Tag Archives: talkingheads

Fear of Music

Thought I’d dedicate a post to the classic Talking Heads album Fear of Music. I did one of these long reviews for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot about six months ago and promised that I’d make it a regular feature. Turns out, not so much, hah. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to start making it regular! Or, at the very least, fit in a new installment to the ‘series’.

Before I dive into Fear of Music, I’ll establish my history with Talking Heads. So after my senior year of high school, I headed to party central at Salt Lake City to attend the Nationals debate tournament. I’d been told that paradoxically, Nationals was the most chill and laid-back debate tournament that I’d ever attend, and surprisingly that truly was the case. All of us had unbelievable amounts of free time to spend exploring the amazing attractions of…Salt Lake City. Oh.

Well, I have fond memories of watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban four times in two days at a mall located a good 30 minutes walk away, just because I had nothing better to do. I’ve mentioned it before, but Ed talking us out of renting Segways is a great regret in my lifetime thus far. I also recall seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the hotel room, watching debate rounds in the absolutely surreal environs of the Mormon tabernacle, the ridiculous yet fascinating Mormon history museums, and many other things but we’re getting really off track here, aren’t we.

Somehow, a group of us ended up a record store in the mall, it was either Tower Records or Virgin Records or something, one of those big chains that we don’t have in my area. Anyways, they were having this sale where you could get three CDs out of a set selection for a total of $10 or something amazing like that. OMG SALE. So I ended up picking up Talking Heads – Talking Heads 77, Wilco – Summerteeth, and Built to Spill – Ancient Melodies of the Future. The latter was without a doubt the weakest record of the three, but I think it was the one I was most pleased about grabbing at the time. Man, my tastes in high school. What was I thinking. I passed up on Live at Leeds for that hipster-lite garbage.

Anyways, I didn’t particularly like Talking Heads 77 at the time. The production is so flat, I could listen through the record without getting hooked by any of the melodies, just because the production is so dull. I listened to it a number of times, because I really wanted to like it, but just couldn’t find the spark. It had some interesting melodies, but that was about it.

Fast-forward one year. The summer after my freshman year, I decided that I really wanted to get into film. So I subscribed to Netflix, just for the summer, and filled my queue with critical favorites and stone-cold classics. I made up for the short time by ripping everything onto my computer and sending back the discs the next day, ending up with dozens upon dozens of movies stashed on my hard drive. Netflix recommended Stop Making Sense to me, Berardinelli loved it too, and I could see some potential for Talking Heads to work themselves more into my life, so I zipped it to the top of the queue for investigation.

The attempt at becoming an overstuffed, pretentious, scholarly film critic didn’t quite work out, I guess I’m just not the type, but I did get to watch some incredible films, with Stop Making Sense being one of the best. It’s not just footage of the band playing live, it’s an actual film, and if you look at the details it’s one of the most immaculately-produced films that I know. Unless you confine your musical tastes solely to Baroque harpsichord music, Tuvan throat-singing, or some other extreme and hardcore niche, I don’t think there’s any way you could not enjoy Stop Making Sense, I practically guarantee that you will be converted into a Talking Heads appreciator, at the very least. I myself got turned into a fanatic, and have been working my way through the Talking Heads discography since then with great zeal.

I fortuitously began with their debut, so it made since to logically progress on to More Songs About Buildings and Food. The production immediately blew me away, but I felt like the songwriting was substantially weaker, which in my book is even more important (Shaw 389*). Over time, I’ve grown to love MSABaF (what a beautiful acronym!) but at the time I was a little disappointed, and delayed my advancement towards Fear of Music.

What a mistake. Fear of Music completely blew me away on the first listen, and by the time I’d gotten through the album four more times, it was completely apparent to me that this was one of the best albums I’d ever heard. Brilliantly written, produced, executed, and everything. Thematically too, the thing is brilliant, and Starostin’s review sums it up nicely:

This is clearly a concept album, and not only that – it’s a real concept album, which is very unusual, since most ‘concept albums’ are in fact pseudo-concept albums, whose main purpose is to leave the listener behind gaping at what the possible ‘concept’ could really be (think Sgt Pepper, eh?). The concept that lies behind all these songs is somewhat similar to the concept of Dark Side Of The Moon: fear and insecurity, madness and desperation at the sight of everything that’s actually mentioned in these songs: their titles speak for themselves – ‘Paper’, ‘Cities’, ‘Mind’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Animals’, ‘Air’, ‘Drugs’, ‘Electric Guitar’… Somebody at the Prindle site suggested that the key to understanding the record is its title: substitute ‘music’ from the title and put in most of these individual song titles, and you get exactly that same message that Mr Byrne wanted to communicate us. I really couldn’t agree more about that.

That sums up my thoughts on the album quite well. Byrne’s nervous energy used to just be a quirky character of the Heads, but here it’s harnessed to perfectly convey the dark paranoia and insanity of the album. The Prindle commenter’s analysis is spot-on, and thinking of each track as conveying the eponymous phobia makes the record that much more brilliant. Fear of Cities, Fear of Paper, Fear of Life During Wartime, it all fits perfectly. Well, except for Fear of I Zimbra perhaps. But even that song is reeling of madness, with its nonsensical verses and complex polyrhythms. And since we’re starting to talk about songs, let’s go track by track again:

  1. I Zimbra – The Opening Statement, and a great one, it really sets the tone for what’s to come. I thought this was an amazing track on the first few listens, but after a while you kinda figure out that it’s not too deep of a track. Really, it’s a bunch of people shouting nonsense words over some drums, there isn’t a whole lot of room for emotional complexity or subtlety there or anything. But it sure sounds cool as hell.
  2. Mind – that slinky guitar line in the opening gives me the creeps every time, and totally makes the song for me, along with the loud and distorted solo later on. The rest of the song isn’t particularly special for me, the chorus is sort of nice, but otherwise it sounds like something that could’ve fit on MSABaF (still a beautiful acronym).
  3. Paper – the guitars on this song are just…plain…ridiculous. This is the shortest song on the album, but it really packs a wallop. The interlocking guitar lines inject so much energy into this thing, I get these mental images of paper flying everywhere and office drones flying through office hallways like in those time-lapse videos, and there’s paper everywhere, and oh man, it’s just a nightmare! Completely, completely incredible song.
  4. Cities – the single repeated piano chord in the verse is what makes this song for me musically, it’s the lone source of clarity within the chaotic noise created by the staccato guitars and Byrne’s clipped delivery. Otherwise, the song seems a little overrated to me, though it’s still great. By the way, what’s up with the line, “Did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis? Home of Elvis, and the Ancient Greeks!” Am I totally mistaken on this, or was Memphis an ancient Egyptian city? I don’t recall the Greeks ever being involved with Memphis, Egypt, or at least as much as they were with Alexandria. I could be off base here, but that was just my thought. Historically accurate or not, it’s my favorite line in the song.
  5. Life During Wartime – I think ‘Cities’ is a little overrated, but I think ‘Life During Wartime’ is way more overrated. Nearly every review of this album mentions this song as the centerpiece of Fear of Music; it’s the brilliantly manic song that seems so spiffy and glam on the outside before further investigation reveals its dark thematic undercurrents. I don’t buy it. To me, it’s just a standard pop song that only stands out because of its sequencing within the album, after all the chaos of ‘Paper’ and ‘Cities’. I think that if this song had been put on a poppier, lightweight album such as Speaking in Tongues, nobody would really give it a whole lot of significant praise, because I think it’s just a decent song that’s especially well-framed by its context within Fear of Music. However, I do think it’s a necessary lightweight break to set the stage for…
  6. Memories Can’t Wait – …the song that defines this record for me. The first time I heard it, I sat stunned and just stared at the wall or something, I don’t even know what. The ominous walls of sound, the huge reverb on everything, it’s the darkest atmosphere you can find on the record. The final minute, with Byrne just wailing into the abyss, clutches at my soul every time, and to me it’s just one of the most affecting pieces of rock music.
  7. Air – you really need this break after all the emotional drama in ‘Memories Can’t Wait’. While you’re coming down though, you probably won’t notice how lightweight and innocent this song, but in a sort of forgettable way, unfortunately. For some reason, it sort of reminds me of Pixies, though I hate making huge comparative leaps like that because I know they won’t make sense to anyone else.
  8. Heaven – I kind of prefer the version of this on Stop Making Sense, maybe only because it was the first version I heard. But I don’t really like the piano on this album version, it adds an additional layer of complexity that I don’t feel this simple little song needs, and it drags down a lot of the drama and power that this song could have potentially had, were it kept sparse and simple.
  9. Animals – just plain bizarre and strange, but that’s part of its charm. The completely deranged closing is hilarious and brilliant.
  10. Electric Guitar – far and away my least favorite song on this album, and actually the only song here that I can’t say I like. Everything else, relatively weak or not within the rest of the album, is still great compared to the rest of the rock music wasteland. There’s too many strange noises, there’s not enough structure to help them make sense, the melody’s hook is too dull, and I just don’t like this song, really.
  11. Drugs – The slow, atmospheric closer. I really think this is a beautiful song, and possibly the album’s most underrated track (Starostin had the nerve to list it as his only disliked track, how is that even possible when ‘Electric Guitar’ is on this album?!). The award could also goto ‘Paper’, but in any case, this was the right way to close the album. A rousing crowd-pleaser would have clearly violated the moods built within Fear of Music, and nothing else could have worked other than this sort of contemplative, ambient stuff. It’s a beautiful closer to an incredible album.

And that’s Fear of Music. The album’s concept provides a cohesive framework to interpret each song, and the songs not only deliver on this concept, but stand on their own as well-constructed pieces as well. Musically as well as thematically, it’s gotta be one of the indisputable classics of the rock canon. I know that most people prefer Remain in Light, and I just don’t see it. Maybe I’ll touch on that later. Or, in a more likely scenario, not. To me anyways, Fear of Music is a towering achievement, and is one of the best albums in my collection. Generally I don’t like using ‘best’, I prefer to use ‘favorite’ since it implies personal preference instead of objective quality, but in this case it’s really both. Fear of Music is that good.

Some other things:

Sunday’s conference championship playoff games were the last football games I’ll get to watch until…September?! Sniff. Tear. More than anything, I’ll miss football during my time abroad. Okay, maybe not more than anything, but it’s up there. And it’s true, I’ll probably have to miss the Super Bowl. Because of the time zone differences, I’ll probably be in class or something, and it’s not like I could find a TV anyways, and even if I did, I doubt that any Australian stations would be showing American football. That’s three successive obstacles impeding my wishes to view the champion of the National Football League being crowned, but oh well. I’m not too excited for this matchup anyways. Or maybe I’m just not excited since I know I won’t be able to watch it. Chicken or the egg, you know. Speaking of which, isn’t the answer clearly the egg? Some chicken-ancestor-species laid an egg which contained a series of genetic mutations which caused the offspring to be Pure Chicken, rather than chicken-ancestor-species? Isn’t that how most species ultimately come about, evolutionarily? Somebody needs to refute me on this.

So the family jokingly went to Outback Steakhouse for dinner last night, as sort of a warmup for Australia. Ridiculous. I doubt they have Outback over there, but I wonder if they know about it. I also wondered whether there’s some novelty American restaurant out there, themed on cowboys, tumbleweeds, and ghost towns, but then I realized that, hah, we have those in America already, don’t we. So maybe Australia has those, and some self-mocking Australian restaurants. The novelty does go a bit overboard at Outback though, like how the restrooms are labeled Sheilas and Blokes? Wtf? On a random sidenote, I greatly appreciate restaurants that post the newspaper’s sports section in front of the urinal in the men’s restroom. I started thinking about what section of the newspaper would be in the women’s restroom, before I realized how impractical that would probably be. Or is it? Do they have this? I wouldn’t know, would I.

Also of note, I completely forgot that UNC and Clemson would be playing this evening, my last UNC game before I head abroad too! Fortunately, the game was playing on the big screen TV in Outback, causing the following conversation to occur over and over again:

Mom: I can’t believe my only child is going to Australia in a few days!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Me: Lawson just hit his free throws, it’s 69-51 Heels, 8:41 left in the half.
Dad: Good.

And that’s my family in a nutshell.

I really like this year’s UNC team. Normally, I’m a very atypical sports fanboy, in that I’m extremely critical of all my teams. I know them well enough to know their glaring weaknesses, and I absolutely pick them apart for it. I didn’t like the 2005 championship team at all: not enough team play, streaky outside shooters fading down the tournament stretch, no shotblockers or solid interior defense, and I could go on. I was stunned when they won the whole thing, and none of my college friends could understand that. In hindsight, okay, that team was amazing. Sean May and Raymond Felton were consistently reliable, something we really don’t have on this current team, and they had an incredible cast of supporting players to go along with them. But whatever, for some reason, I’m willing to look past this team’s faults. I know those weaknesses are there, and I know what they are, but I don’t care anymore, because I love the team’s tremendous upside potential and where it could take them. I’m going to miss March Madness more than any other sporting event while I’m abroad, so for my bracket I’m just going to pencil in UNC ftw and leave it at that, so I don’t get too emotionally invested in the thing.

And that’s it for me. I doubt I’ll be able to fit in another post before I head out, so the next time you hear from me, I’ll probably be deep in the Australian rainforest! That hasn’t sunk in for me yet, but I guess it will by then, just because hey, it’s reality. So I hope everyone enjoys the rest of your January, and I’ll post here eventually with info on how you can contact me. Warning: letters will probably be delivered by parrot. I can’t wait.

Oh, and one last thing. So the best time for birding is the very early morning, as the birds begin to wake up from their long night’s sleep. I don’t mind these early wake-up calls because I’m just a morning person, but as if I needed an extra incentive to head outside so early, the sunrises are quite beautiful sometimes. I got this photo of the sun rising over Shelley Lake on Tuesday morning. And we’ll leave things there, as a really really corny metaphor for my adventures to come.

Sunrise Over Shelley Lake

*Okay so I don’t really have a book, sue me. But I wish I did. Alas. Perhaps I’ll get started at some point.