As a Talking Head, guitarist/songwriter/singer David Byrne showed an inquisitive, intelligent interest in unusual applications of, and exploratory cultural variations on, pop music. His solo musical work revolves around transfiguring pop through the infusion of alien elements or by injecting it into foreign situations. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a continuation of his (and the band’s) collaboration with Eno, blends found vocal tapes with electronic music centered on Third World (notably African) rhythms to interesting effect and uneven results. (After strenuous Islamic objections were raised, the record was reissued with “Very Very Hungry” in place of “Qu’ran.”)
Byrne created the music on The Catherine Wheel for a dance production by the renowned Twyla Tharp. Listeners can get either a selection of tracks on the album, or the complete score on the cassette version. The pace and instrumentation on the poppier material bears a strong resemblance to Talking Heads’ work of the Remain in Light period, with volatile rhythms and jazz inflections; other songs are more experimental, drawing heavily on Eno’s ambient and tape-editing techniques.
Byrne next forayed into theatrical music by writing and producing the Dixieland-inflected horn score for The Knee Plays, a section of director/avant-garde opera conceptualist Robert Wilson’s stage work The Civil Wars. Inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Byrne created angular pieces that remove the swing from ragtime, turning New Orleans jazz into engaging machine music over which he occasionally recites lyrics.
Although Talking Heads released an album of songs to coincide with Byrne’s True Stories, a soundtrack record of incidental music for the film was also issued. Byrne produced and wrote the majority of Sounds From True Stories (subtitled “Music for Activities Freaks”), earning his star billing while performing on just two tracks. The rest of the musical cast — the Kronos Quartet, Carl Finch (of Brave Combo), Steve Jordan, Terry Allen, the Heads, Prairie Prince and others — plays his (and their) instrumentals in a panoply of styles, from country to polka to electronics to jazz.
Working individually on separate segments of it, Sakamoto, Byrne and Cong Su shared a Golden Globe award and an Oscar for the score of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Byrne’s segment — 15 instrumental minutes — avoids trite Oriental clichés while managing to adequately evoke the cultural locale with gongs, strings and woodwinds. Lovely.
Having made his artistic peace with North America, Africa and Asia, Byrne next turned his continental attentions southward, compiling and annotating two albums of contemporary Brazilian pop (singers like Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) and dance music. (The third, a one-artist anthology, was numbered out of order; Brazil Classics Vol. 3 didn’t appear until early ’91.)
Almost free of his usual intellectual aloofness, the summery Rei Momo (produced by Steve Lillywhite and performed by a large group of top Latin players) is lively and enjoyable, with an infectious light feel, lyrics that have nothing to do with the record’s style and appealing songs (including three co-written with Johnny Pacheco or Willie Colon) that make little effort to sound Latin. Instead, Byrne uses percussion, rhythms and appropriate instrumentation (not to mention occasional backing vocals in Spanish) to give exemplary tunes like “Dirty Old Town,” “Marching Through the Wilderness” and “Make Believe Mambo” a delightful dash of salsa. Still, it’s a surprisingly tentative album. Although Byrne announces his sovereignty in the opening track, “Independence Day” (“Waiting such a long time / Till Independence Day”), Rei Momo is the first record in which he attempts to subordinate his own strong voice. It consequently lacks Byrne’s usual rhythmic sharpness, wants for one or two of his commanding left hooks and plays like incidental music for a film or a tropical restaurant.
The follow-up is vastly more ambitious. The Forest takes an orchestral whack at the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh; some of the music was also used in a theatrical collaboration with Robert Wilson. As with John Cale’s Fragments of a Rainy Season, The Forest betrays a remarkably conservative approach to orchestral music. Byrne had spent better than a decade aggressively exploring a broad variety of sounds, but his frame of reference here has little to do with 20th century composers (not even Copland or Bernstein); rather, he willfully invokes the traditions of 18th century European court composers — if you can imagine David Byrne’s voice singing along at the odd moment. Byrne handed two of the pieces off to Meat Beat Manifesto’s Jack Dangers and A.R.Kane’s Rudy Tambala, who (separately) remixed them for the five-track Forestry EP. It is not an altogether happy marriage of sensibilities.
Uh-Oh, by contrast, is exactly that: an exultant union of Byrne’s widely varied impulses. Having studied many ethnic musics, both as musician and as the taste- setting entrepreneur behind Luaka Bop’s international roster, Byrne is finally able to stop thinking about music and resume playing it. The songs swing with a goofy, infectious joy, buoyed by evidence that Byrne can let down his artistic hair and have fun for a change. The supporting cast, drawn from his ever-expanding galaxy of musical associates, provides a broad range of sounds — all of which tumble together in the infectious “Something Ain’t Right.”
David Byrne sets an altogether different mood, alternating between contemplative and somber. Even bouncy tracks like “Lilies of the Valley” and “You & Eye” are understated and spare in their presentation. Instead of the dense congregations of musicians who added complicated layers of texture to previous releases, the small groupings here provide simpler, largely acoustic settings for songs notable for their craft and their seriousness. Lyrically, he’s working under a heavy cloud. “A Long Time Ago” combines allusions to blood-borne infection with the closing of a disco; “Angels” mentions Tiananmen Square; “Crash” begins “I met my love at a funeral / I’m tired of good-byes and burials.” For all its haunted images and global anxieties, though, the album has a grace and strength that speaks to its author’s abundant ability to make the music he hears, unhindered by the memories of what he has already produced.