Tag Archives: Talking Heads

Peter Gabriel: Songs To Listen To In An Empty Room

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel, the former lead singer of Genesis, is putting out a new album. It happens to be his first in seven years. It also happens to be contain covers (or “song-swaps”) of some of the most varied big-name artists. Here’s the full track list:

01 “Heroes” (David Bowie)
02 “The Boy in the Bubble” (Paul Simon)
03 “Mirrorball” (Elbow)
04 “Flume” (Bon Iver)
05 “Listening Wind” (Talking Heads)
06 “The Power of the Heart” (Lou Reed)
07 “My Body Is a Cage” (Arcade Fire)
08 “The Book of Love” (The Magnetic Fields)
09 “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (Randy Newman)
10 “Après moi” (Regina Spektor)
11 “Philadelphia” (Neil Young)
12 “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (Radiohead)

Most of those names are familiar, I’m sure, but some may not be. Elbow is a British band – heavily influenced by U2 – that sounds like  a stripped down Coldplay. The Magnetic Fields come out of Boston. As a point of reference, both bands have been about for 20 years.

Album Art for Scratch My Back

Starting his musical career as a drummer, Peter Gabriel was drawn into music by its craftwork. In an interview on his website, Gabriel says that he’s alway had interest in doing “the dreaded covers album”.  But he wasn’t about to go about it in any old fashion. He reflects, “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do that, I’m going to do something different with it.”

Gabriel wanted to create self-imposed rules to rein in the creative process, stating that “giving an artist total freedom is castrating them”. At first he toyed with the idea of using homemade instruments, but finally decided that a strict no guitar, no drums policy would be the way that Scratch My Back would go.

John Metcalfe

And in the absence of guitar and drums, Peter Gabriel has turned to New Zealand composer John Metcalfe, who has written string arrangements for The Cranberries and The Pretenders. But the compositions on this record have strayed far from the beaten pop path into the realm of minimalist and classical music. Gabriel himself says that Metcalfe had Steve Reich and Arvo Part in mind when composing the music.

This has led to the creation of songs that deserve to be listened to with your full attention. These songs create in my mind a white, unadorned and simple room where the empty space is filled in by the beautiful textures of Metcalfe’s compositions.

But enough talking, take a listen and decide for yourself. First up, “Heroes”, originally by David Bowie.

A fantastic string section adds a dramatic edge to the song, especially in the context of Gabriel’s recent contribution of the track in an effort to support Haiti.

His cover of the Bon Iver song, “Flume”, starts with somber piano and then slowly brings out french horns and coronets to back the haunting lyrics, “Sky is womb and she’s the moon”. Take a listen, and if you like it, you can download the song here.

But the pinnacle of the album, or at least the songs I’ve heard so far, is his cover of The Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” – an incredibly original and dynamic song to begin with.  The song explodes two and a half minutes in, and is the only song on the album to feature a full chorus.

By contrast, his cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” is surprisingly disappointing. Barely choking out the words, or just grumbling at times, it’s simply not pleasurable to listen to.

But in the end, Peter Gabriel really has accomplished a great deal with this album. In his own words, “working with the negative” of the songs allowed him to set his album on a different plane than where the “positives” lie.

To see some footage from the recording, check out  this interview. And get all the info about the upcoming album on his website www.petergabriel.com.





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Where in the World is David Byrne? [Part 1]

David Byrne

David Byrne

We all know David Byrne as the wildly animate singer of the Talking Heads, who’s carefree singing kept people talking about the Talking Heads long after the 80’s were over. But what some people may not know is that David Byrne has had one of the most prolific and varied careers long after the last Talking Heads record, Naked, was released in 1988.

To give a brief background of Mr. Byrne – he was born in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1952. He moved to Canada when he was two, and by age five he had taught himself to play the accordion. At 9 his family had moved to Boston, and by the time he enrolled in high school he had picked up the guitar and violin as well. Andrew Bird, eat your heart out.

But David Byrne is not only a passionate lover of music, he is as accomplished a visual artist as a sonic one. For a year, he took art classes at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, and then dropped out due to the fact that he thought the classes weren’t worth the money. However, the school was invaluable to him in that it brought him together with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth who would form the Talking Heads with Jerry Harrison.

From left to right: Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Byrne, and Tina Weymouth

From left to right: Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Byrne, and Tina Weymouth

During the band’s more than fifteen-year run from their first show in 1975 until they broke up in 1991, Byrne was extremely busy. Among other things, he directed all of the Talking Heads’ music videos, created the score for “The Catherine Wheel” a ballet choreographed by Twyla Tharp and formed the record label Luaka Bop – which highlights Brazilian pop artists.

After the Talking Heads’ official break-up, David Byrne created a series of albums – many of them having Latin themes or even Spanish language lyrics. In 2002, he released the record Uh-Oh, the cover of which shows a choir of angels surrounding a cartoon dog seated on a heavenly throne.


"Uh-Oh" by David Byrne

"Uh-Oh" by David Byrne

On his website all Byrne offers about the record is that “funk and Latin grooves were combined together”, but any combination of ago-go bells and bass clarinet, like this record has deserves a listen. “Now I’m Your Mom”, the first track on the album has lyrics that will both amaze and shock you:

Oh little girl
Please understand

And listen to the words I say

I was your dad

Now I’m your mom

I hope you’ll comprehend someday
This track goes one to have one of the best instrumental breakdowns in any song that I have heard. Layer by layer, Byrne and his band build up the the sound – but what makes it so incredible is that the layers are made up of horns and woodwind instruments. In thirty seconds, he brings in two french horns, a flugelhorn, flute, clarinet and of course my personal favorite – the bass clarinet.

David Byrne has a way of absorbing everything around him and then incorporating what he collects into his own re-creations of the world. He playfully nudges religion in “A Walk in the Dark” off of the same album (and also throws in some more bass clarinet to boot):

Now Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost

Took one look and said, “Hey, we’re lost!”

“How the hell do we get outa here?”

They s*** their pants, they got so scared

"Look Into the Eyeball" by David Byrne

"Look Into the Eyeball" by David Byrne

Byrne continued this trend in a later solo project called Look Into the Eyeball (2001). The slick song U.B. Jesus proclaims

Jesus is big

Jesus is strong

Jesus’ll kill you if you don’t get along
Jesus has swing
Jesus has skills
Go on & try it if you don’t believe he will

But David Byrne has mellowed out a little but with his most recent record Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008). For the recording he teamed up again with British rocker Brian Eno, who played with the Talking Heads from 1978 to 1982. The album is more probing than anything else David Byrne has done since the Talking Heads and is fatalist in a Donnie Darko sort of way. You can listen to the whole album here.

Byrne and Brian Eno

Byrne and Brian Eno

Ok, so more David Byrne to come in the next post! Including recent developments with N.A.S.A., the music group (not to be confused with the makers of the vomit comet) and Fatboy Slim’s band the BPA.

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