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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1359

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David Byrne: Grown Backwards
by George Graham

(Nonesuch 79826 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/17/2004)

Last week we talked about "art rock" being something broader than what British bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer did in the 1970s. It could aould be argued that it also included the somewhat iconoclastic, literate and downright "arty" music that came out of the post-punk scene. And perhaps no one has represented that more than David Byrne, founder and principal creative force behind Talking Heads. For more than a quarter century, Byrne has been making very distinctive, creative music. And now, Byrne is out with a fascinating new recording called Grown Backwards.

Byrne has had a multifaceted career. First coming to notoriety as the quirky, manic lead singer of Talking Heads, then branching out into art, photography, filmmaking, and such pursuits as hosting the PBS television music series "Sessions at West 54th." He also has had an interest in world music, leading him to found a record label dedicated to world music, though he has also released his own music on Luaka Bop records. Most recently he did the soundtrack for a film called "Young Adam," travelling to Scotland to record.

Byrne has once again taken a creative turn for his new album. The title, Grown Backwards presumably comes from Byrne's process of creating the music. Byrne writes that he usually starts with a rhythmic groove and harmonic foundations of a song before coming up with the melodies and then adding lyrics that would fit. This time, he said that he was carrying a pocket cassette recorder with him most of the time, and whenever a melody came into his head, he would sing it onto the tape. Later, he took those melodic fragments and attempted to weave songs around them. He also notes that he had done a tour with a string section, so he decided to incorporate the string section throughout as essentially the band for the album. The group he worked with was the Tosca Strings, who are based in Austin, Texas. A gentleman named Stephen Barber did the string orchestrations. Byrne otherwise recorded in New York with a somewhat unconventional group, largely percussion-based with various tuned percussion instruments, as well as a variety of drums and other thing that are struck for sound. Also appearing are members of Carla Bley's jazz big band. Byrne plays mainly guitar, but of course, it's his vocals that are instantly recognizable. And while some of the percussion hints at world music, the CD is a decided departure from some of Byrne's recent strongly world-music influenced projects.

This particular method of writing songs, what Byrne calls "top-down" does give somewhat different textures and stronger melodies. It also proves to be a good match for the strings. And as if to underscore the orchestral aspect, Byrne includes two arias from popular operas, which he performs in a vocal style which is the polar opposite of the traditional operatic approach. Byrne's lyrical style remains the same with his sometimes stream-of-consciousness or impressionistic direction, though his words can also take a narrative bent at times.

The result is an engaging, though not always artistically stellar recording that makes for absorbing listening especially for the creative blend of instrumental sounds.

Among the regulars on this album of varying personnel are percussionist Mauro Refosco, and drummer Kenny Wolleson. Among the interesting guests are jazz bassist John Patitucci, and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants on accordion.

The CD gets under way with Glass, Concete & Stone, a piece that is classic David Byrne lyrically. Though the full string section does not appear on this piece, the track features the sonic trademarks of the album -- the marimba, plus the cello played by New York rock cellist Jane Scarpantoni, known for her work the band Tiny Lights. <<>>

The Tosca Strings make their first appearance on a cover tune, Byrne's version of a song by the band Lambchop. The Man Who Loved Beer is a good match for Byrne and company. <<>>

A piece called Empire is a roundabout political commentary, with a brass section from the Carla Bley big band replacing the string section. This result is one of the highlights of this distinctive album. <<>>

Another worthwhile track that will likely please long-time fans of Byrne is Tiny Apocalypse. It is also in the personal lyrical and vocal style of David Byrne, with the support of the Tosca Strings. <<>>

As mentioned, Byrne decided to include his versions of two classical opera arias. The first is Au Fond du Temple Saint, from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. He is joined by Rufus Wainwright, whose more theatrical but nasal voice is also a stretch for opera. Opera fans who love the traditions are likely to hate the track, though it has its moments. Still, even for the open-minded, it does seem a little self-indulgent. <<>>

The same can also be said of the other opera aria, Un di Felice, Eterea, from Vendi's Tosca. It has been a quarter century since Byrne recorded Psycho Killer with Talking Heads, and despite the passage of time, it's still a not a match made in heaven for Byrne to do this kind of material. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the more successful of the slower tunes is Astronaut done with a smaller group, but also including a Theremin in the instrumentation. <<>>

David Byrne is almost synonymous with quirkiness. That endearing trait in Bryne comes to the fore on Glad, with some of the songwriter's wide-eyed lyrics and an almost theatrical musical setting. <<>>

The CD ends with what is described as a bonus track -- in the absence of an LP version of the album, I don't know what that is supposed to mean -- but be that as it may, Lazy is the CD's final and lengthiest piece, and is a definite highlight of this eclectic album. There's the string section, along with a kind of composite of Byrne's musical pursuits, the strings, and dance beats of early 1980s Talking Heads. Byrne is great form both lyrically and vocally. <<>>

That David Byrne's career is as lengthy and successful as it has been is quite remarkable. He moved beyond the punk and new wave of the 1980s into being the world-music exploring founder of a record label, and artist in many different media. His new recording, Grown Backwards marks a further facet of his musical career, with the prominent use of the string section and songs conceived in a somewhat different manner than his previous material. The result is a fascinating CD that will likely delight fans of Byrne, and prove quite engaging to those looking for something beyond the ordinary.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." There are lots of interesting but subtle sonic tricks on the CD, each track is given its own sonic texture, and the dynamic range is quite respectable.

David Byrne remains a restless artist, always out to try something new. His new CD, Grown Backwards is the embodiment of that, as he crosses more musical boundaries with aplomb.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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