Punk, or New Wave rock, has always failed to deliver artistic products that are the equal of its polemics. The premise of this music has been the calculated obliteration of the trappings of contemporary rock, in which the excesses of commercialism and pretension are sheared away to reveal the soul and power of the music. While this idea is valid (at least to a point), all too often punk records have been unlistenable - in their attempt to destroy these trappings, they have also destroyed the music as well.
All of this has changed with The Talking Heads, a New York-based group that must surely be considered the new voice of the New Wave. Their record, "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (Sire SRK 6058) is a finely wrought musical package whose roughness and energy are given artistic shape by British composer-producer Brian Eno.
The meeting of Eno and punk rock seemed inevitable. First with the group Roxy Music and more recently with his solo and collaborative efforts. Eno has pursued an approach to rock that philosophically parallels that of the punks.While they have discarded extraneous materials and reduced rock to its basics (rough chords, stomping rhythms, blaring voices). Eno has started with those basics and, through a labyrinth of compositional and recording techniques, produced songs that present an almost pop art impression of rock.
The alliance of these two approaches on "More Songs" provides the working environment that punk rock has needed: The basic materials have heretofore lacked form, and Eno provides to develop a structure in which songs are allowed to develop into effective musical statements.
The Talking Heads certainly provide the basics. None of the musicians (at least on the basis of this record) seem to have more than an elementary knowledge of their intruments. Chris Frantz's drums and Tina Weymouth's bass never proceed beyond a rudimentary thrashing and any rhythmic nuance is apparently beyond their grasp. Likewise, Jerry Harrison's keyboard work supplies power and tonal color, but his playing is sometimes awkward and his phrasing, haphazard. David Byrne's guitar is reminiscent of the thin, "treble sound" of the early '60s and his voice is more akin to the exhortations of a fascist politician than to any rock or "musical" singer.
Despite these deficiencies (or possibly because of them) their music has a certain primal quality that defies a strictly theoretical evaluation. The rhythms might be basic, but they are also forceful and create a thudding energy that is irresistible. Harrison's keyboards and Byrne's guitar, for all their technical mediocrity, display an imaginative use of sound layers, particularly when the sustained notes of the organ are set against the arpeggioed guitar chords. This background is the ideal setting for Byrne's growling vocals, which add a sort of "rough boy" image to the songs.
The songs themselves represent a new development in punk rock. The constant bashing and distortion of the early punks is rejected for a more melodic style that resembles the work of several mid-60s American groups.
Eno's role as producer is crucial: He adds a discipline to The Talking Heads like that of a seasoned commander who takes a group of disorganized guerrilla fighters and turns them into a well-drilled fighting unit. The roughness and dubious musicianship are transformed into a musical blitz whose fury is subtly controlled and held in reserve for just the right moments. He also includes several vocal and instrumental sections of his own that add a foreign (yet compatible) accent to the songs and he electronically alters the instruments to create exotic flourishes for the musical background.
The result is a record whose boisterous raunchiness is expressed with sophistication and intellect.
The Talking Heads represent a transitional phase in the development of Punk Rock. The creative maturity of their music holds the potential for a new and challenging rock style and provides a background from which more ambitious music may evolve.