I’m probably the only person for whom David Byrne’s 2001 album Look Into The Eyeball was a formative experience, which is kind of a shame. Poised at the odd crossover moment between embracing pop/rock/whatever whole-heartedly and firmly pushing away the classical music I was raised with, Byrne’s with-strings experiment made perfect sense, even if we were seemingly going in opposite directions. (In retrospect, Byrne was obviously preparing me for Andrew Bird; more on this below.)
It was a transitional moment for Byrne too: ignoring the wretched run he’d had in the ’90s (the nadir culminating in 1994’s self-titled monstrosity, as ugly as its cover), he threw away Talking Heads once and for all. Eyeball was warm, direct, and surprisingly well-crafted. Its follow-up—2004’s Grown Backwards—isn’t half bad either, a considerably more sedate jog through increasingly beefed-up string arrangements: Eyeball is a bit of a chamber music piece, while Backwards is ambitious enough to find Byrne tackling not one but two operatic staples, one a duet with Rufus Wainwright no less.
If all of that’s a tough sell—and most people had trouble with the idea of a newly vital Byrne, as with most solo artists abandoning what made them famous—Live From Austin, Texas might be a good place to start. 13 tracks gives you 6 from the Heads-era catalogue (if you count “What A Day That Was”—technically a solo song, but popularized by its slot in Stop Making Sense), 2 covers, and 4 highlights from Byrne’s solo work. It all hangs together beautifully, integrating Byrne’s new aesthetic into refreshing covers of earlier work, so you can just skip to the back half and hear songs you already like if you’re suspicious of where this is going. Before the strings come in, Byrne works through a few staples, allowing some of the more dated aspects of late-80s production to be sloughed off. Beginning with the first verse of “Nothing But Flowers” solo on guitar, Byrne seems to mean it this time around when he sings “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” Serenity rather than irony’s the new tone of the seemingly satirical post-apocalyptic song (“This was a Pizza Hut/Now it’s all covered with daisies”), which makes a lot of sense: Byrne was the man who moved to shit-tastic New York in the mid-’70s and promptly advised all his art-school friends to do the same. Ironic about squalor and conflict though he may be, he loves that big-city stuff, and “Nothing But Flowers” seems quite genuine in asserting that he’ll take a parking lot over nature any day, now that nuclear apocalypse is seemingly not quite as relevant.
Sung directly, without production gloss, “And She Was” sounds better than ever; “Once In A Lifetime,” instead of a dutiful slog through an overheard song, is a joyous flashback. It’s Byrne’s one chance the whole night to break out the freaky, silly voices that initially made him the world’s most instantly compelling frontman. The song works well, even without the shock of stream-of-consciousness in the top 40 and the treated Brian Eno production. But things really kick up a notch when the Tosca strings finally show up: their 1:20 intro to ”The Great Intoxication” has no vocals and hardly any percussion. When Byrne kicks in, it’s just him, percussion without a traditional drum kit and Tosca in a serene acoustic landscape. Much of what’s striking about the back half is how little amps are used: Rei Momo highlight “Marching Through The Wilderness” only has an electric bass, with the extensive percussion filling in everything and the strings providing the melody. Never listen to electric guitar if he can help it.
If you’re still not willing to take a chance on Byrne’s recent solo material (and you weren’t one of the many people who heard “Like Humans Do” involuntarily while starting up Windows Media Player on Windows XP—the savviest marketing move imaginable), check out some of the excellent back half remakes: “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” swipes out ’80s keyboard for an excellent string arrangement, while “Life During Wartime” gets a Motown gloss. If you’re just looking for the novelty-cover-that-transcends novelty, skip to Byrne’s version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which is joyous and soaring and is one of the best kinds of covers, where the original structure is preserved with all the crap peeled away so that a song you grudgingly appreciate when it gets stuck in your head becomes what it should’ve been. (Cf. Clem Snide’s version of “Beautiful.”) With ’80s-crap-gets-peeled-away, replaced strings and thoughtful percussion, it’s the near-disco classic it always wanted to be. It kind of gives me chills, especially if, like me, technically great but soulless vocalists like Houston—who never miss the big belt and never seem to care what the melody is—scare you. Byrne’s thin, endearing voice is never better than when it’s straining extra hard to go high and hold a note.
On the other side of happy and intricately arranged: “I’ve got nothing that I want to do/more than another sonic fuck you” sings Elliott Smith on “Looking Over My Shoulder,” one of 24 near uniformly impeccable songs from New Moon, the anthology recorded in the period encompassing 1995’s self-titled and 1997’s either/or—i.e., the transitional period between the sparse second album that most non-fans despise (unofficially sometimes referred to as “The Heroin Album” and possibly his darkest album in general), and the prettier, more user-friendly acoustic album that followed and let Elliott pump out something suitable for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Personally, I love it all, but I thought I’d sated myself on the collected discography in high school—the proper time, really, to listen to the 90’s most talented incarnation of the eternal teenager. For all his musical talent—and the big surprise to me was how exacting these songs are, many of them more melodically fleshed out and complicated than anything on the first 2 albums—Smith’s lyrics alternated between the smart, funny-sad and outright self-loathing, a mixture only to be taken seriously when your hormones are going crazy. To be blunt, it’s got the stigmata of high school all over it. (At least it’s more respectable than my other high school angst staples, Placebo and Travis. Oh well.)
There’s nothing hard to take seriously, though, about the melodic twists and overall excellence on display here. Heavy on the sturm-und-drang of the first three acoustic albums, New Moon’s biggest contribution is letting some of the sunnier acoustic moments out of the vault. Aside from either/or’s “Say Yes,” there’s virtually no upbeat moments before the studio-enabled lift of XO and Figure 8; now, there’s a lot more to prove that Smith didn’t need to rely on his producers to sound upbeat. “Whatever (Folk Song In C)” is anything but the Bright Eyes its title suggests; C Major and endearingly shy, it’s as close to a sunny day song as he ever got. “All Cleaned Out” is practically martial in its grandeur—as huge as the twin-drum kit of “Coast To Coast” in its own way, which is all the more impressive considering it’s just two guitars and Elliott’s characteristic double-tracked vocals, as close as he got to belting it out.
Even more impressive is how full all these songs sound. The common, misinformed rap on Smith is that his first three albums are “poorly recorded,” because they’re full of analog tape-hiss and dead air hanging heavy; on Roman Candle, recorded in privacy on a 4-track, it’s common for the end of a song to be signaled by the cutting off of one layer after another. I can’t help but think it’s deliberate: the studio recordings are as clean as can be, and he could be a notorious perfectionist about tone etc. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s a brilliant strategy for saving Smith from the death of the boring singer-songwriter, where cleanly recorded guitar and vocals are all you have to occupy you for the album’s length. The sound creates texture, and New Moon confirms how much can be done with, at most, guitar (a very vigorous guitar, with plenty of lower bass lines for bass and complicated melodies and none of the lazy, rote chord-strumming that gives SS’s a bad name), vocals, one bass, half a drum kit, and maybe an organ. Maybe. (This is also why his live bootlegs sound better than most: that audience chatter is almost integral.) Mixed exceedingly well, it’s got the full range of sound from high to low the best bands strive for. I hate to say it, but I think I’m starting to fall back in love with Elliott Smith, even if I don’t think externalized self-loathing is a positive character trait anymore. Here’s hoping the estate keeps the unreleased material coming: I have enough B-sides and live recordings stocked away to know that until, say, “I Figured You Out” is available legally, everyone’s missing out.
Things I’m falling out of love with: Daft Punk, thanks to the inexplicably acclaimed Alive 2007. It sure looks like an awesome party I would’ve loved to been able to afford. I’ll keep it simple: aside from the fact that my computer freezes every time I play it—which I suppose Daft Punk can’t reasonably be held responsible for—this is a pretty lousy live album. Sound-quality wise, it’s only slightly above a bootleg, which I can live with. But it’s a damn long album, and without the in-concert quality of “OH SHIT THEY’RE MASHING UP THAT SONG WITH THAT ONE,” all I really learned is that a lot of Daft Punk songs have pretty similar backbeats, so it’s pretty easy to put them together. I guess sugar rush + sugar rush should = EXTRA SUPER AWESOME SUGAR RUSH, but it doesn’t, not really. Discovery is one of the most perfect albums I know for making me giddy in record time, partly because the songs are so ridiculously excessive and gaudy, and partly because they’re songs. I don’t need to skip to the good parts; they’re all good already. And when you ask me to accept that one of the songs will get better if you isolate a riff and throw in a stupid raspy steam voice rasping “STEAAAAAM MACHIIIIIIIINE”...well, no. Sporadic highlights stick out—I dig the way “Face To Face”’s vocals are put on top of “Faster Harder Stronger Better,” both slowed down, and then sped up until they’re in sync and racing together, so you can hear the BPM increasing bit by bit—but it’s mostly a slog. Buy me a concert ticket already; I will try to repress my sneaking suspicion that all the positive reviews are from happy critics having acid flashbacks.
And one thing I’m glad I did spend the money on: Andrew Bird, for which I will offer a few token notes. Live reviews aren’t really my bag—I hadn’t been to a show since Pitchfork Music Festival this summer—but keeping up with everyone’s favorite Squirrel Nut Zippers-assistant turned only violinist that matters in the pop music scheme seems worth it. A few general notes, seeing as there’s little to be gained from a detailed appraisal of a nearly 2-week old performance:
1. The Beacon Theater has excellent sound and a cool light show, but really uncomfortable seats if you’re gonna be leaning forward for two hours. Seated shows suck in general. Pass next time.
2. Dude knows how to put on a show. By the time he “spontaneously” kicked off his shoes and settled in for the long haul, he had everyone who wasn’t a girl dreamily mooning over his undeniable good looks eating out of his hand.
3. Bird is an interesting violinist: he’s not interested in “good technique” per se—although he’s a very good violinist indeed—and I doubt he could pass the traditional classical music trial-by-fire of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. He hits his notes cleanly and clearly and in tune (although weird fact that you’ll only be able to pinpoint if, like me, you have the fairly useless attribute of perfect pitch: he doesn’t whistle in tune with his violin, which makes things sound subtly off sometimes).
4. Nonetheless—despite the fact that his violin, and its relative novelty in the pop context, have definitely helped make him pretty famous pretty fast—Bird seems kind of minimally interested in playing it. Sometimes he’s got his guitar slung over his back, ready to put down the violin in a second and start strumming. When playing a song like “Heretics,” with no violin, he seemed peppiest: while everyone was wishing they could play a non-traditional instrument and the death of the traditional rock band prayed for by Brian Eno and other progressives, Bird seemingly wishes he could be a guitar star. Weird.
5. The songs from Armchair Apocrypha sound a lot better live; on record, a lot of them seem to be missing the X factor that would make them cohere. But Bird live is a lot different from the meticulous, near-fussy recordings; he has the unnerving habit of rushing through entire lines (generally, the lyrics I’m most fond of), pausing, and then catching back up to the verse by the chorus. The performances are wilder, more intense, occasionally on the border of histrionic before rescuing themselves.
6. Martin Dosh is the most stoic drummer I’ve ever seen in my life. Traditionally the drummer in bands generally resembles Animal from The Muppets; Dosh resembles an unusually talented accountant with perfect posture. He’s awesome.