Talking Heads never seemed so eloquent until they figured out how to graft Fela Kuti's hipjoint to W.B. Yeats' backbone. In their subsequent state of separation, the parts haven't quite equaled the whole. Leader David Byrne's work on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and "The Catherine Wheel" doesn't escape interest, but it's weighted down by humorlessness and pretentiousness. "The Tom Tom Club," led by Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, is featherweight fun, but it rarely amounts to more than preppie rap ("Whatcha gonna do when you get out of jail," indeed!).
Now comes Jerry Harrison, former Heads guitartist/keyboardist/utility man, with "The Red and the Black." Yet another sampling from the same old petri dish, true, but this album succeeds where the others have failed, establishing Harrison as the unquestionable class of the Heads.
Holy handjive, does this guy have the funk! Also the self-conscious humor of the Tom Tom and the production values of Basic Byrne. Also Nona Hendryx, who choreographs a sleek-and-sassy backup ballet to balance Harrison's bumbling call-and-response.
The pulse quickens at the first flush of "Things Fall Apart," a breakup song whose finger-pointing recriminations match Adrian Belew's angry guitar slash for slash. It's evident right off the beat the Harrison takes his jerky vocal style from Daddy Byrne, but his peppy syncopations and wry phrasing make up for the lack of tonal variance.
The desperate heat of "Things" is followed by the keep-cool exhortations of "Slink." Staying in control is a recurring theme on this ablum, which is worth an oxymoronic yuk or two considering the breathless pace and rhythmic drive. Ray Davies' Lola would find it hard to resist lines like this from Harrison's obsessive-retentive hipster:
Have you ever been in a traffic jam
Have you ever needed a gram
Well, I have
But I got over it
Generally, the relatively slower tunes ("The New Adventure," "Worlds in Collision") are the failures of "The Red and the Black" for three reasons: They're too reminiscent of "Remain in Light"; Harison is forced by tempo to resort to real singing, which he doesn't handle well, and the heavy layers of synthesizer and percussion aren't as impressive in a less-frenzied setting.
But the rolling funk of "Magic Hymie" and "Fast Karma/No Questions" is worth the price of the album. The former is a give-it-your-best-shot tune (inspirational lyrics: "So face the chair, a firing squad/Without the heat to bring your fear / You'll never know what you can do"). The latter is arguably the most propulsive love-at-first-sight ditty since the whatchacallits' "I Saw Her Standing There."
There's also a making-up song of sorts, "No More Reruns," in which a televised middleweight boxing match causes the protagonist to indulge in fond rememberrance of his shattered relationship:
He tries the Ali shuffle
Guess I'll change the channel
'Cause it's just another scuffle
Reminds me of me and you
Reminds me of what we used to do
The piece de resistance is the final cut, "No Warning/No Alarm," a 10/4 dance number that manages to throw in every paranoid funk phrase in the book while Hendryx and company encourage Harrison to "fan the fire." One might imagine that a record this panic-paced would tend to huff and puff toward the end. This one does, but "No Warning" is so full of rhythmic vitality, you want to start back at side one again.
The rhythmic contributions of Harrison, Yogi Horton and John Cooksey, along with Hendryx' unerring soul intuition, make this album weirdly delightful. Even the multilayered synthesizers and keyboards can't compete with the way the percussion explodes out of the mix, and the energy and humor make comparisons with Talking Heads product superficial.
Harrison recognizes the limitations inherent in fusing funk with a doomsday mentality, but as he says on "Worlds in Collision," "I'm not one for half measures." That's why "The Red and the Black" is such bittersweet, funky fun.
THE ALBUM -- Jerry Harrison, "The Red and the Black" srk 3631