Wednesday, August 29, 2007

No. 126: Remain In Light

Band: The Talking Heads
Album: Remain In Light
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: You know how Paul Simon kept trying to get African percussion into his music? This is what he was trying to do. The Talking Heads, always a band on the edge, got their best production out of producer Brian Eno. Swirling keyboards, danceable African beats, great Jerry Harrison (with guest Adrian Belew) guitar work and David Byrne's fantastic disjointed, paranoid vocals all occupy this record as the band hit its peak as a unit. Also, "Once In A Lifetime."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd have "Remain In Light" higher. I love this album.
Best song: It'd be easy to say "Once In A Lifetime," as it's one of the band's signature songs (and who can forget that video?), but "Crosseyed And Painless" is probably my favorite Heads song.
Worst song: No song is worst. They're all just different levels of great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

I've mentioned what I consider to be greatest hits bands multiple times on this list and I imagine a lot of people would consider The Talking Heads a greatest hits band. These people are wrong, if only for this album. "Remain In Light" is one of my favorite albums because no album works different beats and rhytymns as seamlessly. Employing tons of new people into the band, including African drummers, the Talking Heads went from quirky New Wave band to amazing artists.

Each song is perfectly manicured with chants, percussion, horns and a full cadre of electronics. Eno's super hands-on production -- he is listed as a co-writer on several of "Remain In Light's" songs -- fits the album perfectly.

Byrne his hit high note as a lyricist, here, as well. His "almost sociopathic opening track, "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" weaves "Psycho Killer" in a more modern concept. The paranoid narrator freaks out as the swirling drums surround him. Eventually, the song evolves into a Parliament/Funkadelic-esque chant-along ("And the heat goes on/Where the hand has been" ), fitting considering one of the Heads' earliest influences was Parliament.

Of course, the classic "Once In A Lifetime" has Eno using a keyboard as a water theme in an instance where I've never heard an instrument make an unnatural sound seem so natural. Tina Weymouth's bass line starts and stops in the classic jerky Heads way that always seems to show that, yes, the Talking Heads are not a normal band. Even with the smooth water-sounding keyboards, this is still the Talking Heads.

Byrne's lyrics on "Once In A Lifetime" are among his best. An attack on suburbia and the American dream that Byrne would later explore in "True Stories," "Once In A Lifetime" decries the greed/conformity of the white picket lifestyle:

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask did I get here?

The water will always flow and Byrne will always attack the status quo. "Once In A Lifetime" attacks that conformity for conformity's sake by simply exposing it: "Same as it ever was."

(Also, the video. That man can dance.)


My favorite Heads song is the second track on "Remain In Light," "Crosseyed And Painless." The breakneck pace of the song is based on a sixteenth notes of slightly overdriven guitar, slap bass, looped cowbell and Chris Frantz' drumming. The start/stop melody is an extension of the Heads' earlier work while incorporating a sweet hook showcasing Byrne's best singing on a Heads record.

Of course, this is all built around an almost rap-ish performance by Byrne throughout the rest of the song. He starts off gruffly, explaining his situation -- a man dealing with demons we couldn't imagine, apparently -- with "Lost my shape-trying to act casual!/Cant stop-i might end up in the hospital/I'm changing my shape-i feel like an accident/They're back!-to explain their experience."

He eventually turns the insanity outward in a Stephen Colbert-esque attack on propaganda, truth and the all-too-nebulous "facts." During one hook, Byrne sings "Facts cut a hole in us" while on the subsequent verse, "facts are useless in emergencies."

All this culminates in Byrne's laundry list of what facts can do, with his subtle explanation of relativism:

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts dont do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don't stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape

Again, remember, this is all over a breakneck beat and Afro-Caribbean beats. Never has a philosophical judgment based on paranoia sounded so beautiful, fun and danceable. A wonderfully dark song, "Crosseyed And Painless" sounds anything but.

Not for nothing, but I love "Remain In Light" so much that it made me buy a Phish album. I'd heard that Phish did "Remain In Light" as one of their "musical costumes" and had released it as one of their live records. Because I'm a sucker for cover records, I picked it up. And you know what? It doesn't totally suck. Phish don't wank along too much, but rather jam out on what is a fantastic cover. A record like "Remain In Light" is hard to translate live, I'm sure, as it was heavily produced, but Phish did it well.

But, it's that good. Even a band like Phish realized the greatness and didn't touch it. They played it very faithfully to the original.

It's a must-have. It paved the way for Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel's ventures into African music and they can't hold a candle to "Remain In Light."

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