Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Adrian Belew Power Hour #3 Remain in Light

Like a good hit of a drug, Adrian Belew continued to be passed around throughout the late 70s.  After his stint with Zappa, he toured with Bowie.  Adrian retreated to Springfield Illinois to start a new band GaGa after his time with Bowie was over.  GaGa was offered to open for Robert Fripp's then group The League of Gentlemen.  Somewhere in that hubbub Adrian was offered the chance by Brian Eno to record some solos for what was then Talking Head's soon to be newest album Remain in Light.  After the sessions, Adrian was added to the expanded touring line-up and played along with the band.

Sadly, his relationship with the members would not end favorably.  Drummer and Bassist Chris and Tina pitched that Adrian should replace frontman David Byrne in the band as their relationship with David had begun to sour.  Although he declined Adrian would commit to recording and helping write songs for Chris and Tina's side project Tom Tom Club. Sadly, Adrian's writing credits were left off the liner notes and most of his parts were edited out.

It is a shame really, and begs the question of what could have been.  Fortunately for Mr. Belew he would be given an offer to join the resurrected King Crimson shortly after.  Talking Heads would go on to further glory, and further in-fighting before completely imploding in 1988.  Perhaps it is all for the best, as the seemingly humble Adrian would not have been a strong fit with the pretentious and ego driven Talking Heads.    Fortunately though, from this relationship, as short as it was, we received a true juggernaut of an album, Remain in Light 

Remain in Light

Sometime ago Ryan and myself were at a terrible bar in Bloomington on a hot summer night discussing greatest albums of all time.  At the time I was proposing that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was not indeed the crowned jewel of the modern musical world.  While a revolutionary piece, I argued, it had been surpassed in its ambition and depth.  At the time, Remain in Light was my proposed offering for the crown.  

Remain in Light does so many things right that it is hard to describe actually.  It's not so much an album as it is a musical challenge to the then decaying pop-rock formula.  Talking Heads always had a tendency to be a bit too clever for their own good, trying to write their thesis, before finishing the first week of 101.  As much as I love them, they have an alienating persona that can scare away anyone who isn't drinking beer "for flavor" at the local bar and wearing a tweed jacket.  David Byrne's often awkward and off putting presentation was perfect for anyone who was not interested in wooing someone, but rather discussing the latest books to hit the shelves.  Their first two albums '77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food were albums for fans of rock music that wanted more than what was out there.  The music was smart, but not progressive rock, and it could also be fun and raw while not being punk.  It was an intelligent form of music that has many imitators, but few succeed in the sincere approach Talking Heads perfected; instead coming off pretentious and snoody.  

Fear of Music their third full release was the indication that the band was shifting towards something new, and that different songs were on their turn table than other bands.  While other rock-smiths listened to other bands, or classical music, Talking Heads were jamming out to African melody's and protest songs.  Fela Kuti's Zombie and Water Get No Enemy must have been played endlessly in their hip New York apartments.  Fear of Music's opener I Zimbra was the perfect indication that the band was going to be moving far away from their roots and into uncharted waters.

Although on that hot muggy day in Bloomington I argued that Remain in Light was indeed the greatest album ever I must admit in many ways it is a complete failure as a pop-rock album.  This also is part of the argument for its grandeur.  If Fear of Music's critical fault was the inability to full make the leap into something new then Remain in Light is indeed the manifestation of that ambition.  The songs do not fit in the traditional rock mold that Talking Heads had no problem abiding by before.  Instead catchy Africana rhythms entrance the listener into some strange hybrid of rock music and Afro-beat.  The guitar riffs have a unique swing to them that seemingly breaks the tried and true 4/4 mold (admittingly I am not expert on time signatures).  They seemingly go on forever before you realize that they are indeed repeating and building off themselves.  It is not so blatant on the first go around since the song structure does not fall into the traditional western musical schema.  The complex layering and looping of the instruments involved, which by this point there were plenty of, provides an almost hypnotic like music that is easy to get lost into.  Yet it is not overly pretentious or pleased with itself to where you would ignore it for something a bit more digestible.  Challenging?  Yes, but in an encouraging way.  As the listener you notice there are enough familiarities with which to hang on to.

Looking at the first song Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) these points are quite apparent.  The instrumentation has a very smooth feel which is very reminiscent of Fela Kuti's big bands.  The only indication that the music is indeed repeating riffs is the abrasive three drum hits that indicate the repeating of the melody.  It is almost as if the band is saying "just so you know, this is where we repeat."   Tina Weymouth at this point had finally learned more than a few notes and was contributing considerably more to the music providing bass that was especially punchy, rich.  Frontman David Byrne still off-puts the listener with his unique vocal demeanor.  Although it does seem that he has gained some more confidence in his voice, accepting his role as a quirky front man.  His lyrics too also seem to be less blatant and about deeper things than his tuna sandwich, paper, or a fire hydrant.  He was opting to take swings at political ideas and life meanings.  The song, at nearly six minutes, is one of the longest they had ever done, and is pushing the limits of the normal pop-rock formula.  It would be easy for the song to get stale quickly, but its unique instrumentation provides a hypnotic formula that encapsulates the listener, making the song feel eternal, but constantly refreshing all at the same time.  Adrian Belew's unique guitar work provides some out of left field dissonance which is accompanied by David's odd shrieking and hollering.

Crosseyed and Painless is an odd duck in the album, being considerably more structured and traditional compared to the rest of the material, as if it was thought from the Fear of Music days.  It could be argued that it does not fit in with the mold here, but I completely disagree.  The backing percussion instruments still add a lively variation to the pop-rock format that was rapidly turning to synthesizers and drum machines for assistance.  Crosseyed's more structured approach provides a safety net for the listener.  Its simpler format, with driving bass and simple drum pattern, helps ease the listener after the immensely challenging opener.  As if a mother cooing her upset child, the song gives enough classic Talking Heads nods to remind you that the band still had those four oddballs from New York City.  It's a necessary addition, as without it the album may have been too difficult for the casual listener.

The trends that started with Born under Punches commence with TheGreat Curve a riff happy jam full of extra percussion pieces and synthesizers.  It is my personal favorite, doing a fantastic job of swelling and relaxing as it careens across its near 7 minute landscape.  Adrian Belew's guitar solos anchor the song with his signature madness, but it works as a stark contrast to the rest of the music, somewhat akin to dropping Thurston Moore in the middle of a Native American drum circle.   It's nearly comical how Adrian's work is no longer just background chaos, but rather a familiar sound that keeps the album from going too far into pretentiousness.  The backing singers chant "Wanna say so, so say so" nearly endlessly as the song comes to a close.  It is difficult to comprehend what is happening the first go around, with David Byrne's musings, background chanting, Adrian's wailing guitar, and the poly-rhythmic backing groove.  The song commands multiple listens, possibly one right after the other.  The only fault with that plan, however, is that it prevents you from indulging in the entirety of the album.

Once in aLifetime is a track most people know in one form or another.  It has appeared in movies, commercials, karaoke nights, and on your radio.  At the time it was one of their most successful singles ever composed.  It's maddeningly catchy, and it is a great track to sing along to.  Most classic rock fans will be able to shout along "Same as it ever was" with you, whether they have any idea what is else is going on in the song.  It's peculiar, however, since when you break down the song nothing about it fits pop sensibilities.  The track for the majority of its existence is synth ambiance, a bass line, and David Byrne musing about life.  The refrain does provide a bit more structure with a guitar hook and more prominent drumming, but the majority has little form as it drifts aimlessly as a canvas for Byrne to just ramble about whatever he wants.  I'm sure this worked greatly in his favor as he is pretty amazed with himself and his own thoughts.  Once in a Lifetime is also what I consider to be the end of the first half of the album, despite it not technically being the half-way point.

What do I mean by this?  Well, Remain in Light is really broken into two halves, like two EPs combined into one album.  The two halves are greatly different, with the first half being upbeat if not meandering and the second being more experimental and brooding.  Once in a Lifetime and the follow-up Houses in Motion are great bridges to both halves, both being on the extremes of each end with the former being more open and loose for the upbeat half and the latter having the most form of the second half.  Adrian Belew's howling guitar adds the vibe of jungle animals in Houses in Motion as the song sprawls along its way.  The mellow riffing clashes with the hard hitting bass and crisp hi-hat and horns.  It provides similar motifs as the previous tracks, but in a much darker tone.  You can feel the album changing direction drastically tonally, but what does not change is the style, continuing with the Afro-Beat mentalities and ethos that it set out with.

This is something that the album succeeds so well in, and is a point missed by so others.  Talking Heads picked a musical Idea here and never let go of it throughout the entire album.  What is more, throughout this short adventure they reinvented that concept over and over.  On paper, yes, it is easy to think that a rock band trying to do African style music would be painful and unpleasant after say two tracks, but here that is not the case.  Talking Heads seemed to have gotten the memo that you can not rely on a musical concept (or Gimmick) too much before it becomes stale and unpleasant.  Rush's 80's albums became impossibly painful to listen to because they had no idea how to progress their synthesizer work beyond just having a synthesizer.  Can's last few albums were a mess since they had no idea how to evolve what they believed were pop and world music sounds.  Talking Heads took one concept and remade it eight times in one album.  Each song is strongly different from the other, yet they all have musically thematic similarities that bind them.  You will be hard pressed to find an album that does that concept so seamlessly.

 After Houses in Motion comes the closing trio Seen and Not Seen, The Listening Wind, and The Overload.  Each track alone would be an odd song in any past or future Talking Heads album, but the three together are a strong strange force.  Houses in Motion can not properly prepare the listener for what comes next.  The funk recedes while the mood inducing soundscapes evolve into more complex arrangements.  One could argue that these last three songs have a strong presence from BrianEno, who did have his part in this album.  The tracks as well sound at home in Byrne's first solo album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Which also featured, you guessed it Adrian Belew Brian Eno).  Again, on paper, none of these tracks sound commercially viable or pleasant to a casual listener, but they work quite well, as the band seems to know how to reign in the overly alienating nature of the works.  Byrne muses about the idea of a man changing his face in Seen and Not Seen in a disturbingly vivid way.  Each statement is followed by keyboards (or is it Adrian?  You never know when he is that painfully obvious yet?) creating a whoosh of notes that makes visualizing the idea so easy.  One's mind's eye can vividly picture a person, perhaps themselves, changing their face to match their ideal structure.

You might imagine that perhaps the songs begin to lighten up after Seen and Not Seen, but you would be incredibly wrong.  The album continues to go further down its own rabbit hole; scaling back further the cyclical riffing of the beginning tracks into a more trance like percussion concept.  During The Listening Wind Various unnerving sounds build and deconstruct around the simple, albeit layered percussive pieces.  It's haunting and mesmerizing, giving the listener the feeling of being lost or feeling uneasy in their surroundings.  Upon my first few listens I was floored as to how a song could so easily make me feel out of place in my comfortable surrounding of a college campus in the day time.  The day time partying of Crosseyed and Painless is gone and replaced with a disoriented night time stumble home.  This all comes to a crashing end with The Overload which builds off the previous song’s concept.   Distorted instruments create an electronic disturbance that almost makes you forget how much fun you were having at the beginning of the album.  It is a haunting low point to end on, leaving you with a very unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling.  This does not mean the song is bad at all though, but rather doing its job perfectly.

You would never imagine an album that starts so wildly could end so solemnly and leave you with such a morose feeling.  Not only that, but you would never imagine a Talking Heads album would go this far.  Perhaps during Stay Hungry they pulled you in that direction, but they were always careful to treat you with a sense of care and remind you that you are listening to rock music.  Here, no punches are being held back, but even with that said, they know not to go too far into their own disturbing playground and completely alienate their listening base.

That last thought is what I find so perfect about this album.  The members of Talking Heads really pushed their listeners here, and it barely seemed that they could care if anyone bought their album.  Even comparing it to Fear of Music it is apparent how much of a leap the band made in sound, style, and vision.  Few bands ever undergo such a radical transition, yet still maintain some nods to their iconic sound.  This was even true in their live set-up where the band didn't expand as much as they exploded from four members to nine, adding backing singers, keyboards, percussion, and even a second bassist!  Talking Heads made a grand shift in sound and vision from this point forward, exploring a plethora of musical styles and sounds up until their undramatic demise.  

Beyond the change for the band itself this album was also a leap for pop-rock too.  The conventional formula had been shattered by a daring new concept of layering rhythms and world music.  While tragically the rest of the rock world opted to grow out their hair, glam up, and wear lots make-up some bands took nods from Remain in Light's worldly changes such as King Crimson and Paul Simon, each giving nods to the concepts Talking Heads introduced.  It may be a bit presumptuous to say that they pioneered the melding of African poly-rhythms and rock music, but you would be hard pressed to find a different band or album that brought so blatantly to the forefront of others attention.  The legacy it left behind for the band, its members, and their peers can hardly be measured, but only noted in the imitators that followed.  Bands like Vampire Weekend owe much to Remain in Light's smart and ambitious direction.  

All of these reasons sum up why on that hot summer day in that unfortunate bar in Indiana I proposed that Remain in Light deserves to hold the title of greatest album.  It is more than what it does, which it does so well, but also what created, and what it did for its listeners.  It's complex yet engaging music and lyrics encourage the listener to take their music listening to a higher level, yet, somehow, never force it.  It can be enjoyed at a surface level, or absorbed at a deeper one.  It is timeless, it is blissful, it is perfect.  

You must buy this album.

Adrian Belew would head to his final destination after his brief stint in Talking Heads, which is where our last stop will be on our trip.  Out from the light in the darkest cavern of music; the court of the Crimson King.  Will Adrian survive?  Find out next time as we discover Discipline.