Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads -- Talking Heads -- Review

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982/2004)
Rating: 12
"Make a clean break, wipe that love away!"
Best Song: Love -> Building On Fire/Memories Can't Wait/Heaven
Worst Song: I'm Not in Love

       The gap between Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues was filled in by this, the band's first live album. It's been slightly overrated over the years, but I can't deny its power; this is a document of a brilliant band at the height of its powers. Name of This Band isn't a single, complete show; it's actually a compilation of several different Heads performances over the first four years of the band's existence. This definitely makes for an interesting listen, as the tracks are sequenced chronologically -- the tightly-wound guitar interplay of '77 leads into the mild synth touches of More Songs and Fear of Music, but the real shock comes when we hit the Remain in Light tour, as stalwarts like Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, and Nona Hendryx (along with a number of other backing members) join the band and effectively create a massive, all-encompassing dance-machine that just barely resembles the nerdy pop-rock shtick of the earlier tracks. 
       The album starts off with an absolute bang, a mini-set the band recorded live in the studio featuring tracks from 77. The group's energetic, David's vocals are in wonderful shape, and the interplay between David and Jerry's Fenders is even more mind-blowing than it was on the album -- in short, it's pretty much early-Heads-heaven. There's even a non-album rarity that made its way on here; it's called "A Clean Break (Let's Work)", and it's positively brilliant. Why it was left off of 77 is anyone's guess -- it's probably the best track here, topping even the infamous "Psycho Killer" in melody, performance, and sheer enthusiasm. The riffs are absolutely AWESOME, David's vocals are AWESOME ("Wipe that love awaaaaaAAYYYYYYY!"), and all in all it's easily one of my favorite Heads songs. Of course, this entire set of performances isn't quite perfect -- "Who Is It" is completely unnecessary, "The Book I Read" is pretty underwhelming (I was never crazy about it to begin with, but for some reason I really end up disliking the song in this context; chalk it up to my quirks, I guess), and "Pulled Up", while still great, doesn't quite match up to its studio incarnation. Everything else is gold, though.
       The album then takes a slight turn for the worse. It doesn't help that my two least favorite tracks from the 77 performance are placed right in a row at the end of the set, but the next few songs (all recorded during the More Songs About Buildings and Food era) after this dry spell also do a great deal of damage to the album's pacing. I like this version of "The Big Country" quite well out of context, but in context it sorta drags; same with "I'm Not in Love" and "The Girls Want to Be With the Girls" -- I like both of these songs, but the way they're structured in the album's overall flow just doesn't work well for me at all. It all gets really samey really quickly, and since none of these tracks are downright classics from a songwriting standpoint, it gets a little old. I do enjoy this early version of "Drugs", though; it's called "Electricity", and it replaces the creepy production and vocal effects of the original with a more traditional, riff-rocking style to great effect. "Found a Job" is next, and while I do miss those steel drums during the outro, it works just fine.
       The style completely shifts with the next few tracks, thankfully; I can't quite place my finger on it, but the rejuvenated guitar tones and added synth layers utilized by the band on the Fear of Music tour breathes a new layer of life into the album, one which it thankfully keeps for the rest of its running time.  There are some completely competent renditions of "Mind" and "Air" here, but the real meat comes in the three-track-stretch of "Love -> Building On Fire", "Memories Can't Wait", and "Heaven". "Building On Fire" is yet another non-album track, and it's nearly as good (if not just as good) as "A Clean Break"; the guitar lines are killer, the bridge is hilariously fun ("We go 'tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet!' like little birds!!"), and the main "It's not loooove!" hook in the chorus is ridiculously pleasing to the ear. "Memories" is done up in a hard-rocking, uber-dramatic fashion to great effect, and "Heaven" is given the room to breathe in a live setting that it never quite had on the original. Oh, and Byrne's delivery on the last verse is absolutely HEART-WRENCHING.
       And so ends the first disc. The second disc is completely different -- here we get a look at the Remain in Light band, a gigantic conglomerate with all sorts of guest musicians. Adrian Belew is a particularly inspired choice; his guitar effects help spice up nearly every song, and he's an invaluable addition to the group. Things start out well enough with another rendition of "Psycho Killer" followed by a decent run-through of "Warning Sign" and a particularly inspired "Stay Hungry". "Cities" is next, and...uh...what's that in the chorus? Oh yeah, that's Nona Hendryx singing backup. She sounds a little off-key, I'll admit, but she's in the background for the most part, so...she's fine. Besides, "I Zimbra" is next!
       ...aaaand she completely ruins it by shrieking like a dying wildebeest throughout it. Okay, she doesn't completely ruin it; the guitar interplay is AWESOME here, as Jerry, Adrian, AND David all swap licks and atmospheric touches. The vocal melody, however, is essentially left lying dead on the floor -- why couldn't they get Eno to sing backup on tour instead of HER? I mean, I guess she's fine as an over-the-top soul singer -- she was a member of the band Labelle back in the early 70s (most famous for the infamous "Lady Marmalade"), and as such, she's actually pretty great in "Take Me to the River" -- but when she tries to sing on something like "Houses in Motion" or "Once in a Lifetime" it's just flat-out painful.
       I can't blame her, though -- part of the allure of something like "The Great Curve" on Remain in Light was in Eno's intricately-constructed vocal arrangements, and those would be nigh-impossible to recreate in a live setting. And the guitars and rhythm section serve these tracks just fine -- yet another feat one would consider quite difficult given Eno's production, but the band members take up the job admirably. Of course, I'd be hard-pressed to call any of these repurposed songs better than their originals, and they generally work more in a "Wow, they were able to decently recreate *insert Light song here* in a live setting! How impressive!" way than in a "Wow, this is an awesome song! I feel the need to listen to this regularly!" way. That said, certain tracks are pretty cool -- the groove on "Crosseyed and Painless" is pretty freaking great, and this version of "Drugs" is flat-out AMAZING, combining the creepy effects found on the studio version with the liveliness and rocking guitar lines of the "Electricity" rendition found earlier in the album. "Take Me to the River" is a load of fun too, as the band delivers a more straight-forwardly thumping version than the quirky, awkward original.
       So it's not quite uber-essential listening, but it's still an interesting artifact of one of the best live bands ever. The first disc is certainly more pleasurable than the second, but I would whole-heartedly recommend the entire thing to any fans of the band. I'm not quite as in love with it as everyone else seems to be, but there's some great stuff to be found on here. Get it after you get a few studio albums, but still definitely get it.

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