The Name Of This Band Is…

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Talking Heads ’77, the initial offering by this New-York-via-Rhode-Island band of post-punk art rockers, came out more than 40 years ago. And it still sounds as fresh as the morning dew on the backside of a newly-hatched tadpole. Needless to say, the album quickly joined the soundtrack of my teenage life, with Psycho Killer paving the way for a musical awakening.

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By the time I started college in 1980, Talking Heads had released four albums in four years and I had begun to immerse myself in their vision of funk. As a white suburban kid from the homogenous WonderBread suburbs, funk did not often cross my path, but songs like I Zimbra and Born Under Punches (from Fear of Music and Remain in Light respectively) helped this white boy learn to play that funky music until I die.

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After the release of Remain in Light the band took a break from recording, focusing on touring and pursuing side projects. Finally, 1983 brought the release of Speaking in Tongues, the hit single Burning Down the House and the group’s greatest commercial success. By this time I was itching to see my favorite funksters live, and conveniently the band embarked on its Stop Making Sense tour, visiting the Seattle Center Arena on December 2nd. By turns enthralling, intriguing and energizing, this concert stunned my tiny mind. David Byrne is a master performer, not just singing pleasantly but also providing creative visual flourishes (such as running in place in his giant white suit) as part of the total experience.

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Now, I have to be honest here. Somewhere around the release of Little Creatures in 1985 I started losing interest in the band. This had more to do with my complete disdain for anything commercially successful than it did with the quality of their music. Little Creatures includes fabulous songs such as Television Man and Road to Nowhere. True Stories (labeled simply as Talking Heads on the cover) is music from the movie of the same name, a film which I thoroughly enjoyed. And Naked, an album which I’ve not heard enough to even recollect, received critical praise upon its release in 1988.

These later albums are definitely worth revisiting, but Talking Heads ’77 is the disc that continues to astound me. Back in the days of vinyl it was fairly common to have a favorite side of a platter (as we called them) and side 2 of ’77 is one of the greatest there is. The Book I Read, Don’t Worry About the Government, First Week/Last Week… Carefree, Psycho Killer and Pulled Up. Each song is musically unique yet cohesive with the others, different moods all fit within a larger happy feel (well, perhaps Psycho Killer is not so happy) and a good listen is had by all. Music can tie into our senses and memories in ways that are quite complex, and this album is forever part of my ascent into adulthood (which, coincidentally, I am still experiencing).

The band has now been disbanded for 30 years but their music is still vital and invigorating. We got a passel of Talking Heads albums here at Everett Public Library, so come on down and check them out. And never forget those immortal words of David Byrne:

“Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est, fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa…”

Devo Was Their Name-O!

Q: I’ve got a rhyme that comes in a riddle. What’s round on the ends and high in the middle?
A: If you answered O-Hi-O, then you win a red energy dome (pictured below). Energy dome hat

 

Coming out of Akron, Ohio (where the rubber meets the road), Devo made a profound impact on the rock music world. Their first full-length album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is a veritable smorgasbord of forays into the musical unknown. And while their later albums moved more towards the mainstream, the impact of Are We Not Men? continues to be immense.

But first, a little history. In 1924, B. H. Shadduck published a pamphlet on creationism called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. This publication coined the term “D-Evolution”. It also contained text and ideas which turn up in the Devo canon. 50 years after its publication, a band of renegade youth in northern Ohio formed a band… Well, you can see where this is going.


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Starting in the late 1960s, rock music became increasingly slick and, in the minds of some, soulless. Rebellion against this aesthetic is largely what punk and its related genres were all about. Punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave… all looked for ways to take the music back to the people, to make creating music an activity open to one and all. Devo was one of the earliest groups to make the plunge into a new aesthetic.

Enter Are We Not Men?.

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They tell us that we lost our tails
Evolving up from little snails
I say it’s all just wind in sails
Are we not men? We are Devo!

People who talk about music like to use the words tension and release to describe how tonal music moves forward. Tension is created, and then a resolution of that tension creates a moment of peace and relaxation. Devo, however, frequently leaves out the resolution part. Take for example the song Jocko Homo. Most popular music has four beats per measure, so of course Jocko Homo has seven.

Q: But surely the drums, those bastions of stability, provide a measure of comfort?
A: Well, no.

Q: How about if I focus on the vocals, something I can certainly relate to?
A: The lead vocals are hyper-dramatized and the background vocals are robotic, unemotional.

Q: What about those cute synthesizer sounds, seldom used in rock music pre-Devo?
A: The synthesizer brings an even higher level of disturbance to the listener’s comfort.

Q: Are you trying to tell me that there are no resting points, no moments of contentment?
A: Yes. This is what I’m telling you.

I’ll leave this song with my favorite lyric, from a passage that promotes evolution:

God made man but a monkey supplied the glue

Gut Feeling is another song that creates tension through odd numbers, in this case five-measure phrases (four-measure phrases are by far the most common in rock music). A five-chord sequence repeats over and over, each time feeling like it’s one chord too many. There is no respite from this brutal asymmetry.

Something about the way you taste
Makes me want to clear my throat
There’s a method to your movements
That really gets my goat
I looked for silver linings
But you’re rotten to the core
I’ve had just about all I can take
You know I can’t take it no more
I’ve got a gut feeling

At least the guitar and drums behave normally in this song. However, the five-chord pattern goes on forever (so it seems) before vocals enter. And when they do enter, they are once again rather weird. And as the song progresses it becomes more and more chaotic until it breaks into the next song.

Tension.

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Coming in at #442 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, this one is worth checking out. Oh yes. So throw away your preconceptions and postconceptions, relax, and whatever you do, do not Shrivel Up.

Post-Punk for Ninnies

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Labels are funny things.

I’m not a big fan of rigid music classification. Most music slides between genres and most genres are not composed of one simple set of characteristics.

Post-punk is an umbrella that covers an insane variety of styles. The word implies that the music emerged after punk, but in reality it developed alongside of (and sometimes before!) punk rock. It’s similar to punk in seeking to break away from what mainstream rock had become by the mid-1970s, but its methods differ.

Like punk, there is a DIY attitude that anyone can play in a post-punk band. Conversely, there is also a highly artistic aesthetic steeped in experimental music which attracted highly accomplished musicians. Insane variety. Some of the characteristics that one tends to find in post-punk are: seemingly endless repetition of bass lines or short melodies, monotone singing, a funky feel in one of the instruments, sudden shifts to entirely unexpected places, sloppiness, angular lines. The music is not easily approachable, in fact it’s very in-your-face and can take some patience to absorb. Most of all, post-punk is not any one thing.

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One can see the variety of post-punk styles in our library’s holdings. Talking Heads are fairly mainstream in much of their music, but their early albums were quite different from late 70s rock. Not so very weird, but not heavy like punk, not inane like Wings (sorry Wings fans!). Often strange vocals, some unexpected turns, and just the right touch of quirkiness. Joy Division, on the other hand, incorporated synthesizers along with doom and gloom. Their signature song, Love Will Tear Us Apart, blends lovely music, melancholic singing, and lyrics focused on an inevitable sad outcome of love. Pere Ubu is simply weird, a non-stop assault on sanity. David Thomas, the lead singer, obviously studied vocal techniques with a tea kettle in a helium factory, and the songs challenge reality as we know it. Well worth a spin.

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Of course, many other post-punk groups can be found at EPL.

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The Seattle music scene included many talented post-punk bands, including The U-Men and The Beakers. The U-Men formed in 1981 and stayed active throughout the 80s. Carrying on the legacy of early local rock they brought a soupçon of punk, rockabilly and general weirdness to the foundation laid by The Sonics and other 60s garage bands. Their music is difficult to describe, a bit of The Cramps enmeshed in art punk or embryonic grunge filtered through an improbability blender. Best just to listen.

The Beakers formed in 1980 and existed for only 12 months, but their music exerted influence on local, national and international bands alike. As a local performer I’m always excited to open for a big-name band, and these guys opened for the likes of Gang of Four, Delta 5, XTC and Captain Beefheart! Wikipedia describes their music using adjectives such as perpendicular, yelpy, funk-influenced and dissonant. These four words form a good starting point for understanding post-punk. After the band split up, former members were also crucial in creating a system for distributing the music of independent northwest artists. Tremendous impact for a short-lived group!

So saddle up and give some post-punk a chance. It might take a few listens, a reassessment of expectations, but the music is unique and often moving. Take the immortal words or Talking Heads with you as you move into this challenging musical world:

It’s not cool to have so many problems
But don’t expect me to explain your indecisions
Go talk to your analyst, isn’t that what they’re paid for?

 

April New Music Picks

Peru Bravo coverSpring has been a busy time for new releases and reissues. We’ve been keeping busy with great patron requests and staff discoveries alike. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the new arrival highlights from this month. Place your holds now!

Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul, & Psych from Peru’s Radical Decade (Tiger’s Milk Records). Basically what it says on the tin: almost an hour of awesomely funky psychedelic rock. My favorite track on the CD by far is the Jeriko cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Dim the lights, don some paisley and velvet (or velvet paisley if you can manage), and have yourselves a dance party.

sings-kidjo2Angélique Kidjo Sings (SLC LLC). This album is a delightful fusion of Kidjo’s bold and distinctive vocals with a full orchestral backing. Listeners journey through a rich musical landscape that can be dramatic, dreamy, or festively dancy depending on the track.

Pimp a Butterfly coverKendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath Entertainment). Jazz, hip-hop, funk, spoken word, slam poetry – an entire spectrum of art forms are covered. At times thought-provoking and at others just entertaining; To Pimp a Butterfly is packed full of powerful tracks and is sure to become a classic.

Viet Cong CoverViet Cong – Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar). A solid post-punk release that grabs you from the first track and holds your attention all the way through the epic 11-minute long final cut, “Death.”

War on Women – War on Women (Bridge Nine) Loud, gritty, hardcore punk with a healthy dose of righteous feminist fury.

2ne1 crush cover2NE1 – Crush (YG Entertainment) K-Pop girl group 2NE1 blends hip-hop, reggae, RnB, and EDM to come up with a great mix of dancefloor-friendly tracks and slowjams.

The Skints FM coverThe Skints – FM (Easy Star Records) Laid out like a day at a London pirate radio station, the Skints make good use of their ska, reggae, ragga, hip hop, dub, and grime roots. FM proudly represents the musical melting pot that thrives on the underground airwaves of the UK.