Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Stop Making Sense

I never pegged myself as a Talking Heads fanboy. I'd heard a few of the group's songs on the radio—"Psycho Killer," "Burning Down the House," and my personal favorite, "Once in a Lifetime"—but more often than not, something about their music grated on me. Considering the ingredients of their music, this shouldn't have been the case at all.

Like many of my favorite bands of the 80's, Talking Heads embraced the synthesizer. As my mother once pointed out, I like anything that sounds like video game music. The distinctive vocal style of lead singer David Byrne adds an endearing quirkiness that is particularly fun to emulate when singing along. The avant-garde lyrics touch on a broad range of subjects and are often as deep (and incomprehensible) as any thought-provoking work of literature. Despite all this, many of Talking Heads' songs bothered me just enough to keep me from claiming I was a fan, but I could never put my finger on what, specifically, was the culprit.

As with most of my recent musical discoveries, Pandora was the one to open my ears to a new fandom. I believe it was "Life During Wartime" that came up on one of my playlists at work, but instead of the album cut, it was the version from the "Special New Edition" of Talking Heads' 1984 live album/concert movie Stop Making Sense. I don't recall having heard any version of the song before, but it was unexpectedly catchy.

Then another song from that album came up. Well, not immediately—Pandora is generally good about not playing multiple songs in close proximity from the same album or artist. Unless that artist is Gary Numan, who on one occasion appeared either four or five times in a row with songs from a studio album, a live album, an album with Tubeway Army, and a remastered album with Tubeway Army. At any rate, the Heads reared their...ah...heads again, and I found myself humming along to another tune I wasn't expecting to like so much.

My recollection on the matter is a little fuzzy, but I believe it was after the third song from that album that I decided to go out and buy Stop Making Sense. The only prerequisites I have for purchasing an album are that I trust the artist enough to produce something I'd probably be interested in, or in this case, I'd heard three or more songs from the album that I liked enough to hear on-demand. The fact that I'd previously only heard three songs from this artist that I liked that much made this purchase that much more of a novelty to me.

After grooving along to live cuts of "Slippery People," "What a Day That Was," and the oft-covered "Take Me to the River," I was officially hooked. I no longer liked a few songs by Talking Heads; I liked Talking Heads. And I'd figured out what had been holding me back from claiming myself as a fan.

Almost without exception, I prefer the studio albums of the artists I listen to over their live recordings. At least with the artists I listen to, the technical precision I appreciate in the album cut can so easily be lost in the energy and spontaneity of a live performance. Harry Chapin and James Taylor are about the only two artists whose live CDs (The Bottom Line Encore Collection and Live, respectively) have remained staples in my music collection; the texture and precision of their songs are just as rich as they were in the recording room, yet the presence of a crowd draws out the performers' personalities. They're not just playing music; they're interacting with the listeners, and you can feel that personal connection even if you weren't there to hear them in person.

It wasn't until listening to Stop Making Sense that things started to make sense: Talking Heads is that rare exception whose studio work, to my ear, doesn't hold a candle to their live performances. I heard the album cut of "Life During Wartime" not long after hearing it for the first time on the live CD, and it was a little jarring how clinical it sounded by comparison. I still enjoyed the tune, but the quirkiness and emotion were subdued to the point where the Heads sounded more nervous without an audience in front of them, as though they couldn't properly be themselves.

Nevertheless, I'm finding a greater appreciation for the Heads' studio work because of how much I like this one live album. It's the same principle at work that allowed me to start enjoying the disappointing soundtrack of Mega Man 10 after hearing some fantastic remixes—by association, the original songs sound better, and there's an added layer of interest in listening for the similarities and differences that characterize each version. Now that I know what the Heads can sound like, I'm curious to explore more of their music—and from what I've heard on Pandora since Stop Making Sense first came up, I get the feeling I've got a good many new albums ahead of me.

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