Saturday, January 14, 2012

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

It's been called the "day of reckoning." It seems so common for a performer to dump all resources into a debut and then to come up empty for the followup. Talking Heads, to begin with, were too prolific and daring to fall into such traps, and moreover, they were reserving their best early material for the ideal producer, which Tony Bongiovi was not. Upon finding a soulmate in the great Brian Eno, they unleashed all of the live classics from their years at CBGB's. These compositions are rife with creative spark, and the imagination of the performances and production result in a leaping, enveloping record and an innovative band in peak form. This is the sophomore anti-slump, not to mention the unsurpassable apex of new wave and alternative rock.

The aptly titled More Songs About Buildings and Food contains an incredible number of this band's signature works -- "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls," "Found a Job," "Take Me to the River," "Artists Only," "The Big Country," "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," "With Our Love," etc. -- that bristled with energy in live performance. Eno did such a flawless job transferring the power and bliss of the live Heads to disc, with the same savvy studio intelligence that has made him famous, that you want to hang on to immortalize every second, and you feel yourself grabbing at all the nuances to try to keep them.

David Byrne's selection of lyrics this time around find the open windows in "No Compassion" and "The Book I Read" and fly out of both. He is still an angry young man, but much more so than 77, this album is full of moments in which he seems vocally to grasp something beautiful that lies just beyond his reach; he fulfills the promises of the early demo "I Want to Live." On "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," he achieves rock & roll ecstasy while the others bang out a loud loud loud Velvet Underground groove and Eno turns every guitar note into a Spector wall of sound. On "With Our Love" and the rather shocking Prince-on-amphetamines cut "Stay Hungry" he expresses desires that are almost human, but of course in a sublimely aloof fashion. ("Here's my shoulderblade" is his idea of a come-on.)

The uncredited "No Compassion" sequel "I'm Not in Love" makes the 10cc song of the same name sound like "The Way We Were." "There'll come a day when we won't need love," Byrne snarls. He's ever more alienating on "Warning Sign," on which he finally gives it all up, ignoring the music and simply shouting at the listener as if through a megaphone, "PAY ATTENTION! PAY ATTENTION! I'm talking to you and I hope you're concentrating!" It's a moment that eerily foreshadows the undoing of his persona on the following album, Fear of Music.

A set of three songs at the halfway point of More Songs permanently raise the bar. "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" is driving and intrusive and seductive in all kinds of ironic and sincere ways. "Found a Job" casts Byrne as either Shel Silverstein or one of Roald Dahl's Oompa Loompas as he belts out the story of Bob and Judy, who didn't like the shows on TV so they started writing their own. The result is bitter social commentary that climaxes in a simple but riveting, breathless jam with some of the hardest and loudest piano banging since the the unforgettable intro to the Chiffons' "One Fine Day." Byrne is at his most unguarded -- and funniest -- in his clever encapsulation of the creative process, "Artists Only," which boasts an incomprehensibly grand Heads performance, always hard rocking but subtle and more attentive to rhythm than bombast. These tracks alone would certify this an essential recording.

Eno has a great deal to do with just how astounding this album is. He has removed the space between the songs to create relentless pacing that never allows you to pause for a breather. More importantly, he has done away with all of the problems that made some of Talking Heads: 77 such a tinny mess. A band this great deserved better than that treatment, with Chris Frantz's drums seeming like an afterthought and Tina Weymouth's bass hardly noticeable at all. For Buildings and Food, Eno understands how important their energy is to the group and emphasizes them above everything else, making this a new wave record slightly closer to R&B than punk. In a sense Byrne's voice feels like a percussive effect in these songs ("Found a Job") while Eno casts a multilayered soundscape around him.

Instead of using subtlety as an excuse to let the songs sit there, Eno utilizes pop method to pump each track with power and enormity. Where "With Our Love," "Stay Hungry," and "The Good Thing" would have been jangly and indistinct on 77, Eno recasts the elements of the songs and lets them spring to life, each note bouncing out of the speakers, every detail out in the open, and the music never sounding minimalistic even though it is. "With Our Love" is suddenly an epic psychodrama, "Stay Hungry" is "Things We Said Today" except it evokes fucking in words and otherwise and degenerates into a murky, stark jam at the end, and "The Good Thing" is an emotionally exhausting, fast-moving cartoon with a fabulously busy climax. The automatic reaction is to dance; it's no surprise that the Heads loved disco. They promote the ideals of musical hedonism through the propulsive, unstoppable beat that runs through this record like a pulsating force of life. It's a genre of its own, ironic detachment dance music.

On the last two songs, the band ditches the first two ingredients. Their hit version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" really isn't punk-irony at all, it's just proof of the Heads' belief in music as universal thought, and it's telling that Green's lyrics on the track blend perfectly with Byrne's on the rest of the album. But it's "The Big Country" that will leave the biggest mark. Dark and almost visual in its panoramic beauty, it may be the finest ballad in rock music, rigorously unsentimental yet ultimately devastating. Wailing with yet another powerful bass & drum heartbeat and some gorgeous slide guitar, Byrne quietly examines America and the activities of its citizens from an airplane, coming to the bitter conclusion that "I wouldn't live there if you paid me." He can't find the virtues in any place; he doesn't feel at home anywhere. He has no Waterloo sunset. The final verse is stunning: He admits that "I'm tired of looking out the window... I'm tired of traveling... I want to be somewhere" but, in a painfully real moment, is unable to confront his feelings so he says "It's not even worth talking about..." and descends into gibberish. Without abandoning the breakneck immediacy of their aesthetic, the Heads have created something genuinely moving.

More Songs About Buildings and Food is, of course, very early in the career of Talking Heads and comes ahead of foreceful, magnificent recordings like Fear of Music, Little Creatures, and especially the crowning Remain in Light. But this second album is their defining moment, capturing the glory and strength of the best of the CBGB's bands when they were still making music that was identifiably punk. It captures them in their classic, pure moment, and for that reason it remains -- for all the beginnings it fostered, from Eno's position as their only ideal producer to the flirtation with black music -- simply their loveliest effort. It is absolutely an album for the ages and should be heard by everyone, because everyone deserves the opportunity to dance in the ways only this group can make you dance.

[Originally posted at a different venue in 2004.]

Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites (1975-92)
Bonus Rarities & Outtakes (1975-92)
Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

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