The world's most cerebral party band, Talking Heads, has turned another surprising page in its history as the art band that matters most to the pop mainstream. With its superb new album, "Little Creatures" (Sire 25305-1), the band has shrunk back to its original quartet size and delivers nine David Byrne originals you can sing in the shower.
While the record's tunefulness, colorful detail and abrupt shifts recall the minimalist pop of the Heads' art school origins, the Heads' more recent soul and funk stylizations and dance attack are scaled down only so they can snugly fit into the tight song structures. Even in the album's longest cut, "Television Man," the contagious polyrhythms and call-and-response are carefully integrated into Byrne's celebration of the couch potato syndrome.
"Little Creatures" also continues Byrne's growth past the twitchy neuroticism and squawking vocals that once rendered him the Tony Perkins of new music. Byrne's singing now is subtle, dramatic and, in numbers like the sultry "The Lady Don't Mind," sensual.
More than anything, there's a sense of optimism, wonder and whimsy running through "Little Creatures" that contrasts with the dark obsessiveness of much of the Heads' earlier work. The album's first cut, "And She Was," is about a girl who floats above the Earth, and the music's sing-song quality, cheerful keyboards and bouncy beat are equally uplifting.
Byrne has not, however, totally abandoned his gift for dark humor and incipient paranoia. In "(Give Me Back My) Name," Byrne's sinister, creeping guitar solo and distraught vocals underscore the terror of namelessness in the modern world.
There is also a nasty edge to Byrne's vocals in "Stay Up Late," a mocking description of the everyday interaction between adults and babies that finds Byrne sadistically teasing, "I want to make him stay up all night."
The most remarkable cut on this thoroughly realized set of modern rock songs is a single release, "Road to Nowhere." Opening with a gospel refrain, the song is set on a martial beat that carries verse and chorus with an incredible sense of joy and momentum. There are a colorful Cajun accordion and washboard, as well as a saxophone, to make the journey interesting. With Byrne yelping and exhorting like a trail driver, "Road to Nowhere" sounds like the most exciting path in pop music. This cut in particular underscores the openness of heart and musical intelligence that continue to render Talking Heads the most adventuresome and satisfying rock band of the last 10 years.
Byrne's artistic ambitions have also found fruition in solo projects, including his experimental collaboration with Eno on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and with choreographer Twyla Tharp on "The Catherine Wheel." His latest project, "Music for the Knee Plays" (ECM 25022-1), is perhaps his most radical and provocative solo effort yet.
Its 12 compositions were written to serve as connecting musical passages between scene changes in Robert Wilson's epic opera, "CIVIL warS." Inspired by the New Orleans brass band tradition, Byrne has composed a series of somber processionals that move past the listener like a funeral parade.
Employing some of the finest studio horn players, Byrne's ensemble avoids the lively, syncopated brass band style in favor of a more contemporary, droning sound that conveys emotional passivity. Heightening this flat, presentational atmosphere are Byrne's deadpan spoken narrations that contemplate a range of commonplace activities from dressing to shopping.
By creating a kind of modern chamber music that draws on America's musical past and coupling it with thoroughly modernist recitations, Byrne evokes the passage of time itself in America. The effect is engrossing.