ON THEIR new album, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz prove that four Talking Heads are better than one. "Speaking in Tongues" (Sire 23883-1) is truly a group effort: self-produced, coventured and accessible, it fuses the best elements of each stage of their career into a rhythmically compelling whole. It is also the most relaxed album they've ever done, which augurs well for the Talking Heads concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Tuesday.
It's been a long three years since "Remain in Light," the Heads' last offering of new material. The time between was spent in such doggedly solitary pursuits that it seemed a sure bet that we'd heard the last of one of the most fascinating American pop-wave groups of the late '70s. Byrne, the Headmaster, lyricist and pacemaker, ventured into ethno-pop experimentation with Brian Eno, production with the B-52s and scoring for modern dance with Twyla Tharp. Guitarist Harrison also got into producing but, more important, established his own distinct voice on a moderately successful solo album. Weymouth and Frantz, the group's riveting rhythm section, went to the Bahamas and came back surrounded by family and friends in a gold-record, dance-club venture known as the Tom Tom Club.
With their energies thus diffused, members of the group compiled a double live album that served as a revealing career retrospective. "The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads" ran a chronological gamut from the spare intensity of their earliest work to the expanded Head band that grew out of "Remain in Light." The irony of the title was its reflection of just how radically the band had evolved in the space of six years, from noxious new wave artiness with its head in the loft to funk-flavored pop with its feet firmly planted on the dance floor.
In order to dance, the Heads stepped away from the jagged psychic edge that made so much of their early work almost unlistenable even as it brought a cerebral bottom to the new wave; but after they adventurously jumped on the funk wagon, they often seemed overwhelmed by the sheer rhythm of their Afro-punk explorations.
"Speaking in Tongues" is an album of reconciliation--between the arty and the party, between disparate energies (while Byrne still writes the lyrics alone, the rest of the band has been assimilated into the smithying of the melodies). The band has toned down not only its size (the guest musicians this time are simply guests), but its sound, as well. In the process it has revived the clarity of its earliest work while maintaining the textured sophistication of its latter experiments. The result is less a step forward--there is nothing really new or innovative on the album--than a half-step backward and the solidifying of a streamlined stance that is at once complicated and commercial.
Better yet, there's a certain playfulness to "Speaking in Tongues." Who'd have thought David Byrne was a John Lee Hooker fan? The evidence is "Swamp," refried Delta boogie (watch out, George Thorogood!) in which the Heads make like Canned Heat and Byrne comes up with a chest-deep growl where a twitchy whine would have sufficed in older days. The lyrics may still be obtuse and obscure, but the song is great fun.
And David Byrne singing love songs? There are two here, actually, "Girlfriend Is Better" and "This Must Be the Place." Admittedly, one has to wade through a certain amount of paranoia and confusion, but there are some lines that reveal new dimensions to Byrne's songwriting. The first song, which recalls the fragile insistence of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (Harrison used to be a Lover), posits a hurtful love-conspiracy but tempers it with some lovely escape clauses: "she's moving up, going right through my heart/ she's gonna give me surprise."
"This Must Be the Place," which Byrne subtitles "Naive Melody," is gently propulsive, a lyrical celebration ("you're standing here beside me/ I love the passing of time . . . sing into my mouth/ out of all those kinds of people/ you got a face with a view"). And there's the new-wave gospel of "Slippery People," with Byrne as unlikely preacher and Nona Hendryx and Dolette MacDonald as earthy chorus working above elastic and decidedly secular rhythms.
There are other, more familiar, sounds as well. "Burning Down the House," with its chantlike energy and undulating rhythms, is pure dance-floor dialectic, Bauhaus with a sense of humor. Both it and "Making Flippy-Floppy" share that familiar Byrne paranoia, but he seems to suggest rhythm and dance as liberating energies. The most irresistible cut is "Pull Up the Roots," a good-natured piece of nonstop percussive energy that reinforces that free-spirited stance: "I feel nice when I start to sing/ and I can see/ ev'ryone else is like me . . . well, I have a wonderful time/ when I go out of my mind/ and it's a wonderful place/ and I can't wait to be there."
Byrne has said that this time around he's made "a conscious effort to write some songs it's actually possible to sing along with." Melodically, he's achieved his goal--there's less of the disjointedness of past works; lyrically he leaves enough room for interpretation for a flock of Concordes to fly though. In the old days, Byrne always sang as if someone had his hands around his throat; it sounds like that once-familiar hysteria has been replaced by loose enthusiasm and honest relief that the Heads are all speaking in the same tongue.
The Tom Tom Club has resurfaced with "Close to the Bone" (Sire 23916-1). Like the group's debut, it's a great party record because casual conversation will drown out the flaccid vocals of Tina Weymouth and her two sisters, Lani and Laura. It was recorded in the Bahamas with a familiar supporting cast that included Wally Badarou, Tyrone Downie, Steve Scales and Urban Verb ex-singer Roddy Frantz, who cowrote the cutest cut, "The Man With the 4-Way Hips." Both sides of the album are chock-full of frothy and infectious dance rhythms ("funk is our salvation" is not only a chorus but also a credo). The lyrics are street-wise and clique-hip and the spirit is lighthearted, as if early '60s girl group vocals had been grafted onto an '80s urban pulse.
The production is stunning, almost three-dimensional in its vividness and immediacy. It's a multitextured proposition that manages to engage the feet. Unfortunately, the Weymouths are stiff, anemic singers, like the Go-Go's at 4 in the morning, and their monotonous delivery grates all too soon. If the Roches had gone to art school instead of hanging around Greenwich Village folk clubs, this is what they'd sound like. Thank heaven they didn't.