Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77 Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are taking a critical look at Talking Heads with new reviews of five albums that chart their journey from New York art-punks to a voracious and spectacular pop group.

Contrary to the way they sounded, Talking Heads were not in a hurry. David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz had no particular plan to play music together when they moved to New York City after the dissolution of Frantz and Byrne’s band back in Providence, where all three had attended the Rhode Island School of Design. That lasted until Frantz and Weymouth saw the Ramones at CBGB shortly after they arrived—the kind of downtown show a couple of broke art-school graduates might wander into in late 1974. Still buzzing, Frantz, the drummer, convinced Byrne, the singer-guitarist, to give it another go. But they didn’t have a bassist in New York, and they couldn’t find one they liked.
Rather than settle and start playing shows quickly, they decided that Weymouth could do it—never mind that she’d never touched a bass before. She bought one on layaway and set about learning, listening to records by pioneering hard rocker Suzi Quatro and receiving occasional words of encouragement from free jazz legend Don Cherry, who happened to live in the same building, down the street from CBGB, where the newly minted trio rented a loft for $250 a month. Talking Heads practiced for six months before they were ready for their first gig: at CB’s, in June 1975, opening for the Ramones. Another two years passed before they recorded and released their debut album. They had a big future ahead of them. Why rush?

During those two years, they developed their music and career carefully. They added a fourth member in keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Modern Lovers, to fill out their spindly early sound. They turned down one record deal, always waiting for the right fit. They immersed themselves in the profuse richness of music and art that New York made available at the time: dancing to disco and salsa, rubbing elbows with avant-garde improvisers like Cherry and composers like Philip Glass, jamming with Arthur Russell, who almost got Harrison’s seat in the final lineup. And they brought it all with them as they clawed their way to the center of the new thing called punk rock that was happening at CBGB.
Talking Heads 77 feels both like the culmination of the band’s days as downtown New York darlings and the primordial origin of their late-’70s-early-’80s masterpieces. They were already accomplished enough that Rolling Stone opened its review by noting how long they’d taken to record an album, and Talking Heads 77 shows it, expressing an arch, agitated, and abundantly tuneful sensibility belonging entirely to them. If they had gone the way of their less durable CB’s scene peers—say, the Dictators, or the Shirts—and broken up soon after, it might have been viewed as a one-and-done record collector classic today. But they didn’t. Alongside its ingenuity, Talking Heads 77 also exists as a mere glimmer of potential, a fascinating prelude to a few of the most visionary albums ever recorded.

The band’s curiously multivalent relationship with pop music was already being negotiated. Across 11 songs, Talking Heads aspire to pop’s communal uplift while also creating distance from the genuine article. A few seconds into “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town”— cymbal crashes, four chords ascending toward frenzy, the rhythm locking in—and we’ve arrived indisputably at the Talking Heads sound. Frantz plays like an R&B session drummer with a gun held to his head, just a little too edgy and insistent. Weymouth is bouncy and melodic, with no trace of a beginner’s tentativeness. A gleeful steel pan solo appears from nowhere, an early sign of the band’s disinterest in rock orthodoxy. Byrne yelps, proclaims, and carries on conversations with himself.

As he would again and again, he addresses human connection in the stilted language of an atomized and impersonal society. He frets that falling in love might cause him to “neglect my duties,” as a stockbroker might make a bad investment—so concerned with performing his role that love becomes an incursion, an obstacle toward getting work done. Crucially, however, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” is not black-witted satire. It may be a postmodern send-up of a love song, but it’s also a love song. The rhythm section does a stiff imitation of the Funk Brothers, but they still lay down a pretty good groove for dancing. Parsing the blend of sincerity and irony in any Talking Heads song is difficult, but you never doubt their belief in the music.

For New York, 1977 was a difficult year—economic freefall, neighborhoods ravaged by arson fires, a blackout that threw the city briefly into anarchy, the shadow of a serial killer who stalked the outer boroughs the summer before—and Talking Heads 77 occasionally embodies that darkness. “Psycho Killer,” the catchiest song ever written about a sociopathic murderer, is more disquieting in footage of an early CBGB performance than it is on record, where it evolved into a campy performance of violence, turning the killer’s chilling laughter into a goofy refrain.

“No Compassion” is more mundane, and more menacing because of it, with a narrator who calmly rationalizes his own refusal to empathize with anyone. Opening with an uncharacteristically hard-rocking riff and lurching between two drastically different tempos, it feels like a last vestige of affinity with the punk scene’s heavier and more nihilistic tendencies. Still, its message probably shouldn’t be taken at face value. “So many people have their problems/I’m not interested in their problems,” Byrne moans at one point, a rich sentiment coming from a guy beset by problems on all sides and eager to tell you about it, whose response to the joys of new love is a resounding “uh oh.”

These moments of intensity arise as occasional spasms across an otherwise upbeat and approachable album. At times, Talking Heads ‘77 seems to leapfrog the stormy minimalism the band would pursue across the trio of Brian Eno collaborations that followed this album, and instead offer a budget approximation of the pancultural dance party they threw on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. Talking Heads ‘77 abounds with ecstatic rhythms and bright sonic details: a honky-tonk piano disguised as a disco bassline on “The Book I Read”; mallets and Latin percussion building toward a sultry sax refrain on “First Week / Last Week … Carefree”; a toylike synthesizer on “Don’t Worry About the Government,” a song whose cheeriness in the face of alienation is both heartening and unsettling. The Talking Heads of ‘77 come off like enthusiastic collagists rather than master sculptors: these sounds are thrilling on their own, but they don’t always cohere with the holism of later albums.

On “Tentative Decisions,” Byrne engages in a one-man call-and-response, switching between his usual whine and a cartoonishly stentorian low register, simulating the interplay of lead and backing vocalists on any number of old pop and soul records. This was a new kind of self-awareness for rock bands, who by the mid-’70s were steeped in decades of pop history, and anxiously searching for their own place within it. Talking Heads articulated that self-awareness without ever sounding smug or lapsing into parody, twisting pop’s stock gestures into new shapes while maintaining their core musical appeal. It was a feat no one had accomplished in quite the same way before them, and no one would repeat in quite the same way. No one except the Talking Heads, that is: Byrne would closely replicate the “Tentative Decisions” vocal arrangement on the chorus of “Slippery People,” from Speaking in Tongues. But by 1983, he had an actual chorus of slick-sounding backing singers—the distance between Talking Heads and the rest of the world growing smaller, but never collapsing entirely.

After its tense final chorus, “Tentative Decisions” explodes into the most jubilant stretch of music on Talking Heads ‘77, an instrumental coda with a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, congas tapping at the edges, and high-stepping piano from Harrison—all of it repeating with minimal variation as the song fades out. More than anything, it sounds like house music, a genre that wouldn’t come along for a few years, but would eventually leave a seismic imprint on pop. Talking Heads stumble into the resemblance on “Tentative Decisions,” and stumble quickly out of it. Still, in 1977, they didn’t need to rush toward the future. They were already there.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77 Music Album Reviews Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on April 30, 2020 Rating: 5


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