrne has employed horn sections during his ever-changing range of projects, they’ve never had the density and breadth of this brass attack. Interestingly, neither star plays any brass instruments. “We like to watch,” Byrne says.
The origin of the project came through a seemingly random suggestion. The two stars ran into each other at a collaborative concert between Bjork and Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors at Housing Works bookstore in SoHo. There, the event’s organizer asked if they wouldn’t mind trying their own musical mingle.
Neither committed right away. “We didn’t know for sure,” Byrne says. But, adds Clark, “We were fans, so we crossed our fingers.”
Byrne says he first heard St. Vincent’s albums five years ago and “it became music I played on my telephone.”
Clark, of course, knew the music of the ex-Talking Head far longer. “One of the things David does super-well is make these really off-kilter, artful songs that also have pop appeal,” she says.
Clark feels the two have at least one thing in common in their working process: “We tend to look at songs as puzzles to be completed.”
They started to work out theirs tentatively. First, they cut four tracks without letting many people know. They recorded four more before they realized it would click. Each wrote segments of the songs, though for the most part they sing them separately. “In most cases, the person who sings the song, wrote the words,” Byrne says.
At times, Clark says she found her writing influenced by his. “I found myself thinking, ‘What would David do?,’” she says, with a laugh. “In the song ‘Weekend in the Dust’ I made part of the melody very staccato with a barking horn line.”
“Not that you bark,” she announces in Byrne’s direction.
“I do yelp,” he allows.
The way he does in the song “I Should Watch TV” may remind fans of very early Talking Heads. So might the detachment of the lyrics, which find Byrne pondering a device as common as the TV like it’s something alien and new. Turns out the song refers directly to the Heads, circa 1976.
“Right after we got a recording contract, I bought a small color television set,” Byrne says. “I thought, ‘I should watch this thing and that way I’ll know more about my country and what people think.’”
The new song lyrics contains the album’s title line, about learning to “Love This Giant.” But Byrne makes sure to point out that “the giant is humanity, not television.”
If some of the songs vaguely recall the Heads, the duo’s live show will feature actual songs from that era, as well as those from each star’s solo careers. Of course, they’ll all sound different with the blare of brass.
Performing the old songs, Clark says, “is a good way to make the horns less scary for people who might be trepidatious about them. This will say to them, ‘Look, horns can play songs you already know and love.’”