Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sand In The Vaseline: Music For - And Probably By - Crazies

The Good: Awesome, distinctive lyrics, vocals and music, Diverse sound
The Bad: Nope, Double check, Nope, Triple check, Really none.
The Basics: With a wide range of vocal styles and a consistently high lyrical quality, Sand In The Vaseline remains an essential album from Talking Heads, also the only one I've heard.

There's a distinct difference between classic artists of the late 70s through mid-1980s that people growing up today will not understand based on how the market is now driven. In today's download-driven market where radio-friendly singles determine the life of a new artist, usually defining their career in the 1 - 3 album range, the concept of an artist or group being successful without having a song that charts higher than #9 is alien to them. In fact, I'm willing to bet that most people would not be able to remember Willa Ford and her #11 track "I Wanna Be Bad" were it not for her appearances on such shows as the U.S.'s Dancing With The Stars. My point is that today, if you don't break the top ten repeatedly, your song and your career are virtually sunk. Deep.

In contrast, ask any child of the 80s (anyone who was alive, awake and listening to the pop-rock radio in the 80s) how the refrain to "Burning Down The House" goes and they'll be able to hum a few bars or shout of the title in some weird semblance of a tune. "Burning Down The House" peaked in the U.S. at #9 according to Billboard and was the highest the Talking Heads ever got in the States ("Sax & Violins" reached #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart in 1991 but that chart was not representative of the mainstream airplay/pop-rock music format of years past).

On the two disc Sand In The Vaseline - Popular Favorites: 1976 – 1992 Talking Heads illustrates that while they might not have had the commercial success, they created a distinct and enduring sound that is worthy of any music fan's collection. After listening to the album repeatedly, I wanted to begin my review by advancing (okay, starting) a conspiracy theory that David Byrne and David Bowie were actually the same person. A quick search of the two yielded only that they share a common love of a group called Arcade Fire and while some articles claimed they were both at a concert for the group at the time, I've yet to find a photograph of the two together (feel free to post a link of any legitimate photos of Byrne and Bowie together in the comments section for my edification!). The reason for my bizarre desire to link Byrne and Bowie has to do with the independent sound of Talking Heads, which Byrne was the lead singer and primary lyricist for. On the Talking Heads track "Heaven," Byrne sounds almost exactly like Bowie and after listening to Sand In The Vaseline six times repeatedly, I think I went a little crazy.

Sand In The Vaseline is a two-disc set that comprises thirty-three tracks total spanning the career of Talking Heads. How popular are these "Popular Favorites?" I don't know. Talking Heads released twenty-eight singles (two were essentially the same - "Once In A Lifetime" was released as both the studio version and a live version) over their career and nineteen appear in this anthology and I would not have missed any of the missing tunes, were it not for a mix tape a friend once made that included "Slippery People," which is not on either disc.

With thirty-three tracks, these two discs illustrate what the best and weirdest rock and roll music can be. Clearly the precursors to such groups as They Might Be Giants (their similar anthology Then is reviewed here!) and Barenaked Ladies, Talking Heads presents some of the most esoteric and original lyrics in pop-rock history. So, while most Top 40 groups are obsessed with love and the falling into or out of it, Talking Heads deals with such diverse themes as the nature of heaven ("Heaven is a place / Where nothing happens / Nothing at all" - "Heaven"), psychopaths ("Psychokiller"), partying or creating an arsonists' anthem ("Burning Down The House"), to having a decent apartment ("Don't Worry About The Government"), living in a war zone ("Life During Wartime") and urban decay (the brilliant "(Nothing But) Flowers").

The lyrics are often sharp and pointed or overtly funny, sometimes mixing the two. On "(Nothing But) Flowers" for example, David Byrne sings, "This was a Pizza Hut, now it's all covered in daisies / I miss my Honky-tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-11s . . ." It's the sort of weird, esoteric brilliance that goes largely unheard of in pop-rock music and culture.

Talking Heads is comprised of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth, but the sound is definitely dominated by the vocals of David Byrne. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy the live version of "Life During Wartime" that opens the second disc is that the backing vocals of Tina Weymouth (or other women, she's not credited with backing vocals for this one) seem to come through magnificently, giving the song a very well-rounded and intense sound that Byrne could not create on his own.

Defining the sound of Talking Heads is a futile gesture, at least on Sand In The Vaseline. Talking Heads is pop-rock music, but it is not the typical three to five chord range that most musical artists these days are limited to. Instead, the group gives the full range of the musical spectrum from straight pop-rock and roll ("Sugar On My Tongue" and "Don't Worry About The Government," which sounds like an archetypal 1980s pop song as if from a movie soundtrack, though I think this song was probably released in the late '70s) to tribal ("I Zimbra") to an almost-cha cha ("Mr. Jones") to funk ("Girlfriend Is Better"). The thing is that rock and roll sound that Talking Heads creates is very much rock and roll, but it is dominated by the vocals of David Byrne and defined by the eccentricity of his lyrics.

So, for example, "Life During Wartime" - devoid of the vocals is a very standard rock and roll song. It has guitars, keyboards and pretty kick-ass drums. When Byrne is listing cities ("What about Houston? / What about Detroit? / What about Pittsburgh, P.A.?") the tones are haunting, vacant. The song takes on the evocations of a post-apocalyptic wartime scenario. It's so different from anything else sung in rock and roll. Songs about war and life after the bomb tend to be relegated to folk music (or the satires of Tom Leher). Talking Heads makes any topic open to rock and roll anthemization. Listening to the group also encourages reviewers to make up new words.

Similarly, "Stay Up Late" could be any rock and roll song, save that its lyrics are about the simple joys of keeping a baby away all night. No one before or since has ever created a song that makes tormenting a baby sound so good.

Talking Heads, ultimately, is rock and roll that is weird and somewhat crazy. It's brilliant and different and it is worthy of an addition to anyone's musical collection. Less overtly humorous than many of the groups inspired by them, Talking Heads is defined by smart, clever lyrics that sometimes take genuine listening to discern and comprehend.

The best tracks are "Don't Worry About The Government" (Disc 1) and either "Life During Wartime (Live)" or "(Nothing But) Flowers" (Disc 2), I was not as fond of the tribal-sounding "I Zimbra" (Disc 1) and the dance heavy "Mr. Jones" (Disc 2). Even with the imperfect tracks, this album is the first thing I've listened to in a long time that has given me pause to debate between a nine and a ten rating.

That should be understandable to anyone willing to go a little crazy and join my conspiracy to convince the world that David Byrne is just another of David Bowie's personalities . . .

For other quirky musical artists, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Like Bad News
Moby - Play: The B-Sides
Fountains Of Wayne - Traffic And Weather


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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