Smart Brass

David Byrne and St. Vincent join forces with an old-school big band

September 27, 2012

Beyond illustrating what Jay-Z and Kanye West do together when they’re in Paris, “Watch the Throne” showed us that when two music heavyweights get together — and egos are cast aside — incredible collaboration is possible. While former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and indie chanteuse St. Vincent (nee Annie Clark) may not have quite the swag of Jay or ’Ye, each is a strong, eccentric music-maker in his or her own right, and their pairing has been met with excitement in the rock world. Almost three years in the making, Byrne and Clark’s just-released “Love This Giant” was birthed in the spirit of cooperation. To borrow a line from Byrne, well, how did they get here? We’ll explain.

St. Vincent

Before becoming a successful solo artist, Annie Clark was a mere side-woman, playing in the cult-like choral group the Polyphonic Spree and as a backing musician for mystic folkie Sufjan Stevens. Clark came into her own with St. Vincent’s second album, 2009’s “Actor,” which pulled from influences as far-ranging as baroque pop and punk rock. Last fall’s “Strange Mercy” built on that, with Clark layering her thick, hypnotizing vocals on such tracks as “Cheerleader” and “Chloe in the Afternoon.”

David Byrne

Since disbanding Talking Heads after 1988’s “Naked,” Byrne spent years flying solo before making collaboration his MO. His past two albums were collabs: 2008’s reunion with producer Brian Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” and “Here Lies Love,” a 2010 concept album about Imelda Marcos, which also featured St. Vincent. Byrne also worked with choreographer Twyla Tharp in 1981, scoring her ballet “The Catherine Wheel” with music from his record of the same name.

 “Love This Giant”

Byrne and Clark first met at an after-party for “Dark Was the Night,” a 2009 AIDS-awareness charity album Byrne worked on. They planned a joint project, a one-off benefit at a tiny New York bookstore. The room’s constraints (it had no PA system) led Clark to suggest that they play with a brass band. Eventually, the idea ballooned into “Love This Giant,” a 12-track album made mostly on computers and over email.

The record feels like the coalescing of two separate but equal wholes, with the pair switching off lead-vocal duties and occasionally (as on the standout “Lazarus”) sharing them. The brass band is a fun anachronism on a record made in 2012 — and a big change from the rock-based comfort zones of both artists. Byrne’s trademark weirdness still shines through (he quotes Walt Whitman several times), as does Clark’s scorching guitar work and delicate vocals.

Live, the pair has been playing the album, some St. Vincent songs and three Talking Heads tunes: “Road to Nowhere,” “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” and “Burning Down the House,” which get drastic makeovers with the brass backup. And that has to be the reason Clark wanted to do this in the first place, right?

Further Reading

Byrne timed the tour to coincide with the release of his book “How Music Works” ($32, McSweeney’s). Part memoir, part extended think piece, the book goes deep on how Byrne views music: listening to it, making it and selling it. At 7 p.m. Monday at the National Museum of Natural History, Byrne will discuss his book and career in a conversation with Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven singer David Lowery.

Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Sun., 8 p.m., sold out; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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Marc Silver · September 27, 2012