May 6, 2004

A Byrne-Again Songwriter

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As absurd as it may sound, last week’s “Ask daze” feature resulted in scores of letters delivered to our desk. As readers may recall, we asked you to write us with your entertainment queries. About half of the 25 letters we received crudely remonstrated against the absence of a page 5. The other half was apparently written by members of Ms. Webern’s 3rd-grade class. Ms. Webern, your class has too much time on its hands. Regardless, two questions seeped through this mess of postage. A Thomas O’Rourke ’07 writes, “Who is David Byrne?” and “Why are you reviewing David Byrne’s new album?” Although even the most cursory reading of the review in question would fully answer these questions, we want to help Thomas out. So everyone get your heads down low, ’cause daze is about to kick some knowledgeometry in order to answer that most unanswerable of questions: “Who is David Byrne?”

Well, for starters, he’s a certified genius. After meeting Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth in the early ’70s at the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne formed the Artistics, a band that eventually morphed into a little something called The Talking Heads. By the release of their debut album, Talking Heads ’77, the band had already been acclaimed for their dense, riveting songwriting, as well as Byrne’s stuttering, wavering delivery and hyper-intelligent lyrics. The sound owes equal allegiances to punk’s DIY aesthetic, the electronic experimentation of Brian Eno and David Bowie, and the intense rhythmic complexity of African and Latin American music.

By 1988, the band had broken up, and Byrne was free to develop his even more experimental and rewarding solo career. This year, Byrne will be stopping off at the State Theatre on May 15 in support of his latest album, Grown Backwards. As anyone who’s seen the seminal rock documentary Stop Making Sense knows, Byrne is one of the most dynamic and unpredictable performers. On this tour, “The My Backwards Life Tour,” Byrne will have access to some of his best material in years.

Grown Backwards is a bit of a welcome departure in Byrne’s remarkable career. Instead of his typical songwriting process of developing improvisatory and rhythmic work into full songs, Byrne traveled around Europe, humming little melodies into a micro-cassette recorder. He then “unscrambled” these songs and incorporated his typical textures and nuances. As a result, the songs on the new album are overtly melodic rather than rhythmic, which means they’re also some of Byrne’s most memorable work. On “Glass, Concrete & Stone,” a fluttering marimba rhythm swells into an empowering bluster. The lyrics are concerned with modern cosmopolitan life and the beauty and chaos of the city: “It’s only glass, concrete, and stone/ And just a house, not a home.” On the playful “Tiny Apocalypse,” Byrne gruffly sing-speaks his definition of the epitome of a rock star: “I ain’t no poet, ain’t got no rhyme/ But I got a car, and I know how to drive.”

Austin’s Tosca Strings, a tango group Byrne has increasingly collaborated with, will accompany the singer on this tour, along with bassist Paul Frazier (of Chic fame) and drummer Graham Hawthorne (a session musician for Paul McCartney). The Tosca Strings are responsible for two of the album and tour highlights: two opera arias by Verdi and Bizet. Byrne is characteristically wry regarding the thematic content: “The words are, as far as I can tell, consisting of two guys getting all mushy and excited over a woman who has just entered their field of vision. Not very profound stuff, but the tune is thrilling.”

Also accompanying Byrne is Juana Molina, one of the brightest up-and-comers in the singer/songwriter tradition. Her music combines a sense of her Argentinean heritage and the evocative, unrestrained songwriting of Lisa Germano and Kristin Hersh. Aside from a career as a famous South American comedian, Molina has proven her chops on her latest album, Tres Cosas, an album with as many mesmerizing rhythms and electronic effects as Byrne’s best works.

David Byrne and Juana Molina plays the State Theatre on May 15 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets, please call (607) 273-4497. And, Thomas, please stop sending us letters now.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor-in-Chief