By Joe Tangari
Every critical cliché and overused word you've seen applied to the Talking Heads discography over the years is inescapable for a reason. More than some sort of ill-defined genius or brilliance, what made this band so special is that they captured their era without sounding consigned to it. Listening to "Once in a Lifetime" roughly 25 years after it was laid to tape-- and countless other tracks on this all-inclusive eight-disc box set-- their music is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
"And you may ask yourself, 'How did I get here'?" is a sort of omni-biographical prediction for every individual caught up in the information age. It considers our lives as consumers-- lives spent consuming information, commercial goods, and trivialities-- and holds a magnifying glass to the moments when you look around at all you've collected and wonder what for. Talking Heads had an uncanny ability to tie connecting threads between seemingly disjointed elements, both musically and lyrically, and what may come across in David Byrne's lyrics as simple quirkiness or detachment more often seems like an open-minded willingness to give voice to the ridiculous things that lie in the subconscious.
Talking Heads' roots extended to college at the Rhode Island School of Design, but they were truly forged in the crucible of New York City's burgeoning punk scene. In a sense they were the polar opposite of the band they often opened for at CBGB, the Ramones. But, unapologetically egg-headed and eclectic, even funky, Talking Heads were more pop-art than punk, filling their music with head-spinning tempo changes, freaked-out vocals, and a healthy propensity for experimentation. To say they were unique is like saying Thomas Jefferson was pretty smart-- even bands that have since tried to sound like them can't.
The band's importance is acknowledged basically everywhere-- they're even in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame now-- so it's puzzling that it's taken their discography so long to receive the lavish treatment it deserves, something made even somewhat ironic by the band's early embrace of technology. In fact, the CDs have always sounded vastly inferior to the original vinyl releases. Enter the reissue gurus at Rhino, who've painstakingly assembled the definitive collection of the entire Talking Heads studio output. The Brick is an elegant presentation of all eight studio albums together in an austere white box embossed with the titles of the songs it contains. Each album is presented in DualDisc format, with the record and bonus tracks on the CD side, and a 5.1 surround mix and video extras on the DVD side.
In addition to live footage, the set also calls attention to the band's early mastery of the video format. Each of their music videos are included with their respective LPs, and each is in an artistic (if not technical) league that only a small fraction of videos produced during MTV's first decade achieved. The fact that they're enjoyable on a level beyond nostalgia is impressive enough, but "Love for Sale" in particular, while hardly counting among the band's best songs, must rank among the best videos I've ever seen. Making wickedly insightful and intuitive use of footage from commercials and consumer logos, the short culminates in the iconic transformation of the band into chocolate figurines.
As for the albums themselves, the clean remastering has made a spectacular difference in sound quality, boosting the levels and fleshing out the depth and dynamic range of the recordings. The earliest albums benefit most-- 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food sound better than ever, as punchy and nervy as the music they contain. Those two albums effectively mark the band's first phase, with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth laying down thick, r&b-influenced grooves while Jerry Harrison and David Byrne, always an under-rated guitarist, offered up tricky interplay and dense texture.
Byrne was a riveting frontman from the start, and he gets away with vocal tics and singing way outside of his range here in a way few other performers have. His eccentricity is the focal point of the classic "Psycho Killer", but it's songs like "Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town", "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel", and the cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" that emphasize how much each member brought to the table individually. As an ensemble, they were beyond tight, and their ability to lock into a tense groove led them to transition away from the concise, bouncy weirdness of their first two records into darker and more abstract territory.
They began the transformation on 1979's Fear of Music, a willfully difficult, paranoid album that moves Byrne's anxieties to center stage. Opener "I Zimbra" is something of a fake-out, hinting at the group's future experimentation with African polyrhythms and heavy groove, but its gibberish chant is actually fairly indicative of what follows. On "Mind", Byrne's voice blurs with bizarre trickling synth and fractured bass; "Paper" and "Air" express uncertainty about our corporeal existence; Byrne smears irony over the record's most danceable rhythm track, "Life During Wartime"; and "Heaven" paints the afterlife as a place of mind-numbing repetition: "When this kiss is over it will start again/ It will not be any different/ It will be exactly the same," he sings, sounding sober, almost resigned. The album closes with a nightmare twosome in "Electric Guitar" and "Drugs", lysergic new wave tunes that collapse under their own oppressive weight.
The bleak intensity of Fear of Music crystallized on Remain in Light, the band's masterpiece. Brian Eno had produced the band since More Songs, but here, he pushed them to stretch out and let their songs breathe as much as possible. The lack of ego on the album is striking. The band members switch instruments and share the spotlight with backup musicians-- Frantz is augmented by all manner of hand percussion, while Byrne gets plenty of help on the mic from huge choruses, often playing call-and-response. The grooves of "Cross-Eyed and Painless" and "The Great Curve" are unstoppable, while opener "The Heat Goes On (Born Under Punches)" feels like a constant, burning descent into a cauldron of polyrhythms. "All I want is to breathe," sings Byrne in multi-tracked harmony, but the song is claustrophobic and constricted, refusing to allow his escape. "The Overload" is almost too dark, completely blotting out whatever small trace of sunlight might occasionally poke through earlier in the record. The album is a triumph, but it was understandably draining: Their follow-up took three years to complete.
Speaking in Tongues was worth the wait. Movement is in its fiber, but it's the details of the arrangements-- the buzzy synths that answer Byrne in the chorus of "Making Flippy Floppy", the clicking handclaps of "Slippery People"-- that make the album's funk so deeply satisfying. The mood is noticeably lighter as the band deftly extricate themselves from the seriousness of their two previous albums. Where Byrne sounded trapped in a fragile body on Fear of Music, here he muses that "We've got great big bodies/ We've got great big heads." "Burning Down the House" sets howling keys against mechanically fingered guitarwork and massive percussion, while "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" wrenches human sadness from its synthesizer melody. Elsewhere, "Pull Up the Roots" and "Girlfriend Is Better" find the band at their loosest. Unfortunately, Speaking in Tongues was the last Talking Heads album that felt completely natural.
The band's final three albums are rarely discussed relative to what came before; they're not nearly as rewarding. Little Creatures sported the outstanding single "And She Was", but is otherwise a staid, composed effort. Where once there were once loose grooves, there was now noticeable stiffness, and the music feels beholden to pre-established concepts rather than allowed to form through free-associative interplay. The follow-up, True Stories, was mostly filler packed in around the crunchy synth-rock of "Love for Sale" and "Wild Wild Life". As an album, it has its moments (and yes, Radiohead took their name from one of its songs), but it largely fails, too tightly intertwined with the narrative of its cinematic counterpart.
The band's final album, 1988's Naked, is a strange beast, essentially two completely different sets of songs playing against each other on the album's two halves. The band began the recording process by assembling a series of grooves in New York, then traveled to Paris for overdub sessions, bringing in local African musicians (and Johnny Marr) in a slight return to the technique that made Remain in Light so great. It works on "Blind", a song beholden almost completely to its bubbling groove and sharp horn arrangement as Byrne sings in an unusual rasp. "(Nothing but) Flowers" is ebullient highlife funk, essentially a wistful celebration of the end of civilization as Byrne offers lyrics like, "This was a Pizza Hut/ Now it's all covered with daisies," over chattering guitars and ultra-fluid rhythms. The record's flip, however, is much darker, almost completely divorced from what precedes it-- "The Facts of Life" is especially cold, with a mechanical synth and lyrics like, "We are programmed happy little children."
Still, Naked is, for me, the best and most interesting of the band's closing trio of albums, and if nothing else, it shows them attempting a fresher approach. The quartet wouldn't officially announce their break-up until 1991, but they went out on a higher note than they're often given credit for. The reissue appends the interesting soundtrack song "Sax & Violins", which actually works as a strong closer for the album. Generally speaking, though, the outtakes and leftovers from the band's earliest sessions are the best Rhino offers on these discs. 77 especially is augmented by a wealth of rare tracks. "Sugar on My Tongue" deserved to make the original tracklist, if not in this particular recorded form, and Arthur Russell shows up sawing up his cello on the interesting "acoustic" version of "Psycho Killer" (a number of electric instruments are present).
Beyond the quality of the actual music, Rhino has done a superb job of getting the sound of these albums to where it should have been long ago, and the bonus material is well-chosen and enlightening, if not essential listening. Including the band's videos and live footage from the years before they made videos was a great idea, and despite its high price tag and some strange packaging decisions (the jewel cases have no printing on the spines, and the back covers are solid white, which means you have to remove the liner notes to find the tracklists), the box is worth it for anyone who wants everything in one place. But of course, what ultimately matters most is the music, and listening to each of these records delivers something the elaborate artwork and fetishist packaging can't: proof this band deserves every kind word ever said about it.