September 5, 2012

Test Spins: David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant

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Remember that awful Lou Reed and Metallica album last year that no one wants to talk about anymore? Lulu served as the perfect example for what happens when two artists with domineering personalities try to share the same stage. Lulu’s droning spoken word paired with mediocre riffs got music critics laughing and scratching their heads at the same time.

Such a combination meant that, in theory, the collaboration between two other eccentric musicians, David Byrne and St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark), should be pretty bad too (okay, not as bad as Lulu). But Love This Giant isn’t even close to Lulu: It recalls the best works from both artists’ pasts while sounding fresh, and more importantly, like nothing either had done before. Love This Giant (streaming now on NPR) manages both because Byrne and Clark share key ground in their specific aesthetic. Both make music that teeters between joy and insanity, both sing between extremes of crooning and yelping and both manage to make weird so outrageous that it looks cool.

It is this compatibility that makes the album one of Byrne’s better collaborative efforts. Even though the albums that Byrne has released with other huge names like Brian Eno and Fatboy Slim are great by their own merits, they often seem too much like a forced effort by Byrne to move from his Talking Heads discography. (See his alternative dad-rock song “Like Humans Do,” in the sample music folder of every Windows XP installation). With Love This Giant, Byrne keeps the same funk that made Talking Heads so great while evolving in a more organic manner.

While Love This Giant gives Byrne a chance to move on, it gives Clark an opportunity to put her old work into context. Last year’s Strange Mercy still had the same guitar screeches and the demented beats that characterize Clark’s music, but they were so overpowering that it would have been impossible for even Byrne’s distinctive voice to be heard. Clark has not yet given up on the guitars or the drum machine, but here we see a less bombastic Clark willing to pull back to allow space for Byrne’s distinctive voice to shine.

Byrne and Clark recognize that restraint is as vital a component to their success as the lyrics, notes and rhythms they write. Never is there a point where they blend their aesthetics together, and we rarely hear both sing at the same time. At best, they are stacked and layered upon each other, coexisting peacefully but as distinct entities. As Clark told Pitchfork, the album is a “straight-down-the-middle-thing … I’ve never been that closely entwined in the songwriting, arranging, singing and lyric-writing process with anyone.” Both artists make compromises, not concessions.

Byrne and Clark deliver these compromises with a very prominent horn section. This is smart because brass is already featured prominently in their music with St. Vincent’s “Cruel” and Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” But it is hard to really point out any specific songs in the album where this really shines — whereas the horns in Byrne and Clark’s previous work were relegated to choruses and refrains, there is hardly a second in any of the songs where a horn isn’t tooting away. Despite increasing the novelty’s lifespan with multiple layers and increasingly complex melodies, the horns get boring very quickly towards the second half of the album.

While the horns may be a little too consistent, the other instrumentation on the album varies considerably to prevent the album from collapsing. Towards the second half of the album, Byrne gives Clark ample breathing room for her to sound more like herself: “Lazarus” features a drum machine with steady big beats, occasional breaks and little horn. In classic St. Vincent fashion, a scratchy guitar flutters in “Optimist,” assembling a calm, lulling environment along with some synth backdrops not unlike that in Strange Mercy’s “Northern Lights.”

Even though it’s her first full-album collaborative effort, Clark already knows a good thing when she sees it. “I think I’ve reached the pinnacle of who I want to work with,” she told Pitchfork, and it’s not hard to see why. From weirdness to talent, this is a rare moment where two prodigious, musical whizzes have found themselves in each other, deciding to cooperate equitably instead of jamming separately in the same studio or telling another exactly what to play. Hopefully both artists think of revisiting this relationship in the future, if not to make new music, but to show others how collaboration is really done.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng