The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/14/2009
It may seem odd that Talking Heads chose to release a double-live album after only putting out four studio discs. While their success was growing slowly, one would be hard-pressed to say that David Byrne and crew were superstars… yet. (That tag would come with the release of Speaking In Tongues one year later.)
But the release of this set did come at the right time for the band. They were in the midst of a hiatus following the groundswell of interest following their Remain In Light album, and they had broken away from long-time producer Brian Eno. So, while they re-charged their creative batteries and tried to find their own way in the musical world, this set filled the gap by showcasing the gradual change in the band from quirky quartet to polished band with guest musicians filling in the holes a four-piece just couldn’t cover.
Ironically, it’s the rawness of the “quirky quartet” that is the most charming aspect of this disc – though I tend to prefer the original release, not the 2004 re-issue from Rhino, which almost doubles the original size of the release. By the time Byrne and crew hit what had to seem like the “big-time,” the sound, while still good, sometimes seemed a little over-polished.
The first half of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads focuses on two specific concerts – one recorded for WCOZ in 1977, the other recorded in
Stop Making Sense, but it didn’t quite seem like the same band who was pictured playing in a living room on the cover.
This particular set assumes the listener is familiar with the early works of Talking Heads – specifically, Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings And Food. If you’re not very familiar with early songs like “Pulled Up,” “Don’t Worry About The Government” and “The Book I Read,” then you’re in for both a culture shock and a hell of a surprise. For on the 2004 re-issue, these 19 songs showcase a band that is definitely hungry for attention, and not willing to compromise their own artistic vision to get your attention. It’s for that reason that I found the first half of this disc so absorbing.
And while I do appreciate hearing how a song like “Psycho Killer” underwent a bit of a metamorphosis as the band’s stature and fame grew (compared to the raw version from ’77), I can’t say that the recordings from 1980 and 1981 move my spirit in the same way that the early stuff does. Maybe it’s because the familiarity with songs like “Once In A Lifetime,” “Take Me To The River” and “Life During Wartime” makes me want to hear the originals in all their studio majesty, not what an expanded lineup could perform in the limits of the live setting. Make no mistake, these aren’t bad songs; it’s just that familiarity breeds expectations that these, simply, cannot live up to – which is not their fault at all.
I do, though, wonder why the 2004 re-issue chooses to truncate “Crosseyed And Painless,” cutting over a minute off from the original 1982 version. Sorry, but in this day and age, I consider tampering with the original versions of songs to be a cardinal sin.
To say that the second half of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads is boring isn’t quite true – though sometimes it does feel like blowing up an album from 17 original tracks to 33 on the reissue is a bit of bloatware. And, admittedly, it is a lot to get through in one sitting – I would almost recommend listening to this album one disc at a time, at different times. In all fairness, there are some wonderful performances on the second disc – “Animals,” “Cities,” “Warning Sign” and “I Zimbra” all shine. But it sometimes does seem like Byrne and crew are merely satisfied with the level of success they’ve found, and that hunger doesn’t seem as urgent as it did just a few years prior.
For any flaws this album – either version, for that matter – may have, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads is an interesting listen, as it captures the band right on the cusp of hitting the big time – and I honestly don’t think even they knew how popular they were about to become. It’s an interesting snapshot of four years’ worth of music, and while it’s hard to get through in one shot, it’s an experience that even casual fans of Talking Heads should go through at least once.
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