By Jeremy Allen
Horns have had a chequered history. When William Booth set up the Salvation Army in 1865 he chose brass bands as a way of reaching out to the yoot, given how damn cool they were at the time. But beyond Miles Davis, Motown and Mark Ronson circa 2006, parping has rarely sounded ‘of its time’. The saxophone, in particular, has been co-opted time and again by greasy crooners to soundtrack your mum slow-dancing, or by men with ponytails jiggy-jiggying in low-budget pornos.
So naturally, when Talking Heads leader David Byrne and Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) decided to collaborate, they set themselves certain parameters: they would work only with brass, with producer John Congleton adding programmed percussion later. Are they mad? Will they regret their reliance on this most slippery family of instruments?
As it turns out, ‘Love This Giant’ is completely out of kilter with what’s contemporary, and off-the-hook brilliant to boot. Byrne and Clark are kindred spirits – both art school dropouts with a taste for the avant-garde; both makers of enduring outsider art with a commercial bent. St Vincent’s albums are all accessible yet melancholy, with something otherworldly and enigmatic about them, while Byrne has worked with the likes of Brian Eno as well as taking strange, percussive beasts like ‘Naked’ into the album charts with Talking Heads.
When ‘Who’ – the first slice from ‘Love This Giant’ – landed, the signs were good. It was unruly and utterly bonkers, underpinned by a sexy groove reminiscent of Bowie’s ‘Fame’. It dances with a frenetic energy that can only come from good musical chemistry, and the rest of the album crackles with an abundance of ideas that never sound forced. Collaborations often result in two busy stars recording their vocals in separate parts of the world without actually meeting, but on ‘Love This Giant’ the pair worked together for two years, and it shows.
Byrne’s imprint may be the strongest – he revisits and updates the theme of ‘Television Man’ on the title track, for instance – but Clark’s idiosyncrasies are particularly evident on ‘Ice Age’, a reflective and delicate song that morphs into something experimental and complex, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on last year’s terrific ‘Strange Mercy’; and ‘Weekend In The Dust’, which brings to mind imperious-era Prince or even Parliament and Funkadelic. ‘I Am An Ape’, with its compelling breakbeat and honking bassoons, isn’t just Byrne’s most magnificent contribution here, but is perhaps his best song in decades. The arrangements are exquisite from top to bottom, and producer Congleton – who worked with Clark on ‘Strange Mercy’ – helps make it easy for us all to love this giant of a record. It takes a brass neck or two to make horns sound this vital.