‘Giant’ serving of brass, no baggage
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, September 28, 2012
One of the more unusual songs on “Love This Giant,” the much anticipated collaboration between David Byrne of the Talking Heads and St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), is “The Forest Awakes.” It begins with a trombone huffing and puffing its way through an off-kilter melody, soon joined by a bleating tuba and a synthesizer’s buzz-and-beep, as if the past were colliding with the future.
Later in the song, Clark’s sweet soprano sums up the United States of 2012 in one succinct line: “A place of belief and a time of confusion.” That confusion is amplified by the juxtaposed images of virgin wilderness and streets full of marching people, but the song concludes on a hopeful note: “Somehow the beauty will find you.”
“That’s the only song on the record,” Clark says, “where you would be mistaken if you assumed the person who sang the song wrote the words. It was a challenge for me to sing it, because it was a challenge to get into that head space and really sell it.”
“I’m aware of the baggage I carry,” Byrne says from New York during a conference call with Clark. “I was afraid that people hearing my voice sing those words might think I was being ironic. And I wasn’t. The words were very sincere, tackling a big subject. I figured that if Annie sang it, it would not only sound very beautiful, it wouldn’t sound automatically ironic.”
In Byrne’s explanation lies a hint as to why this 60-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and this 30-year-old indie-rocker struck up their unlikely partnership. For Byrne to escape his reputation as a cerebral, sardonic ironist, he needed someone as fresh and buoyantly melodic as Clark, especially as heard on her breakthrough 2009 album, “Actor.” For Clark to escape the transient trends of modern rock, she needed someone with enough of a track record to render irrelevant the fashion of the moment. By reaching outside their respective generations, they were forced to abandon business as usual.
“That’s the only way you grow,” Clark says. “Everyone has their areas where they are known quantities. You develop that way because you want to emphasize your strengths and sweep your weaknesses under the rug. But when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, when you have to try something you haven’t done before, you’re forced to take inventory of those strengths and weaknesses and see if you can update them.”
Byrne lives in New York and sometimes can be glimpsed weaving his bicycle through traffic. Starting in 2008, he often chained his bike outside a nightclub where Clark was performing, but the two didn’t meet until 2009. A few days later, they met again at Soho’s Housingworks Bookstore, where Bjork and the Dirty Projectors were doing a one-off collaboration. The organizers asked Byrne whether he would like to do something similar with Clark, and the seed was planted.
Their first collaboration was on Byrne’s 2010 rock opera, “Here Lies Love: A Song Cycle About Imelda Marcos & Estrella Cumpas,” written and composed with Fatboy Slim and featuring guest vocals by a duverse group of musicians that included Steve Earle, Tori Amos, Sharon Jones and Santigold. On “Every Drop of Rain,” where the Filipino first lady and her childhood maid share memories, Clark sang Marcos’s heartfelt confession. That gave her and Byrne the confidence to pursue something larger. But what?
“Annie suggested we use a brass band rather than the typical rock ensemble, which would brilliantly solve the sound problems inherent in performing in a small joint like Housingworks,” Byrne writes in the “Love This Giant” liner notes. “A brass band wouldn’t need mixing and could be heard acoustically in a room that size. . . . We’d only need vocal mikes. I loved this idea. We immediately restricted ourselves given all the possible directions we could have taken.”
“Making a record means making an unquantifiable number of micro-decisions,” Clark says, “so if you can answer the macro-decisions from the outset, it makes it easier to channel those micro-decisions into the macro-decisions you’ve already made.”
Byrne adds: “Annie would send me melodic fragments, sometimes horn samples or synthesized horn samples. Even the guitar samples were the kind of things horns would do, short bursts. It wasn’t the kind of thing I would come up with if I were sitting down with my guitar. Another decision we made was we were going to make pop songs. So we knew we’d need 11 or 12 songs for an album. And we knew if we’d gone three or four minutes, we should say, ‘Shouldn’t this be over?’ ”
Although Byrne thanks the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the album’s liner notes, he and Clark for the most part avoided obvious references to the expected brass-band formats in jazz, R&B, salsa and New Orleans music. Instead they tried to find new uses for the horn band, creating melodic dance music that emphasized 21st-century innovation over 20th-century folklore.
But they soon learned that contemporary dance music assumes a very different character when made with brass rather than with guitars and keys. For one thing, horns are vowel instruments rather than consonant instruments; trumpets and trombones ooh and ah where guitars and basses click and clack.
“You definitely associate brass with lung effort,” Byrne says. “This gives horn arrangements a declamatory aspect, as if someone were announcing something in public instead of murmuring it in private.”
“Brass tends to sound big and to sound important,” Clark adds. “So lyrically you have to figure out how to fit in with that. You have to tackle bigger themes, because the brass is going to imply that anyway. So there’s a lot of that on the record, lots of nature and crowds and gravitational pull as metaphors for human existence.”
You can hear those big themes in the tracks “The Forest Awakes,” “Dinner for Two” and especially “I Should Watch TV,” which has a songwriting credit of “David Byrne, Annie Clark & Walt Whitman.”
Over its jittery techno-dance beats, several lines from Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself” are transformed from “I behold the picturesque giant and love him” to “I know, I like, behold and love this giant,” giving the album its title. “All the men ever born are also my brothers” becomes “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” becomes “It’s good to die and it’s good to be alive.”
“When I picked up and reread ‘Song of Myself,’ ” Byrne says, “I read, ‘I [contain] multitudes,’ and I said, ‘Oh, that’s like the Internet.’ So ‘I Should Watch TV’ is jokey at the beginning, but then it gets more serious. I said to myself, ‘Let’s see if we can take it somewhere it’s a little more emotionally moving and transcendent.’ ”
Once again Byrne is trying to escape his reputation as the detached, tongue-in-cheek commentator and reinvent himself as the sincere confessor. Whitman helps, but Clark helps even more, for she has the kind of melodic pop sensibility that erases the distance between the singer and the song’s subject.