By Jon Pareles
The closer they get to a dance floor, the better David Byrne's newest songs sound. Five years after his last tour with Talking Heads, Mr. Byrne has assembled a 14-piece touring band of mostly Hispanic and Brazilian musicians, playing the songs from his new album, ''Rei Momo'' (King of Carnival). By the end of his set at Roseland on Monday, the start of a three-night stand, the band's salsa and samba rhythms had carried the audience into motion.
The songs from ''Rei Momo'' grow out of Mr. Byrne's fascination with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms that underlie much of the world's popular music. He has focused on the Caribbean and South America, where the drumming and chanting of religious rituals are closely tied to secular dance music. The concert opened with the Brazilian singer Margareth Menezes and a percussion group, singing a medley of call-and-response songs akin to religious rituals; it ended with an edgy, potent version of ''Papa Legba'' from the Talking Heads' ''True Stories,'' Mr. Byrne's own incantation to a Yoruba deity.
In between, songs used Caribbean merengue, bomba, rumba and cha-cha rhythms, Colombian cumbia and Brazilian pagode, mapeye and samba - all of them ignited by a sizzling percussion section. Older styles bounced along; more modern ones were bolstered by trumpets, trombones and saxophones punching out off-beats in the cross-rhythms of Marty Sheller's ingenious arrangements. Mr. Byrne urged the sold-out crowd to dance, and he followed his own advice, shaking hips and shoulders. He has never looked so loose and happy on stage.
The set included just two Talking Heads songs, ''Mr. Jones'' and ''Papa Legba''; Miss Menezes had a short segment with the full band, with Mr. Byrne singing backup.
Mr. Byrne's new songs are not typical salsa or Brazilian outings. They seek to merge tropical rhythms with Mr. Byrne's own prosody and sense of pop-song structure; the vocal lines are more likely to float above the beat than to bounce off it, and they seem more familiar (and catchy) to North American ears. In the faster songs, there's tension between the two approaches. Where salsa bands at full throttle often seem to be speeding up as they play, some of Mr. Byrne's melodies fight the band's momentum, sometimes threatening to slow the music down or pull away from it entirely. When the band moved into funk for ''Papa Legba,'' Mr. Byrne's singing suddenly sounded at home.
Mr. Byrne's music has often been sparked by the friction between his own persona - stiff, earnest, Anglo-Saxon - and the abandon promised by African-derived styles from soul to funk to Nigerian juju. In many American rock styles, the sense of strain, of efforts to break through inhibitions and reach ecstasy, can galvanize the music; it can also underscore Mr. Byrne's lyrics, which often suggest the musings of a wide-eyed outsider. ''Loco de Amor,'' the song Mr. Byrne wrote for the soundtrack of ''Something Wild,'' alternates slow English verses with a peppy salsa chorus in Spanish and Yoruba (sung on stage by Miss Menezes), as if examining both sides of a culture gap.
Afro-Caribbean music doesn't usually call for tension. It takes for granted extraordinary stamina and virtuosity, demanding in addition that musical feats be accomplished with utter suavity. The contrast between Mr. Byrne - working hard to belt high notes, gauging his dance moves - and Miss Menezes, gutsy-voiced and sinuous and natural, was telling.
With his new songs, however, Mr. Byrne is working on pop-salsa and pop-Brazilian hybrids, closer to Kid Creole and the Coconuts than to purist Afro-Caribbean bands. Often, songs that sound uncertain and studied on the ''Rei Momo'' album became a pleasure at Roseland as the band made the rhythms crackle and jump and Mr. Byrne showed how much fun he was having. And when a jubilant chorus takes over, as in ''Don't Want to Be Part of Your World,'' ecstasy is within reach.