Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Talking Heads

Reviewed on this page:
Talking Heads: 77 - More Songs About Buildings And Food - Fear Of Music - Remain In Light - The Red And The Black - The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads - Speaking In Tongues - Stop Making Sense - Little Creatures - True Stories - Naked - Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom - No Talking Just Head

I've rarely been impressed David Byrne's pretentious stream-of-consciousness lyrics and musical cannibalism. Nonetheless, the Talking Heads were in my view not just the biggest but most consistently listenable of the American New Wave acts, recording a half-dozen commercially successful albums over a decade, breaking ground with Byrne's electronic funk and World Music affectations, and always retaining enough musical integrity to make them a critics' favorite. None of them had the musical chops of their counterparts in bands like XTC and Television, but on the other hand most of the New Wave groups were nothing more than attitude to start with - just look at the B-52's. And like Blondie and the Police, the Talking Heads had an imaginative and easily recognizable lead vocalist who could enliven even the most leaden backing tracks. Plus they managed to corral producer/electronic ambience maestro Brian Eno long enought to put a few highly experimental discs that rank with anything that came out of the New Wave movement.

Eventually the band parted with Eno, got into a musical rut, and broke up. Byrne continues to put out solo records that emphasized his Latin and African musical interests, and all three of the other members have been involved in a long string of outside projects. Recently the band - minus Byrne - reformed for a tour and an album that is reviewed below.

We say some harsh things on this page, and we're missing some of the Heads' solo records, so you might be tempted to flame us. Don't bother: as a matter of policy we routinely ignore flame letters, and we've heard it all before anyway. If you must, consult our flame writer's FAQ page first. (JA)


David Byrne (vocals, guitar), Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass, backing vocals).

Talking Heads '77 (1977)
Without any of the production sheen and World Beat affectations of later releases, here all the attention is on the band's herky-jerky syncopations and David Byrne's endearing alienation. His lyrics are mostly terrific, charmingly simple ("The Book I Read," "Who Is It?") as often as they're hip and ironic ("Don't Worry About The Government," "No Compassion"). Then there's the big hit, "Psycho Killer," which Byrne co-wrote with Weymouth and Frantz (Byrne wrote everything else himself). The problem is the limited nature of the arrangements: they had their space-conscious nerd-funk groove worked out, but without much technical facility, they end up using the same arpeggiated chords on track after track ("Pulled Up"). In small doses it's great, but after a whole album - at roughly the same tempo - may start to feel like water torture. Produced by Tony Bongiovi, Lance Quinn, and the band; engineered by future Living Colour producer Ed Stasium. (DBW)
What an amazingly egotistical title for a debut album. (JA)

More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)
The band fell on its face artistically, reusing the same formula as the previous record but without the same freshness ("The Good Thing"), tunefulness ("With Our Love") or lyrical invention ("I'm Not In Love" is particularly heinous). Instead, they fall back on sudden dynamics shifts ("The Girls Want To Be With The Girls") and endless repetition ("The Big Country"). There are a couple of outstanding tracks - "Warning Sign" uses the twin rhythm guitars to good effect; "Artists Only" is a clever rant - but overall it's a big step backwards. Of course, none of that mattered commercially because the group scored its first hit with a drugged-out five-minute cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River," which sounds unlike anything else on the record. Buy this if you must, but make sure you have the surrounding albums first. (DBW)
The band's breakthrough album, their earliest gold record, the source of their first Top 40 single, and a substantial Top 40 album hit on its own. Perhaps the key to all this was working with producer Brian Eno, back then the hottest thing on the progressive rock scene (see also David Bowie and U2). (JA)

Fear Of Music (1979)
I hate the band, and even I have to admit this is a great album. Eno keeps things simple: scratchy rhythm guitars avoiding all the usual rock clichés (virtually no distortion, for example), looping bass lines, and occasional echoey touches, all over 4/4 drumming by Chris "The Human Drum Machine" Frantz. What makes it work is the endless succession of catchy riffs (often working a single chord to death), and Byrne's excellent songwriting - countless phrases from this record went straight into the lexicon of affected youth. Lots of high points, including the big single "Life During Wartime," the eerie rocker "Memories Can't Wait" (later covered by Living Colour), the irresistibly minimal "Air," the touching ballad "Heaven," even the we're-so-hip "Zimbra," their first imitation of beat-heavy Third World forms. Byrne's pretension is mostly under control here (though he gives nearly every song an arty one-word title) and I can't imagine a better place to get acquainted with the band's approach. (DBW)
I'm inclined to agree with Wilson's rating. Robert Fripp contributes a really characteristic, and really first-rate guitar part to "I Zimbra." (JA)

Remain In Light (1980)
- The third and last Eno production, and a fine one at that. Eno's formula includes choppy funk bass, weird synth noises, dense layers of polyrhythmic percussion, and repetitive song structures that after a while lull the listener into a near trance - the dreamy, energetic "Crosseyed And Painless" is a great example. Better yet, he recruits whiz kid Adrian Belew to contribute some completely wacky guitar solos ("The Great Curve"). You'll hear most of this on Eno's earlier Bowie records, but Byrne and the band are an even better foil for him: although they've got no desire to mix things up with traditional rock tunes or out-and-out ballads, they're also too smart to avoid full-blown sound collages, at least before the tedious album closer ("The Overload"). Meanwhile, Byrne is at a lyrical peak here, suggesting just enough to create a definite image and occasionally even an interesting sociological point, but never annoying or heavy-handed. It all comes to a climax on the hit single "Once In A Lifetime," but most of the other tunes are solid and instantly accessible - that even goes for the bizarre horn arrangment on "Houses In Motion." Fans should track this record down if at all possible. (JA)
- A big step down from the previous record, because Eno gets totally carried away with his looped funk formula: everything except the concluding dirge "The Overload" is at the same tempo, and based on endless vamping ("Born Under Punches"). Apart from "Once In A Lifetime," there are no real song structures, and Byrne's pronouncements are mostly scattershot. (DBW)

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Byrne and Eno: 1981)
Byrne's first solo effort, a collaboration with Brian Eno. (JA)

The Catherine Wheel (Byrne: 1981)
The score to a Twyla Tharp dance piece, and apparently a good one. (JA)

The Red And The Black (Harrison: 1981)
Harrison's first solo album is a collection of low-intensity, minimalist funk jams that never really gets out of park: rhythm guitars and keyboards lay down a groove that repeats endlessly ("Worlds In Collision"), and Harrison speaks stream of consciousness lyrics. No development, no dynamics, no tension released - it's all the Heads' excesses with none of their strengths. That said, a couple of the grooves themselves are pretty good - notably "Magic Hymie," cowritten by Nona Hendryx and Bernie Worrell, who also appear on several less memorable tunes. Belew guests on most of the tracks too, but doesn't supply the shot in the arm the disc sorely needs; other musicians include Yogi Horton (drums), George Murray (bass), and Koko Mae Evans. Produced by Harrison with Dave Jerden. I believe this is now out of print; I found a used LP copy. (DBW)

Tom Tom Club (Tom Tom Club: 1981)
A side project of Frantz and Weymouth's in the wake of some internal band conflicts. Amazingly, the album sold just as strongly as anything the Heads ever did, and generated a US Top 40 hit of its own ("Genius Of Love") - plus a couple more hits in Britain ("Wordy Rappinghood" and "Under The Boardwalk"). (JA)
"Genius Of Love" also formed the basis of Mariah Carey's 1995 hit "Fantasy." (DBW)

The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982)
When a band loses direction and goes off into solo projects, what's a record company to do? You guessed it: crank out a live record. This is a double album with one side each from 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1981, making it a handy guide to the band's evolving sound. The first side shows how they already had their twin-rhythm-guitar-one-weird-vocalist act worked out: they're tight and the songs are catchy, though the musicianship had a long way to go: Weymouth's bass went out of tune halfway through the recording, and either nobody noticed or nobody cared. The 1979 side is the best, reinterpreting several Fear Of Music tracks with Harrison's Belew-like guitar spasms replacing the record's careful production. Plus there's Byrne's ranting on "Air" - maybe you can't tell what he's talking about but you know he means it. Things go rapidly downhill on the second disc, though: the Heads convinced themselves they were a genuine World Beat funk band, and they crowded the stage with additional musicians including Belew, Busta Jones on bass, Bernie Worrell on organ, Nona Hendryx on backing vocals, and more singers and percussionists. But the guests don't get any solos or interesting arrangements to play, and continually they just vamp for six or seven minutes ("The Great Curve"). By the time they get to the big finale on "Take Me To The River," you may be wondering why you ever listened to this band in the first place. (DBW)

Speaking In Tongues (1983)
The Heads now reconvened for a self-produced studio album, and indeed they're completely in command of their patented, tension-building funk/New Wave dance recipe ("Girlfriend Is Better," livened with a catchy "stop making sense" refrain). The burbling, mechanical lead-off track "Burning Down The House" ended up as their biggest hit ever, broaching the Top 10 with help from a heavily rotated MTV video. Most of the tunes are just as much fun: "Making Flippy Floppy," with squawking, Belew-like lead guitar; "Slippery People," revved up with a call-and-response gospel chorus; the energetic "Pull Up The Roots"; and the punchy New Orleans funk masterpiece "Swamp," with Byrne's hysterical curmudgeon vocal and irresistable nonsense chorus. Although they never really break with the formula except on their up-dated reggae workout "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity" and their cutesy, smile-inducing, nearly funk-free New Wave ballad "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," Byrne is impressively weird even on lesser tunes like "Moon Rocks." And everything gets slathered with bizarre synth dribblings and ornate, blended layers of tropical and electronic percussion. Some needless five-minute running times do hint at the egomania that dragged the band down, but it's still an impressively consistent outing. A large crowd of players here including Worrell, Hendryx, Alex Weir (guitar), Wally Badarou (synth), etc. (JA)

Close To The Bone (Tom Tom Club: 1983)
Unlike Frantz and Weymouth's first album, this one failed to generate hit singles. (JA)

Stop Making Sense (1984)
The closest thing to a live Talking Heads greatest hits record you'll ever find, but unfortunately that's not a recommendation. The band's sound is thin to start with, and in concert everything comes down to Byrne's vocal acrobatics despite all the squeaky Bernie Worrell/Jerry Harrison synth parts, extra players on guitar and percussion, and smooth female backing vocals. Sometimes it works, but more often it's just a bore, especially because the track selection is so unimaginative. A lot of the material is from Speaking In Tongues: "Swamp," "Girlfriend Is Better," "Slippery People," and of course "Burning Down The House." But the other tunes are entirely predictable, including all four of the band's earlier radio hits ("Psycho Killer," etc.). The only surprise selection is "What A Day That Was," from David Byrne's The Catherine Wheel solo album. Despite everything, I do admit that this might be a good buy if you only ever want to buy one Talking Heads record. I've heard that the film itself is a heck of a lot more exciting then this over-slick package of crowd pleasers. (JA)

Little Creatures (1985)
Probably the most pure fun you'll find on a Heads record. Not coincidentally, the band scored four moderate radio hits this time despite completely missing the Top 40: the ecstatic, R & B-flavored nonsense anthem "And She Was"; the twisted baby sitter's revenge song "Stay Up Late"; the longish, slightly funky "Walk It Down"; and the zydeco/gospel-flavored, lyrically self-referential march/anthem "Road To Nowhere." And outside of those amusing trinkets it's just as diverse, with a nod to country on still another clever baby advertisement ("Creatures Of Love"), falsetto-laden balladry on "Perfect World," and snappy but toned-down funk-punk with a flaky Latinized call-and-response instrumental middle on the six-minute "Television Man." It's almost always inventive and entertaining, although the band again sounds musically thin - but Chris Frantz does keep up a good beat even when the material flags. There's a ton of guest musicians, but most of them are minor-league session cats like Saturday Night Live horn section arranger Lenny Pickett. (JA)

Music For The Knee Plays (Byrne: 1985)
Another theatrical score, this one for an experimental play. (JA)

True Stories (1986)
By now, Talking Heads was more of an uneasy collaboration of convenience than a rock group. Byrne had directed a flop movie called True Stories which, of course, featured a soundtrack he'd written himself. Somehow he managed to round up the Heads to re-record the music and release it as a "new" album. The single "Wild Wild Life" got tons of airplay (a really annoying extended "party" mix is tacked on to the record as filler), and "Love For Sale" also recaptures their grinding, hard-edged, guitar-oriented 70s sound. But that's the only good stuff. Elsewhere Byrne is only interested in super-saccharine bastardizations of exotic influences like Caribbean music ("Hey Now"), zydeco ("Radio Head") and country-western (the cheery "People Like Us") - or even worse, he tries to put across yet more of his soggy, slow-paced, smiley-faced anthemic ballads ("Dream Operator," with a 3/4 country beat; the stately, ultra-pretentious "City Of Dreams"). Paulinho da Costa, pedal steel player Tommy Morrell, and a couple of monster vocal choirs (the jerky "Puzzlin' Evidence") are among the outside musicians. (JA)

Sounds From True Stories (Byrne: 1987?)

Be careful to avoid this, as it's the actual soundtrack to the film and only features the Talking Heads on one track ("City Of Steel"). A couple of the other artists are of minor interest, such as the Kronos Quartet, but I'm not planning to track this down. (JA)

Casual Gods (Harrison: 1987)
Harrison restarted his solo career at this point, calling his "band" Casual Gods. (JA)

Naked (1988)
The Heads' last gasp, and it's a letdown. With Byrne sliding towards World Music, the band cut some demos in New York and then retreated to Paris to hook up with veteran British New Wave producer Steve Lillywhite, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and several big-name Latin and African pop musicians (Lenny Pickett is back with some horn arrangements). But Paul Simon made pulling this kind of thing off sound easier than it really is: the Heads' version is a monotonous, unimaginative bore - one big, shapeless, percussion- and horn-slathered groove that chugs away through every track. What might have been exotic ends up being merely derivative of Third World pop music ("Mr. Jones") or even of the Heads' own New Wave sound ("The Facts Of Life"), and the lack of any distinct contribution by the other band members renders the proceedings lifeless and routine. Meanwhile, Byrne goes with the usual oblique poetry in his lyrics, but there's nothing new or inspiring about it. Only two tracks really take off: the single "Blind," with a dramatic horn arrangement and an agreeable funk flavor, and "(Nothing But) Flowers," with an effective "you got it" chorus and some Byrds-y 12-string courtesy of Marr. (JA)

Rei Momo (Byrne: 1989)
Byrne's first full-blown attempt at World Music. (JA)

Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom (Tom Tom Club: 1989)
Another half-serious vanity production. Most of it consists of infectiously upbeat dance tunes, with Tina Weymouth's half-spoken, amateurish vocals not really getting in the way. Frantz thoroughly embarasses himself with a weak rendition of "She Belongs To Me," the synth effects are now dated-sounding, and the material is often boring ("I Confess") and always slight. The low point is a leaden, campy cover version of Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" that features David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, and Reed himself - none of whom are audible. But there are some high points: the goofy, repetitive, mechanically funky "Wah Wah Dance"; the danceable, ultra-cool "Shock The World," with an unexpected slo-mo surf guitar part; and the taut, primitive New Wave synth ballad "Don't Say No," with a vocal reminiscent of Debbie Harry and a solidly catchy chorus. Plus Heads fans will enjoy Weymouth's Byrne-like vocal mannerisms and the record's careful recreations of the Heads' late-period World Beat formulas ("Call Of The Wild") and early-period, minimalistic funk grooves ("Suboceana"; "Little Eva," also close to early Blondie). The band is Frantz and Weymouth (who produced), guitarist Mark Roule, and often Laura Weymouth (backing vocals), Bashiri Johnson (percussion), and/or Gary Pozner (keyboards). (JA)

Walk On Water (Harrison: 1990)
As far as I know this was the last Casual gods record. (JA)

The Forest (Byrne: 1991)
This is an instrumental album with a bunch of really pretentious sounding song titles based on names of famous ancient cities ("Ur," etc.). (JA)

In 1991 the Talking Heads reunited for a single ("Gangster Of Love") and a soundtrack contribution ("Sax And Violins," which appeared in Wim Wenders' flaky, globe-trotting pseudo-sci-fi movie Until The End Of The World). (JA)

Uh-Oh (Byrne: 1992)

David Byrne (Byrne: 1994)

No Talking Just Head (The Heads: 1996)
With a full-blown reunion not about to happen, the remaining members went ahead and cut an album with a different guest vocalist on almost every track. Several of the singers are obscure, but most of them are late 70s/80s New Wave compatriots. And with Byrne's pandering World Music formula out of the way, the band retreats to the stripped-down, hard-edged, infectiously danceable funk-punk of its early days. Now that musical tastes have circled back to the 70s anyway, the resulting mix is downright trendy. And it's dizzying fun: Ed Kowalcyzk's REM/Television imitation ("Indie Hair"), Richard Hell's cheerfully sloppy "Never Mind," Debbie Harry's snarling title track, Michael Hutchence's ironic "The King Is Gone." Frantz's peppy 90s percussion loops just put the icing on the cake. The only major disappointments are Malin Anneteg's noxious baby-girl soft-core gross-out rap ("No More Lonely Nights"); Gordon Gano's "Only The Lonely," which only proves what no-talents the Violent Femmes really are; and the band's thin instrumental backing to Andy Partridge's characteristically oblique "Papersnow." Fans should rejoice: it's easily their gutsiest effort since the early Eno days. And if David Byrne can't laugh off the use of the name "Heads" and the endless, bitter insults (e.g., the cover art), that's his problem. (JA)

Feelings (Byrne: 1997)
Another World Music-influenced solo record. (JA)

Look Into The Eyeball (Byrne: 2001)
He uses a big live string section here, and Thom Bell is one of many backing players. (JA)

More songs about speaking in tongues...

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