October 22, 2004 By Evelyn McDonnell
Change is good, but it can also be a b- - - -. In the four years since his last album, David Byrne parted ways with Luaka Bop, the eclectic label he founded. His marriage to the mother of his teenage daughter ended. His city was attacked by terrorists. He moved out of his house and moved his studio.
He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the other members of the groundbreaking '70s-'80s band he founded, Talking Heads, and helped compile Once in a Lifetime, a box set compilation of that band's material.
''A lot happened to me,'' Byrne says over the phone from Santiago, Chile, where he is on a tour that brings him back to the United States and Miami Tuesday at the Gusman Center. "Putting together the box set put the lid on that part of my life. Now I can move on and do something different.
''Of course,'' he adds, "I've done that for a long time.
Two decades ago, Byrne made ''different'' cool. As the awkward, nervous, introverted singer of such Talking Heads classics as Psycho Killer, Life During Wartime and Burning Down the House, he gave geekiness a transcendent grace. His new wave dance music and his ineffable big-suit moves in the concert film Stop Making Sense tapped the inner nerd in countless frat partyers. He was the boy with the perpetual nervousness, who learned how to dance -- a zigger among zaggers.
When punk rock got caught up in harder, faster rules, Byrne went multicultural. He incorporated African music and funk into the Heads' music. With Luaka Bop, he brought such Brazilian artists as Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé, and Cubans as Silvio Rodriguez, to mainstream American attention for the first time. He also makes films (True Stories, Ilé Aiyé [The House of Life]), creates artwork and writes books.
On Grown Backwards, his solo CD released earlier this year, the graying, Scottish-born Manhattanite makes what may be for him the strangest exploration of all: Western melody.
''I always looked at traditional Western music as being very hierarchical, where melody took precedence over everything,'' Byrne says. "It was the musical equivalent of an authoritarian regime or class society, where people have privilege over others. I tried to stay clear of it, to make music more egalitarian in some way. But then I decided to take another look at the stuff I steered clear of for years.''
Bryne sings two opera arias on Grown Backwards, Georges Bizet's Au Fond du Temple Saint, a duet with Rufus Wainwright, and Giuseppe Verdi's Un di Felice, Eterea. He works with the adventurous Tosca Strings from Austin. He covers a sort of folk ditty by the alternative band Lambchop; after all, indie rock, with its distinctly WASPish, introspective insularity, is the chamber music of our times. Byrne's whole method for writing the album was, um, backward for him: He wrote the tunes first and then added the grooves.
''Maybe I was feeling somewhat sentimental,'' he says of his pursuit of melody. "Maybe in an odd way it's a response to the world situation. It's more appropriate to add something beautiful back into the world as opposed to more negativity.''
Byrne has been looking backward in several ways. Putting together the box set and a rerelease of the live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was a stumble down memory lane.
''Most of it holds up really well,'' he says. "The live material sounds more contemporary, like what various bands are doing now, than the studio stuff. And of course you get to edit songs, rewrite your own history, make yourself sound better.''
Once in a Lifetime opens with Sugar on Your Tongue, a Heads demo that finds new life as a track on Liberty City rapper Trick Daddy's Oct. 26 release, Thug Matrimony: Married to the Streets. TDD's version, featuring Cee-Lo Green singing the chorus, is not nearly as sentimentally coy about about what the ''sugar'' is.
''I thought two things.'' Byrne said when he heard T-Double-D's track: 'This is kind of amazing that this actually works. And then I thought, `Who the hell in this group was listening to that stuff?' Somebody had some pretty surprising insight that they must have heard that song and thought, 'I know how to put beats to that and take it apart and make it into a different song.' It's not really a cover, it's a new song, but it certainly has the hook from the demo. And it picks up on the raunchy element and takes it one step further.''
TDD, aka Maurice Young, says that the A&R representative from his record company found the track. He says that Sugar is actually one of the songs they didn't have to rerecord for the ''clean'' version of the CD because of its extended use of metaphor. ''I didn't curse. I talked about fruit instead of body parts,'' Young says.
About a third of the songs Byrne plays on his tour are Talking Heads songs. The live show has been getting rave reviews. Byrne says it's ''more energetic'' than Grown Backwards. ''Half the set gets the audience up and dancing,'' he says. "It's not what people expect when you're traveling with a string section.
''There was a hilarious comment in one of the reviews here,'' Byrne says. " 'Talking Heads was white kids finding their groove. Now it's like albinos trying to find their groove.' And it was a good review.''
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