Talking Heads

Brick Box

(Sire/WB/Rhino; 2005)

By Conrad Amenta | 29 February 2008

The Talking Heads Brick, Pt. 1

Rhino, quickly becoming the re-release darlings of the indie community, gave an early Christmas present to Talking Heads fans late last year in the form of The Talking Heads Brick: the long
awaited reissues of the band’s entire catalogue in remastered, Dualdisc format. First released as an ungainly and, frankly, unattractive box set with a title that’s a little more than a tongue-in-cheek description, the albums contained in the Brick have since been released individually with expanded artwork, bonus tracks not included on 2003’s Once in a Lifetime box set, and remastered by guitarist Jerry Harrison with 5.1 mixes on each disc’s DVD side. Also contained on the DVD side are most of the band’s music videos (though not “Once in a Lifetime,” for reasons that surpass understanding given the ample room the format affords) and a few live performances. Oh, and as a note of some consequence, Dualdiscs will not fit in a slot-loading disc drive due to their thickness, so, unless you want to open your Mac Mini with a spackle knife, don’t force it.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll refrain from discussing the significance of the band in relation to some monolithic facet of music history (“They presaged the early-21st Century rise of the freaky-voiced frontman!”), or the summer in high school I met a certain girl and discovered More Songs at the same time. Instead, I hope to answer the question of whether these remasters are worth the extra ten dollars you’ll have to shell out over and above the price of the original releases (to say nothing of settling for their two dollar, used vinyl equivalents) to get your grubby hands on them. Each album is rated according to their remastered sound on a regular CD player (because I assume most, like me, won’t have the means to listen to them in wanky 5.1) and on the quality of their extra music which (excepting Naked, containing exactly zero bonus tracks) are comprised of unreleased outtakes, alternate/extended versions and/or unreleased songs, some of which are completely disposable, some of which aren’t really unreleased, and others which rival the takes that would beat them out. The Talking Heads spanned over a decade of advances in production technology and so, naturally, some of their albums benefit from the remastering process more than others. Regardless, the project has been a long time in the making, the influence is the band’s to lose, and many, like me, are all well attuned fanboy ears and notepads.

Talking Heads ‘77

Upon its original release, ‘77 suffered for being the album that tried to do everything at once. Pop songs that were fundamentally physical and exuberant were crowded with steel drums, wind organs and keyboards, while Byrne’s voice, rarely attaining the out-there confidence he’d come to be recognized for, displayed a degree of measured restraint that gave away his freshman frontman status. I’d become so used to these shortcomings that when asked for my take on ’77, I usually referred to disc one of the recently (and lovingly) re-released and remastered The Name of This Band is Talking Heads live album, where the band absolutely kills its ’77 material and Byrne’s vocals swing in and out of the mix like a car out of control. But it’s fair to say that the Brick version of’77 profits the most of almost any of the remasters for all of the added space between and subsequent distinction given the album’s many superfluous sounds.

The aforementioned steel drums in “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town,” and the chimes of “Happy Day,” ring from speaker to speaker, giving the impression of tiny blinking lights strung from the ceiling of the band’s rehearsal space rather than the blanket noise and semi-coherent mash of the originals. “Happy Day” is particularly indicative of the vast improvements to be heard throughout the remastered album: acoustic strums sound wholly different from clean electric ones, given thicker textures in contrast to the now-spacious chimes and gentle organ. Alternately, Chris Frantz’s steady beats, the bare spine of what would develop into the multi-armed pulses of later albums, are brought forward and given more low-end, especially on roll-heavy “Tentative Decisions,” where his snare, which used to sound thin, is now full of gorgeous textures that tie together and provide a center to the band’s surplus experimentation. Further on, the foreground / background interplay of saxophone and Byrne’s voice that closes out “First Week, Last Week…Carefree” might not have even been possible when originally attempted, and it gives the song life it never enjoyed when overshadowed by its more upbeat album-mates.

“Love" -> "Building on Fire” and “Sugar on My Tongue” barely count as an extras, given their prior inclusion on a number of compilations, including the mainstay Popular Favorites, though if you haven’t heard them before I’m sure everything short of “Love’s” canned horns will be pleasing to the ear, and the decision to leave them off of ’77 will continue to inspire minor controversy. However, “I Wish You Wouldn’t Say That” never really moves past the novelty of its subtle marimbas and bells, and those hoping that the acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” will be an early version of Byrne’s boombox serenade from Stop Making Sense will be disappointed, as the ‘acoustic’ B-side of the original “Psycho Killer” single is almost indistinguishable from the electric.

Talking Heads ‘77 is morphed through this much-needed touch up into a mellifluous creature, and the wealth of cleaner, louder and better sounds makes the choice between this and its inferior version a no-brainer. This is how ’77 was meant to be heard and, contemporized as such, sits arms around Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arcade Fire in a way that now makes much more sense.

More Songs About Buildings and Food

With a fully integrated Jerry Harrison and new co-producer Brian Eno, More Songs in any version continues to reduce me to a staggering mass of weak-kneed reverence. It was a galactic leap for the band in terms of songwriting, with additional instrumentation becoming part of the essential mixture as opposed to touchstones for eccentricity, though, having said all that, the remastering of More Songs should hardly have anyone panting in anticipation. It is one of the few Talking Heads albums not so terribly in need of an update. Fears reaffirmed, I was checking and re-checking that I hadn’t accidentally put on the original throughout “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and “With Our Love.” The minimalist funk of “Warning Sign” finally introduced the kind of depth I hoped for, laden with kinds of heretofore lacking dread that comes up from your feet and through your stomach. Its many-layered keyboards and vocal effects are more dynamic, to the effect that the song simply moves as it hasn’t before. Byrne’s muffled voice, which smoothes out from a semi-distorted “I don’t care what I remember” into a clean, untouched la-di-da extrapolation of the line’s final syllables (and eventually into the straight-up reverb strut of “Girls Want to Be With The Girls”) is masterful sequencing, though, again, it doesn’t add much not already present on the original.

It’s unfortunate also that Tina Weymouth’s bass work, which gives More Buildings so many of the sub-melodies and danceable accessibility, signifying something new for so many would be New Wavers, is shuffled aside on most tracks to make room for an emphasis on production effects and Byrne’s newfound vocal range. Similarly misguided, the massively augmented reverb strum of “Artists Only” elbows Byrne’s hilariously mocking, “I’m painting / I’m painting again / I’m cleaning / I’m cleaning my brain,” and a skillful keyboard line right offstage. It is one of the few regrettable instances thus far in which the novelty of the remastering project is given precedent over the strength of the material itself, and in a way that doesn’t enhance something that might have been ignored. “I’m Not in Love” starts to head in the same disappointing direction until a couple of massive, descending tom rolls from Frantz dominate the mix and suddenly you’re back onboard, regaining enthusiasm just in time for Byrne’s high-pitched vocal climax.

Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” the band’s first radio hit, and “Stay Hungry” are the tracks brought up to speed in the most profound way, with Eno’s original insight into keyboard tones finally given crystal clarity and hovering over multi-textured guitar lines like dust in a shaft of light. By themselves they are worth the listen, though can’t hold the entirety of the album up on their own.

The 1977 version of “Stay Hungry” should be heard if only to be privy to the kind of naked vocal work that would be buried from this point forward under production values and studio ideas. No matter its novelty, though, it is literally one (out of tune) electric guitar and Frantz on drums, and isn’t given a chance to hold a candle to the original without Weymouth’s bass or Harrison’s guitars and keyboards. But out of the gate, the alternate version of “I’m Not in Love (Alternate Version)” is tension folded on tension. A far tighter and less contrived version than the original, it features both water-effects on the guitars and a more evocative vocal performance from Byrne, and would easily be the highlight of the More Building extras if not for the utterly luminous and downright essential “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel (Country Angel Version),” which is all blanket-warm acoustic strums, brushes on a snare and a central, elegant three-note keyboard hook. The original version is too close to the feel of the album to be replaced, but this alternate take is equal to it in terms of its purely accessible songwriting and perfect feel, and it, nearly alone, qualifies the album for consideration despite the minor disappointment of its remastered lease on life.

Fear of Music

The dark horse of Talking Heads’ catalogue, Fear rarely gets the shake it deserves. After all, towering opener “I Zimbra” would turn out to be the quintessential statement on the direction of the band for the next four years, as well as Byrne’s fascination and continued worship of polyrhythmic world music. Here, Tina Weymouth’s shuddering bass line becomes the guts of the song, pinning the rest of the instruments to the wall like a thrashing kill, and “I Zimbra” alone is rife with moments that seem to suddenly put the remastering project into perspective in a way that the more organic ’77 and More Songs weren’t equipped to. Fear of Music is one of the more intriguing prospects for remastering because of both the colder mood of synths and electronics and the increased emphasis on bongos and shakers. which punctuate in showers throughout the foreground mix. However, it’s “Paper” that bridges what was new material to old, its minor-to-major shift giving way to channel-switching guitars as the song’s definitive moment. The song is often overlooked in reaction to Byrne’s paranoid hysterics in “Cities,” faraway “Heaven” and classic (though more fun on Stop Making Sense) “Born During Wartime,” but here “Paper” is the unexpected cornerstone of the record, both as an example of how naturally the album lends itself to polishing and as a songwriting peak.

In its remastered form, the dramatics of the record are far more effective, and Fear is a beast for it. “Memories Can’t Wait” renders the original a two-dimensional approximation, with Byrne’s declaration, “There’s a party in my mind,” suddenly ominous before a tremulous rise of synth, given muscles and breath, overtakes the mix. Harrison’s intuitive remastering job on follow-up “Air” sets it into an almost entirely different mold, putting Weymouth’s multilayered “aahhh”s on a pedestal alongside b-movie “Monster Mash” keyboards, both seeing the band perform a more literal interpretation of Byrne’s suspicion of suburban domesticity. In the same way, Harrison’s ear gives “Animals” hairy arms and squiggly tails, and the song’s surprising intensity, with stratums of closing keyboards and emerging drums, make it one of the high points of the entire box set, that is until “Drugs” promptly and unbelievably knocks it from its perch. I assumed that Fear would lend itself to a contemporizing ear, but “Drugs” is truly a wonderful listen, foreshadowing the work Byrne was to do with Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and tying the album together definitively, if not with an air of conclusiveness.

“Dancing for Money,” an unfinished demo, is a curiosity in the vein of “I Zimbra,” with Byrne monkeying up and down the scale with nonsensical placeholders for lyrics. It’s interesting, and a shame it was never developed into a completed song, but it is no unreleased gem. “Life After Wartime (Alternate Version),” however, may actually surpass the original by replacing its emphasis on keyboards, which tends to excessively date the song, with far more ebullient guitars. It doesn’t fit the album as well, but the serpentine guitar noise that runs throughout lends the song an entirely different current, even though the rhythm section parts remain essentially unchanged. “Cities (Alternate Version)” and “Mind (Alternate Version)” are essentially less polished, with no major stylistic overhauls taking place.

Before listening to it, Fear may have already been easy to ignore, or alternately easy to get up for by virtue of how, stylistically and dynamically, it leant itself to the process of remastering. But the reality of its success is best understood in practice, playing in headphones on late night walks home, as it makes you check over your shoulder. It’s unfortunate that the extras could not establish the same consistency of tone and quality, but for both the curious and audiophile, Fear turns out to be a far more modern album than expected.

Remain in Light

David Bowman, in his writerly and lengthily titled This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century, describes touring guitarist Adrian Belew’s guitar work on “The Great Curve” as “knitting needles dipped in honey,” and it’s largely the type of description made by someone already in love with the album’s textured work. But the description, in giving away its writer, is apt for nearly any review of this towering and massively influential Heads album, this album that married Brian Eno’s vision to the band’s songwriting in a way rarely duplicated in their collaborative relationship. Everything to be said may be, by default, superfluous, so set is the album’s place in the shaky avant-garde canon, and so when analyzing any addition or modification of Remain in Light I think Bowman might have got it right by just losing his shit and getting poetic.

Remain is sold as the movie trailer to the summer blockbuster a re-released catalogue usually turns out to be (complete with hype-heavy ad campaign and retrospective mythologizing). Harrison confirms as much in the liner notes, stating that Remain in Light “seemed to be the perfect place to start. The overlapping, contrapuntal parts can now be heard in all their glory.” And if Remain is the concept and the premise, then “Once in a Lifetime” is the moment of revelation upon which the whole narrative hangs. Upon hearing “Once in a Lifetime,” one can’t help but think that Harrison and co. must have known that the prospect of hearing the Heads’ perennial favorite remastered would be the selling point for practically the entire remastering project, and it’s apparent from the first tom strike that the song is treated as the central point of the box, the epicenter of the band’s catalogue towards which every song is drawn. Appropriate to that potential, the song’s flourishes are so brilliantly shined and Byrne’s every melody (“There is water at the bottom of the ocean!”) buffered and supported so perfectly that the song is provided new profundity in cohesiveness and relevance in accessibility above and beyond the original recording. “Once in a Lifetime” typifies an ideal balance that seeks to complement the song’s individual characteristics while enhancing and contemporizing those few pieces – the bleeps and bloops, Weymouth’s bass, the whispering keyboard intro that used to sit on the periphery – and what occurs is an amazing re-acquaintance.

Which, of course, isn’t to say that the remastered Remain is a one-act play or tossed-off commercial for the box set. Nothing opening with the superiority in concept and execution that is the “Born Under Punches” – “Crosseyed and Painless” - “The Great Curve” trifecta, as dense as a music collection and populated with as many voices as a city in the midst of mass ritual, could possibly be dismissed as single-heavy. Similarly vital, the crystal-clean production on first “Seen and Not Seen”, full of tom bounces, succinct hand claps and “Macarena” keyboard lines, and then the admonition of colonial America / fetishization of the other in “Listening Wind” (“He sees / the foreigners in growing numbers / He sees / the foreigners in fancy houses”), is purely revelatory next to Byrne’s from-the-manual ruminations. The whole thing might reach for profundity in a way that makes it easy to mock or open to an overly critical brand of analysis, but that it succeeds so immediately and so effortlessly is both a terrible and wondrous rarity, one that explains Byrne on stage at Irving Plaza, doing a Talking Heads number with the Arcade Fire.

To contribute even further to the album’s now obvious dominance over the rest of the band’s remastered catalogue, each of the four ‘unfinished outtakes’ included here are the tight, yet explosive sounds of a band recording at the top of their game. “Fela’s Riff” is sped up Neu! that posits Zappa-era Belew riffs in tightly coiled leads over five-and-a-half minutes of a percussion-heavy groove. “Unison,” though dated by a fudgey Ghostbusters keyboard, and “Double Groove” establish the same mantra centrality that distinguishes all of the best parts of Remain, cyclical vocals lines that complement one another while doing away with the notion of “leading” and “backup” vocals. Again, as if knowing what they had in hand, “Right Start” is saved for last. A recycled bricolage of pieces from “Once in a Lifetime,” the song is assembled into a fascinatingly listenable experience that both effectively closes out the album and opens the listener to the possibilities of what Remain might have been with another ten minutes or the now-obligatory remix EP.

The Talking Heads Brick, Pt. 2

In part one of this review, we looked at the first four albums of the Talking Heads’ recently re-released, remastered and padded Dualdisc catalogue. The remastered versions of the first half of the Heads’ career generally embellished the materials’ strengths in a way that, with the possible exception of More Songs About Buildings and Food, made their purchase in addition to or instead of the originals a choice fairly easy to justify. In part two of our review, however, we wade into more troubled, or at least more tremulous, waters, marked by periods of transition, the departure of collaborator and co-producer Brian Eno, the band’s first real hit, David Byrne’s increased alienation from the band and retreat into first stage music and then world music, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s money-making stint as the Tom Tom Club and subsequent demand for more control over the Heads, increasing downtime between albums, pressure to match past successes (the ultimate band-killer) and, finally, the dissolution of the band. A look at the ratings for the albums reviewed here will affirm the popular perception that, beyond Speaking in Tongues, much of the Heads’ later work was, at best, a collection of decent ideas never fleshed out, dated pop one-offs with pretentious aspirations. Or it was simply a caving to pressure, both internal and external, to release albums that mimicked the now-recognizable Talking Heads style.

Once again, this review hopes to answer the question of whether these remastered editions are worth purchases over and above their original (and cheaper) releases, with particular attention paid their remastered sound and the extra music included.

Speaking in Tongues

If Remain in Light’s “Once in a Lifetime” represented first the creative apex and then the developing schism between band members of Brian Eno-era Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues’ “Burning Down the House” (the band’s first top ten radio hit and the first song without Eno’s input that Heads fans would hear) represented a band hoping to find renewed vigor and direction in a simplified and inclusive songwriting approach. While the band kept their complex and high-maintenance lineup, replete with sprawling backup band and singers (made much famous by Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense concert film), much of Speaking in Tongues is best defined by the straightforwardness of “Burning Down the House,” with its emphasis on synthesizers and insistence that “I’m an ordinary guy / burning down the house.” Talking Heads were thus casting themselves not as the high-concept, art house collective, obfuscated bodies and faces on the More Songs and Remain cover, but were toying with something that may have been less meta than literal – the Talking Heads tried their hand at being a band, understandable and accessible, writing pop songs that people might like to dance to. For these reasons, Speaking in Tongues will always be portrayed as either the distillation of the band’s vision and aspirations into a cogent statement, or a sellout of the band’s art house roots to pander for commercial success.

During the album’s best moments – “Girlfriend is Better,” “I Get Wild, Wild Gravity,” “Pull Up the Roots” – the band is on form, focused as a laser beam and, for his part, Harrison thankfully does not attempt to complicate this period of the Talking Heads’ career through his soundboard. Though Byrne’s voice is again given the faraway echo quality, strangely established during the first four remasters and sometimes making the vocal melodies sound thin (surprising, considering all the backup singers), the best moments of Speaking transcend the anachronistic, 1983 production values and argue strongly for the band’s influence over contemporary, quirky electro-pop.

During the album’s weaker moments – “Swamp,” “Moon Rocks,” “Slippery People” and, unexpectedly, “Naïve Melody” – the band simply does not transcend, and sounds dated and transitory after Remain in Light’s definitive statement. “Naïve Melody” in particular sounds emaciated and compromising next to its Stop Making Sense live counterpart, an instance in which the final product runs counter to the goals of the remastering project. Byrne’s voice is filtered into a semi-synthesized state and, beyond the chimes that fall into the mix at 3:50, it seems as if Byrne’s experiment in sincerity-amid-absurdity simply doesn’t have enough source material to allow Harrison a thorough revitalization.

With a paltry two bonus tracks, Speaking in Tongues marks the beginning of the Brick’s drought. Where the first four titles in the Talking Heads’ remastered catalogue boasted a total of seventeen bonus tracks, many of which were quality, unreleased songs, the next four albums include only eight, many of which are ‘extended mixes’ or do not constitute unreleased material. Having said that, the last of the unreleased material, “Two Note Swivel (Unfinished Outtake)” is a song suitable to the tone of the album, if largely unmemorable and having a lackluster tempo. A fine bass line, contributing to the argument that Tina Weymouth may in fact be one of the most underrated melodic bass players of the 70’s and 80’s, performs wonders with what is essentially two-chord pop. “Burning Down the House (Alternate Version),” meanwhile, is slower, features an interesting interplay between acoustic guitar strums and the organ’s deviations from the song’s main two chords, does not have the same echo on Byrne’s vocals, has a more subtle percussive outro, and does not sound at all like Bonnie Raitt’s cover, and is thus not wholly devoid of value.

Little Creatures

Introducing talk of bodies, sexuality, babies and tangible women (rather than those in Remain in Light, upon whose hips “the world swings”), Little Creatures was met with awkward silence from many critics who weren’t sure where Byrne’s sense of distance and anti-linear lyricism had gone. To many, the album marks the point at which the Talking Heads became less self-consciously aware of their pop sensibilities, and thus offered less insight into making music, or being an artist (or whatever people think the band’s early efforts explain). This perceived assertion that Byrne was saying, “Okay, seriously now, we’re a band after all,” is a double-edged sword, making Little Creatures one of the most accessible of the band’s albums, but also one of its most predictable and least rewarding.

Little Creatures is the worst of the Talking Head remasters and, not surprisingly, it’s also the first of the Talking Heads albums to ostensibly be a David Byrne solo record. Though songs like “Perfect World” are accomplished pop compositions that integrate horns and backup vocals in a catchy and likeable way (much as Byrne would do to similar success with 1989’s Rei Momo and, most recently, 1997’s Feelings), the songs are so insipidly meaningless and direct that they have a shelf life of about six listens each. Any hope that a remastering would reveal previously unheard layers of subtlety and instrumentation is quickly quashed with the realization that, even after twenty years of advances in recording technology, nothing technological can account for an artist whittling away his band’s multifaceted sound to what he sees as its core elements. “The future is certain / Give us time to work it out,” a choir of singers opens with on “Road to Nowhere,” and the superfluous sentiment predicts clichés that might have one day been ironic and are now simply present (“Time is on our side!”…”It’s all right!”). Little Creatures is a two-dimensional approximation of the Talking Heads’ sound.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flashes of inspiration throughout the album, flashes which Harrison intelligently seizes upon. The emerging swell of organ halfway through “Stay Up Late,” the many superficial accompaniments in “Television Man” and the gospel opening to “Road to Nowhere” are nice, and periodically wrest the attention of the listener to what can be relatively unremarkable songs, but those moments are far too few and the general sound quality of the record as a whole is spotty. When Chris Frantz finally finds a ride cymbal on album opener “And She Was,” this discovery is hampered by the album’s treble-heavy production, and when “Creatures of Love” introduces a pedal steel and country twang the Talking Heads had not previously explored, its legs are taken out from underneath it by a lack of guts, which by this point has become synonymous with the lack of attention paid to Weymouth’s bass.

“Road to Nowhere (Early Version)” is, however, an interesting and worthwhile contrast. A ragged, core band performs a stripped down version that puts aside choirs and keyboards for a jangly, slightly out-of-tune guitar and a flat-voiced, anxious-sounding Byrne. When Byrne sings, “There’s a city in my mind / so come along and take that ride”…”We’re on a road to nowhere,” the song evokes burnt-out husks and desperate hopefulness, haunted pioneers in search of shelter. It’s quite a different effect from the overproduced and scatterbrained original, which poured on the layers in a fumble for inspiration. “And She Was (Early Version),” however, lacking the song’s prechoruses and filled with jarringly loud rhythm guitar, does not offer the same sort of fresh perspective as the early version of “Road to Nowhere.”

True Stories

The soundtrack to David Byrne’s directorial debut, True Stories might be the flag bearer for both the band’s fractured band dynamic and compromised ideas. By 1986, Byrne had established more than one creative outlet, having released the critically admired 1981 Catherine Wheel, an accompaniment to Twyla Tharp’s interpretive dance performance, and 1985’s deservedly panned Music for “The Knee Plays”, a sometimes unlistenable Bourbon Street montage created for Robert Wilson’s opera, The Civil Wars. Talking Heads, Byrne’s primary though no longer exclusive medium, was thus often perceived to recycle memorable touchstones of previous Heads successes, particularly estrangement from the stereotypical tropes of Middle-American life. (Kind of like David Lynch without the disturbing or surrealistic underbelly, despite that the inspiration for True Stories is supposed to be the supermarket tabloid.) It may be unfair to dismiss these stylistic lyrical familiarities as retreads, for the thematic thread, along with a mixed bag of genre exploration, continued throughout much of Byrne’s solo work.

Still, there’s little denying that True Stories, yet another incarnation of Byrne’s favorite dead horse manifest in both film and music, plays like Mellencamp with a disconnect. It describes American values without detail or evidence, the way “Big Country” from More Songs About Buildings and Food declared, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” but now with the realization that Byrne hasn’t lived there. It’s hard to stomach Byrne singing, “We don’t want freedom / We don’t want justice / We just want someone to love,” when the implication is that the fundamental tenets of American idealism fall away in what the New York artist apparently views as the self-centered American mid-West.

And it’s almost a shame because True Stories’ better moments – the big beat of “Love for Sale,” Spiritualized-like choir at the end of “Puzzlin’ Evidence,” the unexpectedly eye-opening “Dream Operator” and “People Like Us,” and minor radio hit “Wild, Wild Life” – come close to the enthusiasm and purposefulness of the band’s earlier work. Byrne’s vocal work successfully legitimizes the songs as appropriate vehicles for his ideas, studio execs having thankfully nixed his original plan to have the film’s actors, including John Goodman, sing the soundtrack (though two song versions sung by actor “Pops Staples” are included here as oddities). The successes of True Stories are just about enough to offset its failures, notably the Mike Love sentimentality of “Hey Now” and party-in-a-bottle “Radio Head” (which, inexplicably, influenced Yorke and Greenwood’s choice of band name). If the ardent listener can stomach the occasional sugary misstep, there is enough to be appreciated to make True Stories worth a purchase.

However, the remastered editions (beyond foregrounding the chiming guitar on “Dream Operator” and some nice pedal steel on “People Like Us”) don’t touch the complete reworking demanded of ’77 or Fear of Music, and the extras, though curiosities that may peak a fan’s interest, lack any lasting value. “Wild Wild Life (Extended Mix)” adds a minute-and-a-half of filler to the middle and very end of the track, including beat skipping and pitch shifting that gives away the song’s datedness. The Pops Staples versions of “Papa Legba” and “Radio Head” (previously available as b-sides) are talk/speak to the degree that they remind of an overly saturated R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten,” featuring William Burroughs with the spoken word. The duo make for an interestingly subdued closer to an album that is predominantly upbeat (despite that “Radio Head” head-shakingly asks us to “Get busy one time”), but can’t step outside the album’s murky pastoralist tendencies to adequately suggest that the remastered True Stories is worth owning.

Naked

I maintain that Naked is the Talking Heads’ most underrated album. Though the band had by this time imposed its own straightjacket of expectations and production techniques on whatever it created, and took almost three years to release what they surely must have known was their final statement as a group, Naked outperforms both Little Creatures and True Stories with ease while matching Speaking in Tongues in seemingly effortless songwriting.

Byrne is less afraid to write in the pop-cultural present as he was on past efforts, tweaking his vague blanket portrayals into a world populated with Pizza Huts, Dairy Queens and Sears stores. It may seem an inconsequential shift, but it was a long-awaited development from a songwriting perspective. Solo set standard “(Nothing But) Flowers” fantasizes first about a world where parking lots have been covered with green fields and flowers, only for Byrne to then wish he “had a lawnmower.” The wry sense of humor at work, best remembered on More Songs About Buildings and Food’s “Artists Only,” is welcome after the weighty band feuds and complex stage concepts the band had finally seemed to have abandoned. “The Facts of Life,” the remarkably listenable centerpiece of the album, touches upon a mid-tempo Peter Gabriel-circa-Security sound once explored on Remain in Light’s “Listening Wind.” Lyrically, the song maintains the thematic traits which all of Naked finally condenses into a consistent and satisfying summary of Byrne’s favorite topics – urbanity vs. sub-urbanity, sub-urbanity vs. nature, and the presence of self-imposed etiquette in the service of normalcy. “Someday we’ll live on Venus / Then we’ll walk on Mars / But we will still be monkeys / Down deep inside,” the song facilely asserts, but behind the six and-a-half minutes of electronic tones and squeals the sentiment is both accessible and fun, even when Byrne drones, “Monkey see and monkey do / Making babies, eating food / Smelly things / Pubic hair.” The crux is that while many of Naked’s songs may seem initially rote, they move into melodies and sections that Little Creatures and True Stories never bothered to reach.

“The Democratic Circus” at first plays just like any other of Byrne’s superstitions. America’s exemplars roll into town behind cages, the stereotypically ideal now the freak show, but as the song progresses, Byrne deigns to wander through his metaphorical fairground and does something he rarely did before – commits to a linear storyline rather than assembling a blanket of vague imagery. As the song turns from major chord reveries to minor chord foreboding, the ringmaster “steals our dreams” and “sells them back to you” because “it’s political party time.”

Of course, having the distinction of being the last of the Talking Heads’ albums doesn’t help this re-release, as the original version of Naked never possessed a major deficiency in sound, but the last three minutes of “Cool Water,” predicting the acoustic crescendos of 2003’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, are impressive in all of their slightly-louder glory.

“Sax and Violins,” the only song not present on the album’s original iteration, is a Sand in the Vaseline standard, present also on the Once in a Lifetime box set and often making appearances in Byrne’s solo concerts; it hardly qualifies as unreleased material, though having it in remastered form does provide a deeper distinction to the xylophone present throughout, as well as the mouth percussion that emerges in the second chorus. Interestingly, “Sax and Violins” works well in Naked’s track sequence, matching the tone and tempo of “Cool Water” in a very natural and effective way.

And So…

It can be difficult to articulate just what is missing from the latter half of the Heads’ catalogue, these last four minor works from a band whose discography seemed to work itself backwards from complexity into obviousness. It may be that the band’s early work was easy to enjoy on two very distinct levels: the band wrote fundamentally strong and accessible pop tunes that happened to be sung by a slightly out-there and interesting frontman while, on the other hand, the band tried to epitomize high-concept art house experimentation. The listener was, and almost thirty years after their debut still is, able to dictate their own level of engagement with the band’s most seminal work. For this reason, as well as the absence of the band’s already remastered (and excellent) live albums, and the poor quality of the extra material on later efforts, the Talking Heads remastered catalogue in box set form is, predictably, a mixed bag. For those who already own the band’s catalogue, or at least the older albums (which also happen to be almost universally acknowledged as their best), it’s difficult to recommend any of the remastered titles beyond ’77, Fear of Music and Remain in Light, and this coming from someone for whom More Songs About Buildings and Food is a definitive favorite.

Of course, none of this is to say that some of the band’s efforts aren’t worth the time and investment, as each of their albums has at least a few pop gems hidden between the sounds of a band gradually losing touch and direction. For those requiring an introduction to the band, dime-store used vinyl will always be a viable option, though after acquainting oneself with the big suit, backstage drama and New York sensibility, some of the Heads’ albums simply demand a contemporizing treatment and, in this regard, the more canonical of the Heads’ works have been successfully reinvigorated.