TALKING HEADS, “REMAIN IN LIGHT”

Talking-Heads-Remain-in-Light

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #16 – released October 8, 1980. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 11/16/2014.)

Track listing: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) / Crosseyed and Painless / The Great Curve / Once In A Lifetime / Houses In Motion / Seen And Not Seen / Listening Wind / The Overload

It begins with David Byrne letting out a sudden, exclamatory “AH!” after three beats, but that percussive intro is irrelevant. The “AH!” is what’s important: a shock to the system, a call of arms, or perhaps Byrne, sensing the thrilling, unconventional music that will follow is simply incapable of containing himself. Immediately after the “AH!”, the band locks into the song’s relentless groove, where the melody plays over and over and its one chord never changes. This groove is repetitive almost to the point of seeming mechanical, although it is mostly played on guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. Over them, Byrne, in his inimitable, anxiety-ridden preacher’s bark (like a white-and-nerdy James Brown) interjects such phrases as “Take a look at these hands!” and “I’m a tumbler! I’m a government man.” These nonsensical but attention-grabbing words are just one layer of the song, soon joined by others such as Byrne slowly singing “All I want is to breathe / won’t you breathe with me,” and an exultant chorus belting out “Goes on! / And the heat goes on!” As in jazz, each layer gets its moment in the spotlight; however, in a manner akin to African music, all the layers build and splendidly come together at the song’s climax. With all this complexity and the underlying groove as an incredible foundation, it’s music that affects the head as much as the feet.

This song, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”, is one of the all-time great album openers, and much of the rest of Remain In Light follows the template it sets. But first, before stepping back and examining how Talking Heads reached this synthesis on their fourth album, I need to address something else. In writing about these 100 favorite albums in chronological order, there’s nearly a three-year time jump between this record and the last one. It’s not as if nothing good was released in that period: The B-52s’ self-titled debut, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, The Clash’s London Calling, and Donna Summers’ Bad Girls have all meant a lot to me at various times of my life (not to mention Talking Heads’ third album, Fear In Music), but presently, none of them make my top 100. Honestly, I think this specific period altogether is more notable for exciting singles than albums, but that’s fodder for another project.

And so, we arrive at a new decade with an album produced by Brian Eno, whose last rock album of his own was our last entry. While Eno focused on making ambient music for himself, he developed an extensive side career producing post-punk acts heavily influenced by his ahead-of-its-time mid-70s work. His collaboration with Talking Heads was the most fruitful, as he also produced the band’s second and third albums. Immediately before Remain In Light, he also recorded a collaborative album with Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which was not released until 1981 and whose cut-and-paste aesthetic casts a heavy shadow here. Given this extended relationship, some began referring to Eno as a fifth member of the band around this time. However, with Byrne’s peculiar singularity front-and-center, no one would ever mistake these three Talking Heads albums for Eno’s solo work.

Still, on each of those albums, Eno guided the band towards an evolving sound and outlook, with Remain In Light revealing the most growth yet—it might be the first explicitly postmodern pop album I’ve written about here. Even the cover, a brilliant piss-take on band member portrait clichés like The Beatles’ Let It Be, implies skepticism towards genre and stylistic conventions. Of course, this is a band that titled their second album More Songs About Buildings And Food, but on Remain In Light, they’ve also radically altered the recording process. It all goes back to Eno’s idea of “the studio as a musical instrument”, only taking it a step further: instead of letting the band’s various improvisations directly shape the final product, those improvisations are merely ingredients or building blocks that can be later added and subtracted at will in creating the compositions. This album’s recording sessions began in the Bahamas, where the band recorded instrumental “sections” as long loops born out of improvisations. This communal means of recording was favored by African musician Fela Kuti, whose 1973 album Afrodisiac was purportedly a major influence. Following these sessions, Byrne and the band returned to the US, where they built songs out of these loops. Byrne’s vocals and various overdubbed parts (solos from avant-garde guitarist Adrian Belew, backing vocals from Byrne, Eno and Nona Hendryx, horns from Jon Hassell) were added next.

Despite these piecemeal production techniques, Remain In Light doesn’t feel insular or as if its participants are trapped in the studio; one only needs to hear (on the album The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads) or see (in the concert film Stop Making Sense) these songs in a live context to understand how well they translate as performances. The first side of the record, in particular, nearly plays as one continuous intoxicating groove over three distinct tracks. After “Born Under Punches” fades out, “Crosseyed and Painless” picks right up where the first song left off, only at a quicker tempo and with a slightly more straightforward melody. Brutally direct verses (Byrne’s first lyrics are a clipped, “Lost / my / shape!”) alternate with a dreamily sung chorus, while Byrne’s nervous, buttoned-up rap solo drives the song nearly as much as its cowbell, which is fierce enough for Christopher Walken producing Blue Oyster Cult. Even faster, “The Great Curve” careens on by but not too rapidly for you to take in all of the interlocking vocal parts, Belew’s two demented solos and Byrne’s enthusiastic proclamation that “The world moves on a woman’s hips,” as if this is something he just figured out and can’t wait to share with anyone who’ll listen. Fortunately, the mood the band has built up at this point is so charged and practically utopian, we’ll listen to anything he says.

As with Eno’s Before and After Science, this album has an upbeat first side, followed by a slower second side—the only difference being that Remain In Light comes down far more gradually. Side two begins with “Once In A Lifetime” which retains the danceable tempo and one-chord repetition of the preceding tracks. Byrne offers platitudes that begin with variations of the words “You may find/ask/tell yourself,” while a mélange of rhythms and electronic noise pulsates behind him. As usual, he speaks/sings in a cadence that resembles no one else in pop, but here he’s at his most relatable: who wouldn’t identify with such considerations as “Same as it ever was…” or even “My God, what have I done?!” Simultaneously, how many people have heard them in a pop song before? Even though it missed the Billboard Hot 100, it’s arguably the band’s most popular, iconic hit—thanks to its innovative, Byrne-centric music video, which would play incessantly on MTV throughout the 1980s.

“Houses In Motion” carries on the shuffling, mid-tempo groove of “Once In A Lifetime”, only with a noticeably rubbery-funk bottom, spoken verses and a staccato yet easily singable chorus. It’s the album’s simplest song, yet there’s still a lot going on within it. Every instrument, from the rhythm guitar to Hassell’s horns gets its own catchy, fully audible riff and yet not one thing really dominates (like Belew’s earlier solos): everything ultimately enhances the whole gestalt rather than calling specific attention to itself. Musically, “Seen And Not Seen” could be its sequel, only the balance has shifted dramatically. The handclap-heavy percussion is now way up front in the mix, while Byrne’s entirely spoken vocal is barely present in the background. Even with headphones and the volume turned high, I can barely make out all of his words, which consist of a hazy narrative about a man who wishes to change his appearance based on what he sees “in movies, on TV, in magazines and in books.” It’s an odd but significant song in the album’s sequence, the moment where Byrne moves from jubilance and wide-eyed wonder to looking inward and increasingly regarding the outside world with suspicion.

The tempo slackens noticeably on “Listening Wind”, an echo-laden, dub-reggae lament. Byrne returns to singing, but his vocal is still somewhat buried in the mix. The chorus has an actual chord change (!) but you barely notice it over the overarching melancholic din. Still, the track is positively giddy when compared to album-closer “The Overload”. An attempt to ape gloomy British outfit Joy Division (without the band ever having heard their music), it ominously drones on at a snail’s pace for over six minutes. Totally smoothing out the rhythmic intensity of the preceding songs, it would seem like a disruptive outlier on Remain In Light if it didn’t come at the very end. Even taking into account the album’s ongoing tonal progression from joy to despair, its presence still feels unexpected—as if Byrne, grasping at enlightenment, nearly reaching it on “Once In A Lifetime”, lost hold of it and ended up here. The song’s title, then, could refer to the embarrassment of riches laden throughout the album’s earlier songs. Remain In Light may eerily dribble to a close, but that’s because Talking Heads always took their idealism seriously, knowing full well realism was as essential a component to it as day is to night. This album is where they discovered a sound that allowed both their idealism and realism to flower most fully and almost seamlessly intertwine.

Up next: our first double album.

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”:

“Once In A Lifetime”:

BRIAN ENO, “BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE”

BEFORE AND AFTER

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #15 – released December 1977. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 11/6/2014.)

Track listing: No One Receiving / Backwater / Kurt’s Rejoinder / Energy Fools The Magician / King’s Lead Hat / Here He Comes / Julie With… / By This River / Through Hollow Lands (for Harold Budd) / Spider And I

To this day, Before And After Science has a reputation as Brian Eno’s last rock album, or at least his final one as a performer before he began primarily making ambient music. That he would go on to produce now-classic popular albums for the likes of Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay and many others, plus release collaborative pop albums under his own name with both David Byrne and John Cale somewhat refutes this claim. On occasion, he’s even composed a vocal track or two of his own (“This” and “How Many Words”, both on 2005’s Another Day On Earth), subtly calling back to his earlier persona as a quirk-pop pioneer. Still, although the record was cobbled together from two years of various recording sessions, it is very nearly Eno’s most accomplished and complete album. It even anticipates the path his solo career would take by way of its sequencing, which deliberately, gradually shifts from giddy, proto-New Wave towards becalmed, meditative tone poems.

At this album’s release in late 1977 (it arrived in the U.S. the following spring), Eno was undergoing a critical resurgence, particularly for those who dismissed him as a prog-rock dinosaur or an experimental egghead. He had just produced Low and “Heroes”, the first two albums of David Bowie’s well-received “Berlin” trilogy, which rehabilitated Bowie’s hip quotient, and by association, his own as well. Not that this translated into any commercial success for Before And After Science—it sold as poorly as his previous solo work—but it underlined the notion that Eno, like the most innovative and enduring musicians of his era (Bowie among them) welcomed growth and change. Even the album’s stark cover photo presents a figure far different from the flamboyant alien presence that graced Here Come The Warm Jets four years before. The music, while recognizably Eno, has also changed/evolved: following the mostly instrumental Another Green World (and his entirely instrumental first ambient album, Discreet Music), all but two tracks have vocals, and any hint of the glam-rock he made his name on has evaporated.

What’s replaced it, at least on the album’s first half, is a little harder to pinpoint, exactly. The opener, “No One Receiving” is possibly the funkiest number Eno ever put his name on. It fuses a mechanical-sounding rhythm (mostly played on real instruments, most notably Phil Collins (!) on drums) with almost a James Brown-like sensibility, minus the horns but with relentless rhythm guitar and bass riffs intact. As with “Sky Saw”, the first track on Another Green World (which Collins also played on), weird synth noises dart in and out of the mix, but they inhabit this song more organically and never threaten to overwhelm the sturdy foundation underneath. It’s a beguiling, cold but kinetic song that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does.

Effortlessly tuneful and overtly gleeful, “Backwater”, with its handclaps and Elton-like banging piano is childlike and catchy enough for an episode of The Muppets (fitting since Eno often sings like one) but also eccentric to a degree that you’d still have a tough time picturing an alternate-universe, household-name Eno appearing on the show (sample lyric: “But if you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics / You will find that their minds rarely move in a line.”). “Kurt’s Rejoinder” ups the tempo even further, skittering along with Morse code-like piano noises, percussion that resembles Fred Flintstone furiously driving his stone-age car with his feet, and words flying by at breakneck speed until they resemble the ramblings of a demented square dance caller (“Do the do-si-do, do the mirror man / Do the Boston crab, do the allemande,”) at the outro.

“Energy Fools The Magician” is one of Eno’s most mysterious and evocative song titles, rendered even more so by being the album’s first instrumental. Also the first track that hints back to Another Green World—it could be the more grounded twin of that record’s “Over Fire Island”, only with a dominant synth melody. It’s darkly beautiful, but really less of a song than a link to “King’s Lead Hat”, which concludes the album’s first half. A cheeky, herky-jerky Talking Heads pastiche that Eno had written for the band (notice the title’s anagram), it now plays like a clairvoyant compendium of quirky New Wave pop–you can hear in it seeds for still-to-come recordings from XTC, The B-52’s and Devo (Eno would produce the latter’s debut the following year), not to mention stuff a half-decade away (hello, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”!) In hindsight, it still puzzles that this ridiculously catchy single never became a hit (or that contemporary outlets like Sirius XM’s “First Wave” channel ignore it).

These first five songs are as sharp an album side as anything Eno had previously done; on Before And After Science’s second half, he nearly outdoes himself. After the inspired madness of “King’s Lead Hat”, “Here He Comes” is an about-face transition, albeit a remarkably smooth one. A dreamy midtempo number full of lullabye-like guitar and synth arpeggios and sections of wordless vocals that wash over you like a warm bath, it’s one of Eno’s loveliest and most poignantly sung tunes. Tonally, however, it’s a mere bridge to the rest of the album. Like many of his songs, the six-minute-plus “Julie With…” ever-so-slowly fades in, grasping for consciousness or just trying to stay awake while fending off a gentle, blissful drowsiness. Eventually, the track’s electric piano hook comes into focus and the vocals appear at 1:32. Generally still but gently swaying like a tree branch in the wind, spacious but teeming with careful detail, it places ambient music’s stillness and serenity within a pop song framework (cue the extended, building guitar-and-synth hook that each verse turns on)—it’s a true hybrid, both approachable and coolly enigmatic.

Those last two songs are as lush as the record gets. Thereafter, Eno just subtracts more and more. The quietly mesmerizing “By This River” is mostly piano and voice, repeating the same oriental-like melody over chord changes that color each repetition differently. The lyrics are Zen-like in their simplicity and sung in a matching, plainspoken tone that could be proto-Stephin Merritt. If you listen closely enough, you can hear little bells playing along with the piano melody in the background. “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)”, the album’s other instrumental, is further minimalist, with a piano, bass and guitar softly eking out a series of notes that tentatively form a melody, while encroaching synths add texture as the song goes on. It’s the track here most blatantly pointing the way towards stuff like Music For Airports, although it feels positively opulent in comparison.

The album closes with “Spider and I”, which fades in to a volume as loud as anything on the first half, but an at even slower tempo than anything else on the second half. Over big, fat, majestic, elongated synth chords, the lyrics, once again, abound with maritime imagery (this could be a cousin of Another Green World’s “The Big Ship”.) You can sense his thorough consideration of each and every word as he sings, “We…sleep in the mornings / we…dream of a ship…that sails…away.” I couldn’t tell you what this song is about; I don’t think that even matters. Many often dismiss the whole ambient genre as “mood music”, but that’s what Eno excels at throughout this album, particularly in its second half. By the final notes, he sounds like a man at peace with himself and with partially leaving pop music behind for bolder, uncharted terrain. If Before And After Science is the culmination of Eno’s dalliance as a solo rock artist, it’s also closest he ever came to finding enlightenment in that guise.

Up next: Alternate paths towards enlightenment.

“King’s Lead Hat”:

 

“By This River”:

BRIAN ENO, “ANOTHER GREEN WORLD”

anothergreenworld

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #13 – released November 1975. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 9/4/2014)

Track listing: Sky Saw / Over Fire Island / St. Elmo’s Fire / In Dark Trees / The Big Ship / I’ll Come Running / Another Green World / Sombre Reptiles / Little Fishes / Golden Hours / Becalmed / Zawinul/Lava / Everything Merges With The Night / Spirits Drifting

As I write about my favorite albums, one question keeps gnawing at me in the back of my mind: what is pop music? It’s a term I think I use at least once in every essay, but I’m no longer precisely certain what it actually means. Pop, obviously, is short for popular, but scan through the popular music charts of any particular era or region and you’ll find they encompass a wide variety of genres and styles. Distilled to its basic essence, pop music is often thought to be catchy, conservative, accessible, and have mass appeal. But one could just as easily bend and expand that definition, for some pop music is challenging, groundbreaking, and unusual. I’ve employed the term in referring to music that fits either set of criteria and occasionally, both—for instance,  ABBEY ROAD is one of the best selling records of all-time from perhaps the greatest pop band of the 20th century, but it’s also a record partially defined by its complexities and overall innovation.

Which brings us to Brian Eno, who was briefly a member of Roxy Music, the last band we covered here. He played synthesizer, although the word “played” seems inaccurate for he used the instrument not as a conventional keyboard, but as a means to emit the most bizarre noises he could find by twiddling various knobs. He contributed as much to the Roxy’s flamboyant look and overall sound as singer/songwriter Bryan Ferry and, after two albums, simply outgrew the band and went solo. Of his first five albums, four are commonly categorized as “pop”, if only to delineate them from nearly everything else he’s recorded as a solo and collaborative artist since, which falls under the realm of ambient music. He helped pioneer that genre with DISCREET MUSIC, his fourth album and the non-pop outlier of those first five.

Although critically acclaimed, none of the four pop albums sold much at the time. The first, HERE COME THE WARM JETS (1973) on a surface level diverges only slightly from Roxy Music’s arty glam rock (multiple songs from it appear in Todd Haynes’ phantasmagorical genre epic VELVET GOLDMINE), but it’s distinct enough: Eno alternately projects a quirkier and gentler sensibility than Ferry (he’s more of a seeker than an observer) and no one would ever mistake Ferry’s affected croon for Eno’s Muppet-like mewl. Its follow-up, TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (BY STRATEGY) (1974) is even further out there—full of delectably hummable melodies, Eno deliberately cloaks them within such eccentricities as an out-of-tune string section or repeating a guitar riff to the point where it achieves pure cacophony. Both albums now sound a few years ahead of their time, like post-punk not entirely free of prog-rock trappings.

ANOTHER GREEN WORLD appears the following year. Although it contains a few Eno-sung, verse-chorus-verse selections, the majority of it consists of brief instrumentals, all under four minutes long (most of them less than three). Opener “Sky Saw” sets course that AGW is a different beast from its predecessors. Actually, the bass-drum-electric piano backing would seem fairly anodyne if not for the song’s main hook, a four-note modulating electronic noise that Eno “plays” in lieu of a vocal. Obnoxious and harsh on first listen (likely inspiring the song’s imagistic title), as it repeats and gains familiarity, it begins to seem, well, not pleasant exactly, but it does what a hook does—it defines the song and draws us in. A few vocals do appear in the song’s back half, but they’re nearly an afterthought (Eno on the subject of words: “Everyone just ignores them.”). The real tension comes from former Velvet Underground-er (and future full-length album Eno collaborator) John Cale, whose viola wheeze late in the song adds an extra note onto that primary hook, providing a melodic variation and making things a little… funky, actually.

AGW’s instrumentals seem a tad ephemeral on first listen (perhaps even after five listens). Many slowly fade in and then gradually fade out, as if you’re focusing in on a telescope but have a limited stretch of time to see through the lens with total clarity. Some of them evoke a sense of awakening and discovery (the beatific title track) while others have outwardly sinister textures, like the descending, echoing guitar riff of “In Dark Trees” (possibly the granddaddy of the similar riff in The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now”) or the foreboding wall-of-sound synths in closer “Spirits Drifting”. They alternate between structural rigidity (“Sombre Reptiles” where drowsy, distorted guitars tunefully curl over a purposely snaking rhythm) and shapelessness: “Little Fishes” would carry all the simplicity of a Satie piece if not for its wiggy, wiggly noises, while in “Over Fire Island” (which I described in my notes as “Not pop—or is it?”), a bassline, a toe-tapping beat and a noodling synth all seem to have wandered over from other random compositions.

Although Eno was quite fond of utilizing his Oblique Strategies cards during this album’s recording, you don’t need to know anything about them to discern that he was experimenting with the creative process and striving to make music that was both more intuitive and hermetic. Around this time, he said, ”If you had a sign above every studio door saying ‘This Studio is a Musical Instrument’ it would make such a different approach to recording.” AGW’s seemingly pithy instrumentals are born out of this very approach, but Eno’s melodic gift is still dominant enough to produce something like “The Big Ship”. Primarily another repetitive four-note synth motif over a shuffling, mechanical beat, it fades in like a massive sea craft emerging through dense layers of fog in slow motion. By the time it reaches peak volume, the whole thing radiates majesty, feeling at once both elated and calm. All Eno employs here is a minimal melody and the modulation of sound—in theory, it seems like small potatoes, but in practice, it’s absolutely immense.

If AGW were entirely instrumental, we might consider it Eno’s first solo ambient music effort (NO PUSSYFOOTING, his 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp is technically Eno’s first dabble in the genre). However, those four songs with vocals (not counting the brief vocals in “Sky Saw”) suggest he wasn’t entirely ready to leave pop music behind. “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I’ll Come Running” both could’ve easily fit on Eno’s previous two albums, especially the latter with its old-school piano triplets and playful “whoa-oh-oaahh” vocals. Both songs even have guitar solos (played by Fripp) and now scan like great lost singles that could’ve been standards had they come out five years later. The intimate, gorgeous “Everything Merges With The Night” even has a prominent acoustic guitar on it, while the more somber “Golden Hours” tempers its squirrely textures (such a tapping typewriter providing a Morse code-like rhythm) with blissful aaahs and Eno’s playfully elongated syllables (“per-haps / my / braiinnnns / have / turrrrned / to / sand”).

As one works at deciphering AGW, contrasts and patterns emerge: the prevalence of nature in the song titles versus a sonic tableau that could only come from a recording studio… how the trembling beat of the cheery “St. Elmo’s Fire” takes on a tonally distinct cast when a variation of it appears in the following track, “In Dark Trees”… the simple melody of “Becalmed” echoing the similarly austere melody of “The Big Ship”… how the mood continually swerves between contentment and trepidation, with “Spirits Drifting” concluding the album on ambiguous note, one that could either be of peace or fear, depending on how one perceives it. With such intricacies woven into its fabric, AGW is not an album most listeners would necessarily define as pop; without the vocal tracks, it may very well not be pop at all. And yet, as my taste in music has broadened with each passing year, I’ve come to think of it as pop, with the caveat that it’s not the same kind of pop music as Maroon 5, just as Mumford and Sons is not the same kind of pop as Eminem. With AGW, Eno simply stretched the definition of what pop music could contain, and it’s irrelevant whether it was actually popular or not—that it has endured to the point where I and many others are writing about it nearly 40 years later shows that, like all pop, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether through word-of-mouth or independent discovery, more listeners collectively join the conversation, and it lives on.

Eno will soon resurface in this project, alternately as performer and producer. Up next: The Journey Continues…

“The Big Ship”:

 

“I’ll Come Running”: