9
Feb
2011
My Year in Lists: Interlude
Talking About Talking Heads
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives.

Welcome to the first My Year in Lists: Interlude, a planned occasional respite from the quest at the center of the feature in which we will look at music in different ways. Sometimes this will involve asking the list contributors to sound off on a topic (as it does today) and sometimes it will involve me discussing an issue or an event that wouldn't fit into the feature proper (for example, look for an Interlude on the Coachella Music Festival in April). This week, I have asked the three list contributors, Tab, Collin, and Ashley, to discuss Talking Heads, why they consider the band essential, and why they selected the album they did for last week's installment of My Year in Lists. Without further ado, here they are:

Tab, on More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music:

I lived in a small town in Nebraska from 1977 to 1979. It was a cultural wasteland where the only conduit of music was classic rock FM radio and Rolling Stone magazine. Thank god for Saturday Night Live. It introduced me to two influential bands. DEVO was on in the winter of 1978 and Talking Heads were on in February of 1979. Both bands were great and were unlike the boring old rock and roll that I was exposed to at the time. Because both of these bands were on Warner Brothers labels I was able to buy their cassettes in a chain record store at the mall. In DEVO's case it was Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO! for the Talking Heads it was More Songs About Buildings And Food. Each of these records turned out to be very influential for me and represented a sea change compared to the boring old rock and roll of Boston, Styx, lame Springsteen, or the Cars. Both of the records were also produced by Brian Eno. I think that their second release More Songs About Buildings And Food and third release Fear Of Music are the best Talking Heads records. More Songs was unlike anything I was listening to and I still love the bass line on "Warning Sign" and everything about "Found A Job", one of the greatest songs ever. Fear Of Music is a darker more rhythmic album than its predecessor with "I Zimbra" representing the future sound of the band and "Cities" and "Life During Wartime" being other all-time favorites. Both records are great from first to last cuts and the records that were released after these, from Remain In Light on, were more collaborative efforts, eschewing lead singer David Byrne's creative vision and resulting in derivative sounding songs rather than the pure Talking Heads sound found on their second and third releases. When I was trapped in the bleakness of Nebraska, Talking heads were a beacon of light.








Collin on Remain in Light:

So once upon time in the early 1970's a couple art-punks by the names of David Byrne and Chris Frantz met at the Rhode Island School of Design. What began as the two-piece outfit, The Artistics, soon evolved into the highly influential and infinitely enduring four-piece new wave band known as Talking Heads. Within a year or two the band would be performing their revolutionary combination of avant-garde, funk, and rock before The Ramones upon CBGB's legendary stage. Very few musicians have experienced an evolution in artistic style over the course of a career like that of Talking Heads, who eventually incorporated elements from pop, ambient (thanks to Brian Eno), afrobeat and world music into their sound. Accordingly, no single album can capture their unique brand of music categorized as post-punk / new wave. Four albums probably aren't enough, but they certainly bring us closer to identifying, comprehending, and appreciating (perhaps, even worshiping) the band's vast and permanent contribution to popular music and American culture. I chose Remain in Light because, for one, I am a mainstream Talking Heads fan likewise embarking on a mission to consume and bask in their entire aesthetic; for two, it marks the beginning of the band's longest studio hiatus (3 years); and, lastly, it represents the mid-point of their discography as their fourth effort, an effort that I believe to be their most experimental, wide-ranged and ground-breaking, especially in light of the new decade - a decade in which the term "new wave" would surface on MTV's television screens and project from the mouths of their very own talking heads.

Ashley on Speaking in Tongues:

For this interlude, I'd like to talk about my favorite Talking Heads song, "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)." A predictable choice perhaps, but sometimes the best is just the best. It's not a sweeping tour-de-force on the level of "Once in a Lifetime" or as sonically experimental as many of the other tracks on Speaking in Tongues, but it's one of the most emotionally resonant, nuanced songs in the Talking Heads' catalog. Even Oliver Stone couldn't ruin it for me by using it as frosting on the layer cake of mediocrity that was Wall Street and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The song has experienced a renaissance in the past few years as a go-to cover for bands like Arcade Fire and MGMT, and it even got the PS22 treatment.


For introduction's sake, here's one of the most sublime incarnations of the song, a live performance from Jonathan Demme's brilliant concert film Stop Making Sense (1984):





I think "This Must Be the Place" sounds like a fairly straightforward love song, mostly due to its lilting (naive) melody and unusually warm vocals. There was a time when I wanted to dance to this song at my wedding, possibly with a man wearing an oversized white suit who would look into my eyes and say, "Out of all those kinds of people, you've got a face with a view."


Unfortunately, as Byrne insists, he only writes about love with "reservations and twists," and in this case, the twist is that "TMBTP" isn't much of a love song at all. The version that I think illustrates this idea most clearly is the music video for the cover by Miles Fisher, which contextualizes the song in the ultimate 80s satire, Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000):





Maybe it's just because the words are coming out of Patrick Bateman's mouth, but seeing this video was what convinced me once and for all that "This Must Be the Place" isn't about being in love; it's about someone else loving you, and struggling against your overwhelming ennui to return that affection. Byrne seems to be willing himself to feel something throughout the song - there are few sadder sentiments in rock music (or life) than "Home is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there." In fact, the entire first verse is downright tragic:


Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing



Though obviously Byrne's lyrical point of view lacks Bateman's homicidal tendencies, Miles Fisher's elaborate music video works because both narrators are hollow; Bateman's insistence that he is "simply not there" isn't far off from Byrne's self-descriptors in that first verse. Yet based on the highly accurate and representative source that is the SongMeanings.net comments section, "TMBTP" is still generally regarded as the height of new wave romance. Commenter benfoldsfan insists "This must be what finding real love is like," while UNCWDMBfan says "I love the lyric, "Did I find you or you find me?" i think thats true love...i have no idea what this song means, but its great, what love should be about." A couple of people mention it as a wedding song. There are a few voices of reason throughout (the aptly-usernamed brokenfireescape notes "i think everyone's reading of this song is way off. this is one of the most depressing songs i've ever heard") but the majority seem to think of it as lyrically equivalent to "My Heart Will Go On." It reminds me of the public perception of "Hey Ya" by Outkast - a song about the futility of love and commitment, with a music video that prominently features a coffin, somehow becomes the feel-good hit of the decade.

Personally, I'm pretty content to have my favorite song be horrifically depressing. Besides, "This Must Be the Place" is successful because, not in spite of, the inherent contradictions and disparity between its lyrical content and listener perception. It's a Talking Heads "Choose Your Own Adventure" game, where one can emphasize the beautiful sentiment over the crushing doubt, or vice versa.




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