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?

Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”

Album cover for Kate Bush Hounds of Love

This week, I’ve been listening to Kate Bush’s fifth album “Hounds of Love” from 1985. This was really my introduction to her work. I previously only knew “Running Up That Hill” through the Placebo cover. I had listened to the original as a result, but hadn’t pursued her work any further. I expected the rest of the album to be like “Running Up That Hill.”

While that is a great song, I found the rest of the album to be wildly imaginative. Especially, the second half which forms a conceptual suite of songs. The weird track “Waking the Witch” caught me off-guard. IT opens somewhat atmospheric with various samples of people saying “wake up.” Then the songs explodes into driving synth; vocals shatter across the stereo field with extreme pulsing tremolo, overpowered by evil voices. Its this track that first made it clear to me that something of a larger narrative was happening on these songs. This and some other parts of the Ninth Wave remind me a little of contemporary Skinny Puppy.

“Running Up That Hill” opens the album with a driving percussion and synth lines. This rhythm combined with the minor key gives the song a combined sense of urgency and longing. This suits the lyrics perfectly; Bush sings about a desire for a man and a woman to swap places to feel each other’s pain. It’s really a call for empathy that she feels would only be possible through feeling through the other’s perspective.

The feeling of building urgency, though with a hint of hopelessness, is aided by the chord progression in the verses. Each bar ends with a VI-VII-I, which feels like it’s constantly approaching something but never getting there. In the relative major, this would be IV-V-iii, and IV-V is a major cadence,if it resolved back to I, but it doesn’t. This progression suggests the possibility of a major key, in fact it would be a deceptive cadence if we were in the relative major. However, we are not. This resolves back to the tonic, reminding us that we’re in a minor key.

The melody of the verses adds to this feeling by running ahead of their measure. Instead of starting on, or near, the first beat of the measure, they start half a measure earlier. This creates allows the chorus to stand out dramatically, as the melody begins directly on the first beat. After the expectations set by the verses, this means there is a lull before the chorus, which then feels like it starts a full measure early.

The track “Cloudbusting” tells a story of Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter; Inspiration came from Peter’s book “A Book of Dreams” written about his father. Patti Smith’s song “Birdland” drew on the same book. Bush’s song takes a much more sentimental perspective. I knew about Reich through William S. Burroughs, who believe much of Reich’s ideas.

Reich was an theorist, pseudo-scientist, inventory, and psychoanalyst. It was because of Reich’s ideas about orgone that Burroughs would spend time every day sitting inside a box. Regarding Reich’s ideas, Bush song mostly focuses on the cloudbuster, designed to create rain. In 1953, he apparently proved it successful at generating rain for farmers during a drought. She also incorporates the capture of Peter’s father by the feds, and the feeling of seeing his father taken away.

In Bush’s song, Peter is reminded of his late father by the rain.

Cause every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen
And I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen

I also like this wonderful short verse, which is quite fitting for the controversial Reich. A later verse continues the yo-yo comparison.

You’re like my yo-yo 
That glowed in the dark
What made it special 
Made it dangerous
So I bury it 
And forget

[…]

I hid my yo-yo
In the garden
I can’t hide you
From the government
Oh, god, daddy
I won’t forget

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.