Movie Review: ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia On Broadway’

In junior high when I started listening to rock and roll music, the Talking Heads were not in high rotation. At least they weren’t in Kansas City. This is the heartland where Foghat, Styx and Journey ruled the day. I’m sure the radio moguls in town considered the Talking Heads music to be… well, “subversive.” That said, I’ve often stated that music evokes very powerful memories in me and vice versa. I woke up every morning to my clock radio which was tuned to the local station KY/102. I would leave it on while I drug myself zombie-like out of bed and into the shower. Music would be playing in the background while I got dressed and feathered my hair (oh yes, it was glorious). Because of the evocative effect of music on my memory, I can still remember the first time I heard the Heads’ version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River.” I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pulling my socks on… if I close my eyes I can see the old garish green shag carpeting and striped wall paper (my room was decorated in a manner that makes me suspect my mother was mad at me). Those drums, that voice. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. It made me realize that maybe the world was a little bigger than we’d all realized… there was something that cool out there, somewhere. There was such a lack of Talking Heads on the radio, I was convinced “Take Me To the River” was from their debut album until I was in college. Their debut, Talking Heads: 77 got no love from Kansas City radio. “Take Me To The River” was from their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, which still sort of surprises me. 

It’s still astounding to me that music as important as the Talking Heads first two albums were all but ignored in my home town. Perhaps that’s why lead singer/guitarist/songwriter David Byrne wrote a song like “Heaven” where he sang, “The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song, they play it once again, they play it all night long.” That sounds an awful lot like the place I grew up. It wasn’t until college that the Talking Heads pierced my consciousness again. MTV had taken over the world and when Speaking In Tongues came out the Heads were all over it with the video for “Burning Down the House.” In one scene Byrne stands in front of a video tape of a crowd. I dug the song but I remember a roommate of mine saying, “They had to use a videotape because the Talking Heads can’t draw a crowd.” There’s one in every group of friends… I will say the Talking Heads were made for MTV. Their videos are iconic. 

All that said, I didn’t buy my first Talking Heads LP until the live album, Stop Making Sense came out. A friend of mine who I’ll call Rambert had that album and played it once when I was at his place. That album and the movie it came from were in my mind as iconic as their music videos. The film version, directed by the late, brilliant Jonathan Demme, was truly ground breaking. The show starts with just David Byrne, dressed in his big suit, singing over a boom box and slowly builds as they add instruments for each song… they roll out the drummer, next track here comes the bass player. By the end, there’s nine people on stage. I just watched it again in the early stages of lock down… the Rock Chick had never seen it. 

When Little Creatures came out, I was ripe for a Talking Heads takeover. I heard “Road To Nowhere” and it immediately resonated for me. After hearing “And She Was” that was it, I was hooked. It took me a long time but I finally purchased every single Talking Heads LP. They rank amongst my all-time favorite bands. The band broke up rather acrimoniously a long time ago and I don’t think that rupture will ever be repaired. David Byrne is more of an “artiste” really. I can’t imagine he wants to go backwards. This is the guy who at the height of their popularity pulled Brian Eno in to produce the Talking Heads. When you’re at that stage of your career where you collaborate with Eno (Bowie, U2, Roxy Music)  you’ve reached the next level in artistry. 

Byrne’s solo career has been much less visible than his work with the Talking Heads. Much like Robert Plant (who also won’t reunite with his band) Byrne follows his muse where it takes him. His first solo LP, a collaboration with Eno, was My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. Likely not an album a lot of you have heard. His first “proper” solo album was the Latin-flavored Rei Momo that I just love. Check out the track “Dirty Old Town.” I will say that I am familiar with a number of the albums Byrne released as a solo artist but I’m like most people, I haven’t followed them as religiously as I should have. A few years ago, he put out a great LP, that we loved here at B&V, LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem. It had come as a surprise to me because I wasn’t paying attention. 

Afterwards, much like Springsteen, he took his show to Broadway. When did musical theater get to be so cool? I’ve never been a fan of musical theater. Early in my marriage the Rock Chick took me to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ where I promptly fell asleep which is still a point of contention in my marriage. I won an award at the corporation where I work and they flew me to New York. My flight was delayed and by the time I got to the hospitality suite they only had tickets to ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ all the ‘Spamalot’ tickets had been snapped up. It was enjoyable but its hard for me to get my head around a scene where there’s action happening and suddenly everyone breaks into song… “the Jets are gonna winnnnnn.” Recently over Christmas, I saw ‘The Book of Mormon’ and I may be turning around on the whole musical theater thing but I digress. 

Springsteen and now Byrne are putting some rock and roll into the “Great White Way.” After a wildly successful run on Broadway, Byrne invited director Spike Lee into film the performance. Spike does a really great job with this. It’s clear that ‘American Utopia’ is the spiritual descendent of the Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense.’ The stage is bare, very spartan. Byrne, and the rest of his backing band, are all in identical grey suits. At least the suit fits him this time. Lee does a great job of capturing close-up shots juxtaposed with wider shots to capture the movement and energy on the stage. There is no drum kit, there is no keyboard set up. The instruments are all carried by Byrne’s on-stage band so everyone is mobile, all the time. There are a few overhead shots, straight down on the stage that I felt were very effective. Despite the monochromatic stage and outfits, I found this movie very enticing to the eye. There was something very striking visually to the look and all the choreography and Spike Lee captured it perfectly. It was also certainly fun to see Broadway fans on their feet, rocking out in a venerable old theater. 

The songs Byrne selected to play are a mix of Talking Heads songs and solo tracks. It’s not the entire American Utopia album although there are a generous number of tracks from that record. Byrne pulls tracks from all over his catalog and yet, they cohere into a story. There’s a socially conscious message Byrne is conveying through this selection of songs and it comes across without being preachy. I was actually truly blown away by this show. He has brief spoken word intervals between a number of the songs where he covers a range of subjects: Dadaism, fascism, racism, television and the human brain, just to name a few. If I was going to suggest an overarching theme, it’s simply, connection. We are all connected. We all need to come together to make this world a better place. When Byrne, “a white man of a certain age” and his band perform a Janelle Monae cover, “Hell You Talmabout” it hits with the force of a blow. 

Other highlights for me were “Lazy,” because, well, I am. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” has always been a favorite of both mine and the Rock Chick. The speech leading up to “I Should Watch TV” is just fabulous as is the performance. The Talking Heads’ chestnut “Blind” was also a personal favorite. Byrne is charismatic and at turns serious and funny. He can be self-effacing which I would not have expected. There is so much to love in this film and on this sound track. I haven’t bought the album of the cast-performance yet but I’m planning on it. This is a great performance but what makes its exceptional in to me, was it was also a very thought-provoking performance. 

When the show is over, Byrne, after exchanging a few awkward hugs with his bandmates, gets on his bicycle and rides off into the New York city night time, headed for home like the true citizen of the world he is… I urge everyone to check this movie out. If you can’t see it, give the live-LP from the soundtrack a spin. It’s time well spent. 

Be careful out there… be safe. Stay connected. Open your minds and you’ll find that “every day is a miracle.” 

 

 

LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem

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“Hear my voice, hear my voice, It’s saying something and I hope you’re concentrating…” – Talking Heads, “Warning Signs” Written by David Byrne

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m surprised I’m posting these thoughts on David Byrne’s superb new album, American Utopia. I almost started with the Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different.” It’s been a weird year. I think it was, of all people, Don Henley who once sang, “It was a pretty big year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll…” Lately, I was struggling to find any music that I felt merited calling attention to. The Dead Daisies are a hard rock outfit who just put out a new album, but I didn’t hear anything that jumped out at me, it was all pretty meh. The joy of doing this blog is the actual musical spelunking I get to do. I spend my evenings and weekends locked up here in the B&V lab actually listening to music.

And so frustrated by this year’s music, I started casting a wider net on the music I was looking at. I discovered that merely 2 months ago, in March, David Byrne put out his first “solo” album in fourteen years. And while it’s true, his last actual solo album was 2004’s Grown Backward, it’s not like Byrne hasn’t been active with collaborations and scores. Although I hadn’t realized it had been six years since his St Vincent collaboration, Love This Giant. Full disclosure, Byrne’s solo career is one that I have never followed extensively. I actually found myself selectively going through a few of the albums in his back catalog to help frame the new record in my mind. His first “solo” record, Rei Momo was an album that completely slipped by me in 1989. It’s all Latino inspired music. It sounds like a Tex-Mex band playing at a Cinco De Mayo party, in a good way, and I really liked it. I’m sure it was thought of as a little eccentric in 1989 considering it was so far from his work in the Talking Heads. But he was always into world music and different poly-rythmic sounds. I also listened to his last solo record, Grown Backwards which is awash with strings and actually has Byrne doing a few opera songs. I have to say, I liked both records, probably more so because they were quirky. They stretched my concept of what a pop/rock song could sound like and I like that.

Byrne has certainly chosen a different path in his solo career. In my research I read the word “inconsistent” and “eccentric” or “avant garde” quite a bit. His solo career, a bit like Sting, took him in a lot of very different directions than the band that made him famous. Although in Sting’s case, his career always seemed calculated and pretentious… there were good songs but that “watercolors, light-jazz” thing didn’t do a lot for me. Byrne seems more truly the artiste than Sting ever has. One thing that has been consistent in Byrne’s career both with the Talking Heads and solo is that he returns to collaborating with the brilliant Brian Eno, but I’ll come back to that.

I grew up in the American heartland… The Talking Heads weren’t a band I heard a lot of in my hometown, Kansas City. They rose in the late 70s in the New York punk/post punk CBGB scene. I’d love to travel back in time and catch them, or Blondie, or Patti Smith at that bar… maybe in another lifetime. The Talking Heads were probably too edgy for KY/102, our radio station, but I still remember the first time I heard them and heard David Byrne’s voice. I always played my little clock/radio in the mornings when I was getting ready for school. It had to be late junior high/early high school, I was sitting on the bed pulling on my socks and this weird drum sound starts off… then this tremulous, nervous voice comes on and starts singing, “I don’t know why I love her like I do…” Yes, it was “Take Me To the River,” a Talking Heads song that was too big for our radio station to ignore. I had never heard this band before. If you’d have told me that song was originally by Al Green, I’d have thought you were crazy. For years I thought More Songs About Buildings and Food was their first album. In Kansas City, it was like Talking Heads 77 didn’t exist. Maybe that’s why Byrne has always expressed such disdain for where I come from, like on the song “Big Country” where he sings about us out here in fly-over country, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” Ouch, David, ouch.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I went to college, and started seeing the Talking Heads on MTV that I realized the depth and breadth of their work. I’d like to sound cool and say I was in on the Talking Heads from the beginning, but we just didn’t hear them. I didn’t even hear the song “Psycho Killer” until I was in college… and might I say, was there a more perfect singer in Byrne to sing that song. He sounded both psychotic and willing to kill. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get on the bandwagon and start buying Heads albums until after Speaking In Tongues. That one and Little Creatures got me hooked. Although my favorite albums now would be those first two, Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Byrne’s vocals, especially on those early albums were jittery and edgy, like a young virgin who had unwittingly walked into his first orgy. Who knew what was going to happen next? And the band – Chris Frantz (drums), his wife Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (guitars/keyboards) – I just loved that early stuff where it was just the four of them. Through the years they added other players, keyboardists and percussionists. I dug every left turn. Many of those musical explorations were a result of the band collaborating with Eno.

Which leads me to American Utopia. From what I read, Eno did the basic tracks and sent them to Byrne to finish up the melodies and the lyrics. I think there were some other producers, notably Rodaihd McDonald who worked on the album as well. I first heard the great song, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” in my car and for a moment thought it was an old Talking Heads song. I quickly pulled the album up and listened once. I found myself listening again. This is an album I keep returning to. The music is buoyant and the melodies are very catchy. Byrne’s lyrics are at times cryptic to me so it’s hard to know if he’s joking and fucking with all of us or he means what he sings. The album is tied to a multi-media project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, which can be found at reasonstobecheerful.world. It’s got blog posts by Byrne and others that are genuinely cheerful.

I do know the song “Bullet” had some heavy, if subtle anti-gun messaging. Or at least I thought so. I’m not smart enough to decode David Byrne. I do know he’s “saying something” and I am really “concentrating….” “Every Day Is A Miracle” seems like an anti religious song, but it’s gloriously up beat and frames the world through the eyes of various barn animals. Similarly, “Dog’s Mind” has a vaguely political vibe by framing the world through the eyes of a dog… it has my favorite line, “we are all limited by what we are.” Deep thoughts and great melodies… count me in. “Everybody Is Coming To My House” is a great big song that sounds like a party invite but ends with the words, “everybody’s coming to my house, I’m never going to be alone, and I’m never gonna go home.” So, if everybody is coming over and you’re never going home, is this invitation really a stiff arm? Its little subtle stuff like that I keep coming back to, like a riddle. While the track “Its Not Dark Up Here” seems like a happy song on first listen, the lyrics are unsettling as well… “there’s nothing funny about making money, it wouldn’t work if it was.”

While I have admittedly not followed Byrne’s solo career very closely, I was deeply impressed with this album. If you’re looking for thoughtful, well made music by a true artist, American Utopia is a must buy. Frankly, and I’m shocked by this as it kind of came out of nowhere, this album is a strong candidate to end up on the B&V “Best of” this year. I urge everyone to check this one out. I know I’ll keep listening to it and I plan on circling back and checking out his back catalog more extensively!

Cheers!