Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the time Talking Heads recorded Speaking In Tongues and filmed the concert movie of the ensuing tour (Stop Making Sense), they were a very different band than the herky-jerky new wave geeks who first appeared on record just 6 years earlier. Gone were the simple yet quirky songs of the first couple of albums, replaced by funkier, more syncopated, groove-oriented songs indebted to the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti and the classic funk of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic. I enjoy both aspects of the band, and I think they transitioned their sound smoothly over the course of their first five albums. They must have felt that they painted themselves into a stylistic corner, however, as they were about to revert to simpler song structures on their next album.
Little Creatures (1985) is their most straight-ahead, accessible album, with three charted hits: “Stay Up Late,” “And She Was” and “Road To Nowhere.” I recall videos for the latter two songs featured prominently on MTV throughout my sophomore year of college. They were both incredibly catchy, and since I wasn’t a huge Talking Heads fan at the time, I could enjoy them without feeling that they were selling out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the diehard fans were not pleased when these comparatively simple songs became hits. In addition to these well-known songs, I discovered a few gems I hadn’t previously noticed. “Creatures Of Love” could’ve been a minor hit if released as a single, but perhaps the mainstream wasn’t ready for a country-tinged pop song featuring steel guitar. “The Lady Don’t Mind” is another pleasant track, and “Perfect World” sounds like something John Lennon would’ve recorded had he not been gunned down in 1980. Any fan of Lennon’s Double Fantasy would be advised to check this song out. I really enjoyed the down-and-dirty groove of “Walk It Down,” its grit spoiled only slightly by the mid-80’s drum sound & synth textures. This song was a surprising highlight, especially the upbeat chorus. Initially this seemed like it would be an album of three hits & lots of filler, but it’s better than that. It may not be as essential as their first four albums, but I’m still glad I got to know it better these past couple of weeks.
The next album, True Stories (1986), was a quasi-soundtrack to a film directed by David Byrne. He had intended for various cast members to sing the songs in character, but was convinced to record the vocals himself and make it an official Talking Heads album. For the most part, it’s a weaker version of the previous album, although there are a handful of killer songs that make it worth listening to. The hit single was “Wild Wild Life,” an infectious upbeat pop/rock song that I enjoyed playing with my college band. Album opener “Love For Sale” is one of the most “rock” songs in their catalog, its insistent drum beat and crunchy guitars recalling the heavier side of The Cars. It lightens up during the choruses, but the driving beat is relentless. I enjoyed the driving, keyboard-centric “Puzzlin’ Evidence,” with its gospel-style vocal choir. “Radio Head” is a decent song that apparently made enough of an impression on a young British quintet named On A Friday that, upon signing with a major label five years later, they renamed their band after it (shortening the title to one word). One other notable track is “People Like Us,” a country-sounding song (due to the inclusion of steel guitar & fiddle) that brings to mind their earlier song “The Big Country.” Not sure if there’s a connection between the two, but they both seem to reference a “middle America” that Byrne is not quite comfortable with.
Their final album, Naked (1988), is a nice change of pace after two straight-ahead pop/rock albums. There’s a lighter feel (especially on the first half of the album), possibly due to Chris Franz’s frequent use of brushes instead of drumsticks, and even though there are more musicians than the last couple of albums, the songs are allowed to breathe. Album opener “Blind” is a great funky horn-based song with more of a Latin feel than anything they previously recorded. The Latin vibe continues on “Mr. Jones,” after about 30 seconds of African-sounding guitar. Both the percussion and horn section are fantastic. This is followed by one of their happiest-sounding songs, “Totally Nude,” featuring a sweet pedal steel guitar solo and steel drum (real or synth? I can’t tell) in the background. The opening feel-good portion of the original LP concluded with “(Nothing But) Flowers,” another percussive African/Latin song with a beautiful melody that would work in any arrangement. This is definitely one of their best songs, and features nice vocal harmonies from the late Kirsty MacColl (who was, at that time, the wife of Naked co-producer Steve Lillywhite).
The remainder of the album isn’t as peppy, with “The Democratic Circus” taking things down a notch, both sonically & rhythmically. Only “Big Daddy” re-introduces the horn section, but the sound is more ominous than before. Many of the lyrics are much more overtly political than anything from the previous couple of albums. This is not the definitive Talking Heads album, but there are enough great songs to make this both an important part of their catalog and a fitting farewell.
The surround sound mixes for Little Creatures and True Stories are good but unexceptional. I didn’t experience anything new by listening to them, but that’s probably because the arrangements were so simple that they didn’t benefit from sonic embellishment. Naked in surround sound, however, is excellent, with percussion, keyboard sounds and horns floating throughout the speakers. It’s a great way to close out their catalog.
A footnote in their discography is an album called No Talking Just Head (1996), credited to The Heads (Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison, plus guest vocalists on each song). David Byrne had made it clear that he was not interested in a reunion, so the remaining members started their own project. With one or two exceptions, none of the music sounds even remotely like Talking Heads, veering more into the territory of mid-90s alternative bands like Garbage, especially on tracks featuring Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Maria McKee (Lone Justice) and Malin Anneteg (?). “Never Mind,” with vocals by Richard Hell, has a similar beat to the Talking Heads version of “Take Me To The River,” but adds a funky feel with what sounds like a Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet. “Indie Hair,” featuring Ed Kowalczyk (Live), sounds the most like Talking Heads’ early work, perhaps with an R.E.M. influence as well. My favorite song here is “Papersnow” with Andy Partridge (XTC). I gave this CD two spins and liked it more than I originally expected, but this is truly a separate band and has almost no musical connection to anything by Talking Heads.
The reason I started this blog is to document my re-discovery of artists in my music collection that I don’t know as well as my favorites, with the hope of gaining a new appreciation & knowledge of their work. Even more than Van Morrison before them, Talking Heads are a perfect example of why this has already been so rewarding. Two weeks ago I knew a decent amount of their music and considered myself a minor fan, but after spending so much time listening to them, I’m now a much bigger fan and I appreciate aspects of their music that never spoke to me before. I hope this continues with every artist I revisit. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I hope it’s as enjoyable for you to read as it is for me to listen & write.