Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”

Talking Heads Remain in Light album cover.

I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads’ fourth album “Remain in Light” from 1980. I first loved the video for “Once in Lifetime” as child seeing it on Mtv. My love and of the song and video have continued ever since. And also the amazing performance of the song in the concert film “Stop Making Sense.” Somehow I managed to never really hear the rest of this album. I looked forward to this week of getting to know the rest of the album. I heard most of these tracks for the first time, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, I lied when I said it was exciting. With the first listen, I kind of liked this album. After seven days, I didn’t care for it much at all. Overall, I was glad that the week was over. The Talking Heads and crew do some innovative things here, but I fail to find the results interesting enough; there’s a lot of repetition without much variation, making the 4½ – 6 minute songs feel very long.

Born Under Punches

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” kicks off the album with two percussion hits followed by Byrne’s exclamation “hah!” Immediately, we’re brought into a very textural layering of rhythms. Like Paul Simon some years later, Brian Eno and the Talking Heads were drawing influence from African rhythms. In contrast to Simon, they seem to be playing with possibilities encountered in African music rather than copying what they heard.

This song is full of layers of hand percussion and drum kits, looped and manipulated. Synth bleeps and bloops provide unique rhythm elements rather than pads and melodies. The bass comes and goes ,bouncing to signal openings of bars with sharp plucks providing off-beat movement.. clean electric guitar blips and chops hyperactively, adding to the fractal-like texture of the music. What’s happening musically is very fascinating, even if it wears thin in the listening.

While I talk below about chord progressions, the Talking Heads don’t overtly play chords in most of these songs. The individual instruments focus more rhythm and melodic riffing; yet they work together to form chords over bars, often strengthened by the bass and pad synths.

Listening Wind

Towards the end of the album “Listening Wind” provides a bit of a break from the frantic skittering rhythms of the album. As far as the chord progression, the song follows a basic i-VII. This fragile progression feels less like a chord progression and more like it sinks down to the VII and returns to the minor tonic. With the slow pace and rhythmic delay, the sound is of a slow and determined approach. This movement and emotion suits the lyrics about an African terrorist responding to Western imperialism.

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.

The overall sound and use of synths in this song reminds me a lot of David Bowie’s album “Outside” from fifteen years later. Of cours, i love those marimba sounds, which are undoubtedly synthesizer here. Coincidentally, Brian Eno worked on that album as well. I like the undulating delay with echos of the filtered squelches and plucks drifting into the dreamy distance. The song creates a cloudy haze, as the main character responds to the listening wind, from without and within.

Once in a Lifetime

I’m not surprised that they chose “Once in a Lifetime” to promote as the single. With this track, they created the most approachable and enjoyable song. They made use of much of the same experimental techniques and rhythms, but within a more traditional song structure. There distinctive verses and choruses, with a bridge.

The verses follow an unusual chord progression of V-iii-V-iii. The bass emphasizes the change from one chord to the next, with two quick beats in on the first chord and then one on the new chord. The chorus then repeats V-I-iii-IV. This chord progression tricks us, because it never truly resolves; yet, it provides an undeniable forward movement.

Many of the lyrics on this album seem impenetrable nonsense. However, I suspect they are much like the lyrics here. Given enough time, we can fill them with meaning. For me, this song speaks of how time can progress on us when we’re not paying attention. By playing the game idly with obedient sleepwalking, we will wake one day not recognizing the life we’ve made for ourselves.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

This week, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” from 1986. I remember enjoying the video for “Call Me Al” because it was silly. Other than that, I’ve not been much of a fan of Simon. His music came across too pleasantly adult contemporary to me, especially during my teens. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to enjoy some of his work, but I don’t get excited about it. This week allowed me to get to know these songs much better. I came to appreciate his songwriting, even the recordings themselves are still too pleasant sounding.

This album has a rather controversial background story. A guitarist friend had lent Paul Simon a bootleg tape of music from South Africa. Simon loved it. He wanted to incorporate the sounds and rhythms in his own music. He traveled to South Africa to find out who the musicians were on this unlabeled tape. This search led him to the Boyoyo Boys. He hired members of the band, as well as other South African musicians, to work him on this album. Bakithi Kumalo’s basslines stand out as particularly notable. I don’t really like the mwah sound of fretless bass, but his work is incredible. Really adds a lot of the character to the music.

At the time, many musicians had an active boycott of South Africa in protest of the apartheid. The boycott specifically prevented performing in South Africa. A performance there meant playing before segregated audiences. Simon was recording with primarily black South African artists. However, the fact that he was working there during the boycott looked to many as a statement of apathy. These were contemporary controversies. A modern perspective also opens questions of cultural appropriation; That’s a complex subject, and I’m actually here to listen to the songwriting. Let’s also ignore all the accusations against Simon the he failed to give credit to his collaborators.

The title track “Graceland” provides a great example of good songwriting. Before this week, I’d not really paid attention to the lyrics. I wrongly assumed it to be some fatuous song about tourist destination for Elvis Presley fans. Simon uses the narrative of a man and his son on a pilgrimage as a window to the actual topic. This song deals with the complex mixture of emotions, especially unresolved turmoil, in the midst of a breakup. The second verse leaves me awe-inspired by how the tremendous writing. Keep in mind that this verse introduces the topic of the breakup, like an unexpected slap in the face. This is a great example of use of visual imagery to express thought and emotion. Also notice the use of repetition and rhyme:

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

The track “Gumboots” is more than inspired by the Boyoyo Boys; Apparently the music started as a direct copy of one of their instrumental tracks. From what I understand, Simon wrote the vocals and added the horns. I like the non-stop jittery groove of the music, though without the vocals I feel it would be annoying repetitive. A sort of rhythm background music. What grabs my attention about this song are the lyrics. The song fades out with Simon singing a repeat of the first line “I was having this discussion in a taxi heading downtown.” It’s a great generic line, not necessarily interesting on its own but rife with possibilities. The speaker could take the story anywhere. But like the breezy music, the storyteller seems have a lot more to say than they actually do.

Another song I enjoyed was “I Know What I Know” which also incredibly derivative of a song on that bootleg tape. This time a song by M.D. Shirinda & Gaza Sisters. Lyrically, the song has a humorous opening and continues from there with a vignette of pseudo-intellectual high-society. It’s difficult for me to separate Paul Simon from this crowd enough to completely see this as an outsider criticizing. To me, it feel more like a silly look at the world Simon roams around in.

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night
She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party
I said who am I to blow against the wind