Sunday, January 31, 2010

Byrne, Baby, Byrne!

The first time I came across David Byrne’s music was with the Talking Heads and their 1977 song “Psycho Killer.”

At the time, I cited the simplistic song structure, considered them just another offshoot of the new punk movement, dismissively predicted they wouldn’t go very far. (My favorite bands at the time were prog rockers like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.) Wow, was I off on that one! They not only became hugely popular through the 80s, but became one of my favorite bands (as well as turning out one of my Top 10 songs of all-time, "Once In A Lifetime").

Click here for Kermit the Frog's interpretation of this classic.

They hit a creative peak in 1984. I saw this concert when it came through Portland, and was quite unprepared for just how great it would be. It's somewhere at the top of my list of Best Concerts Ever.

There wasn't much room to grow from there however, and they released their last album in 1988. Although many people still bemoan the end of the band, I can certainly see why Byrne felt it was time to move on.

He hardly missed a beat though: While with the Heads, he had released three side projects: In 1981, the futuristic (and sampleriffic) My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with Brian Eno; also in 1981, the soundtrack to The Catherine Wheel with choreographer extraordinaire Twyla Tharp; and in 1985, a set of musical interludes for a Robert Wilson opera, The Knee Plays.

Then one year after the last Talking Heads album, Byrne released his first solo album proper in 1989, Rei Momo, which expanded on his interest in Latin music. My favorite of his Latin-themed albums was his next, 1992's Uh Oh.

He returned the debt to his Latin influences by forming the label Luaka Bop and releasing music by (and exposing me to) his favorite South American artists, including Tom Ze, Caetano Veloso, and Jorge Ben.

In addition, Byrne wrote orchestral scores, for Robert Wilson's play The Forest and most notably for the film (and Oscar Winner) The Last Emperor.

In 2008, Byrne released a second project with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which is beautiful, almost spiritual music, while still catchy and warm. Well worth checking out.

Now he can add “author” and “bicycle rack designer” to his resume: The Bicycle Diaries, published in 2009, is a collection of observations from his bike travels around the world, as well as musings on the human condition. I wouldn't call it scholarly, in spite of the inside picture:

I recommend it; consider it some time spent with an interesting and informative friend.

This year’s (2010) project looks intriguing: A collaboration with “Brit-hop” producer Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook) – a logical matchup if ever there was one – a funky musical journey exploring the life and times of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, coming out in February. I’m really looking forward to it! Here’s a sampler:

And all the while, he continues to play concerts with inventive touches like interpretive dancers and (now expected) additional musicians to add new life to the old hits, as well as the solo numbers. I caught his show in Portland last fall, and the surprise appearance of San Francisco’s Extra Action Marching Band for the encore was a special treat.

Great stuff, all of it. You're on a roll, Mr. Byrne!

Monday, January 25, 2010

All You Need Is ...

I was listening to the new Weezer album, Raditude, last night, and thinking that they are really starting to repeat themselves, that Rivers Cuomo has found this faux party anthem style of songwriting that sells lots of CDs, or downloads or whatever, but isn't really authentic from-the-heart stuff that will last over time (like 1996's Pinkerton). This morning, however, just to compare notes and see if I'd missed something, I read the Allmusic review which pointed out that this was Cuomo's look back at his Gen-Y days and a "passionate surrender to growing up." Okay, fair enough, but while skillfully put together, I still probably won't be giving it too many listens. (Maybe because it doesn't "speak" to me, as I'm somewhere in the alphabet before Gen-Y, or Gen-X...more like Gen-M (for Middle age).

I will add one track to my playlist, however: "Love Is The Answer," with Nishat Khan on sitar and vocals which add a nice eastern touch. I'm a sucker for songs on this theme, with lyrics that include lines like "You have got to trust in yourself," and "Take it easy on yourself." This kind of message never gets old.

Then, in keeping with the principle of synchronicity, the next album I put on was "Dimensions" (also from 2009) by Australia's psych/pop band The Lovetones, which featured the track "
Love & Redemption." Just lovely. Notice a common theme?

These guys probably won't sell 1/10th - or more likely 1/100th - of the albums as Weezer, but this music deserves to be heard by a wider audience.

Note: Weezer's tune is not the same as the Stylistics' 1974 pre-disco song by the same name:

Nor the really wonderful one by (Todd Rundgren's) Utopia:

But I love 'em all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rocking the Kayak

According to my 11-year-old son Ian, "There's rock music, there's metal, there's classical, and then there's Kayak."


(I couldn't find any samples of this song on the internet, so I made one myself.)

One article I read called this "crossover-prog," which is as close as one could get to categorizing this wonderful, slightly wacky music. If you haven't heard Kayak's 1975 album Royal Bed Bouncer, track it down. Tuneful and joyful; it never gets old. If this appeals to you, check out their other three early albums (Kayak, See See The Sun, The Last Encore). It's timeless music that fits any mood.

I'm also happy to say that after breaking up in the 80's, they reformed in the 2000's and are still recording and performing. Check them out: Kayak homepage

(Thanks again Steve, for giving me this album out of the blue, back when we were teens. I've still got it!)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2010 and (way) beyond

As we kicked off the new century, even if we were worried about the end of the world as we knew it, we partied like it was 1999. (Everybody sing along!)

Then, there was a dire prediction for 2010, of overpopulation and competition for scarce resources:

Fortunately, we haven’t quite gotten there according to the Census, which informs that we’re at about 6.8 billion people on the earth as of December 2009. (Still too many, but not too late to do something.)

But further dystopia is on the horizon for 2019, according to Ridley Scott (soundtrack by Vangelis)

And things will get pretty restrictive around 2112:

Beyond that, from 2525 on, things just get worse:

Well, with all these dire prognostications, is it any wonder I like the music of bands like Yes and Nektar, whose spacey/futuristic lyrics and album-long works of music reveal a powerful tendency toward radical positivism*. These guys were “green” way before it was fashionable:

Let it grow, you know you need no sympathy
You don’t realize how much you needed me
you will never realize it’s better when you give
'Cos your life is longer than you live
The laws of nature are to heal the wounds of man
Use them right and they will help you if they can
Wrongly used and you’ll only harm yourself
Then it’s too late to come to me for help

Don’t walk away give it a chance
Let it grow!

(From Remember The Future, 1975)

Nektar (pre-MTV) video of “Let It Grow” in 1974

Without music like this (and Yes), I don’t think I could bear to think about our future.

* A term introduced to me by Bill Martin in his book Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock