Remain in Light / Music for the Knee Plays / Remain in Light

Talking Heads, 1980 / David Byrne, 1985 / Angélique Kidjo, 2018

There are mountains of text on Talking Heads—whole books written even on individual albums. They’re a band of truly classic status, loved both very personally by multiple generations. To this day, when David Byrne plays This Must Be the Place, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house ( but each person is crying for individual, associative reasons).

The trio of records Talking Heads made with Brian Eno , More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light are generally accepted as the cornerstone of their canon. Remain overlaps not just my undying love all things Byrne but also my obsession with all things Eno—plus you can throw in my later in life love African musics, which this album under the sway of.

Remain is the height of Talking Heads as ‘big tent.’ They had more support musicians than official members, and trusted Eno enough to give him wide berth, as producer. It’s a dense album, from the outset. Swirls of percussion and guitars, backup singers and effects jostle for your attention. Little wonder Once in a Lifetime was the hit single here: it’s more pared back than anything else on the album.

More than just an album, thought, Remain was a roadmap for future revelations. Brian Eno is a pandora’s box. You could dig into it’s afrobeat influences and discover Fela Kuti. You could follow the guesting lead guitarist, Adrian Belew into the 80s incarnation of King Crimson. Or, alternately, you might just check out more by the Talking Heads, and maybe explore David Byrne’s first forays into solo projects that immediately followed Remain.

What stands as my favorite solo record by David Byrne (Look into the Eyeball) has yet to be released on vinyl. Even if it gets reissue treatment I don’t think I could part with my copy of Music for the Knee Plays. Talking Heads and David Byrne were one of my first musical obsessions, and Knee Plays was, quite literally the first LP I ever bought. At the time I couldn’t find it on any other format—but I was obsessed, and needed to have it all.

The work is a soundtrack (of sorts) written for a Robert Wilson play (or, more accurately, the interludes of a larger play). The album is scored entirely for brass band, with about half the tracks overlain with David Byrne’s clipped speaking voice. He dictates little prose poems that are imminently Byrne-ian. He ruminates on metamorphosizing into someone else (after stealing their groceries). A character agonizes about what to wear for a big occasion. In the Future is a list of often contradictory predictions for what lays ahead. It would be wrong to say Knee Plays is an oddity in Byrne’s catalog, it was just the first one.

Returning to Remain in Light: Angélique Kidjo said she knew it was an African album on first listen. In her hands, it’s a truth made plain. She re-colonizes the songs, but in truth, they don’t sound all too different. What really transforms is her voice: where Byrne is all nerves, Kidjo is gutsy swagger. When she bellows 'Some 'a you people just about missed it!’, she’s more preacher than snake-oil salesman. The force of her presence managed to return Remain in Light to me, as new, despite knowing every nook and cranny of it.

It’s so rare to enjoy a cover of a song or album you already have a deep relationship with. They’re something that fairs better if you like the covering artist more than the covered. She can’t unseat the Talking Heads for me, but she puts up a hell of a fight.

field report no.050818

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: David Byrne

OBSERVATIONS:
David Byrne’s music has been a life-long companion, for me, but it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve seen him live. Don’t ask me how I lived in NYC for so long and never managed to see him there (though I was lucky enough to enjoy his installation, Playing the Building). What I mean to say is I’m biased, at best. With that caveat , I’ve been describing seeing him this time around as life affirming. Not only was the show engaging—built around positive (but not passive) songs—it was future-facing visually ambitious. It’s rare to see an artist of such stature still striving.

Of course, David Byrne is not an artist given to nostalgia. The set list featured a smattering of Talking Heads songs (and not always the ones you’d expect). If you came looking for a greatest hits set (as so many of his peers are content to do), you’d leave disappointed.

They played (almost) the entirety of Byrne’s new album, American Utopia—which didn’t leave much time for the rest of his varied solo catalog. It provides an interesting view on what he considers canon, though: Like Humans Do and Lazy made the cut. Of the Talking Heads songs aired (especially The Great Curve and I Zimbra), were torn into with glee by the rhythm-heavy ensemble.

Every member of the band was in constant motion—made possible by a multi-piece, marching band-style percussion section. The stage was unadorned except for a tall, chainmail border curtain. Visually, it played with light cast on it. More practically, it allowed the band members to pass through it at any given point. Thoroughly choreographed, the staging (mostly) avoided feeling like interpretive dance, and never gave the impression of simply miming to pre-recorded tracks (it’s been pointed out in interviews that every sound is generated on stage).

While David Byrne doesn’t tour as often as he used to (and who could blame him), he never fails to present his work beautifully and thoughtfully. I left believing I’d seen, not a show, but an honest aesthetic presentation of artist in the present moment.

NOTES: David Byrne; Benjamin Clementine
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

Mesopotamia

The B-52's, 1982

The first B-52s tape I ever bought was a cassette copy of Mesopotamia. I'm pretty sure that the mini-album appeared in full on both sides of the tape. Maybe that's the reason I come back to this one, again and again. Apparently, it was meant to be a full-length album but aborted because the band was unhappy with David Byrne as producer. They felt he was trying to make them sound too much like the Talking Heads (like that's a terrible thing). Ironically, Talking Heads had recently parted ways with Brian Eno for similar reasons. Regardless, there's something in the claustrophobic, airless sound of this EP that makes the 52's come off as arty as they are goofy, making the humor more subversive--at least in these post-Love Shack, times.