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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jerry Harrison: The Red And The Black


1) Things Fall Apart; 2) Slink; 3) The New Adventure; 4) Magic Hymie; 5) Fast Karma / No Questions; 6) Worlds In Collision; 7) The Red Nights; 8) No More Reruns; 9) No Warning, No Alarm.

General verdict: A «Remain In-Lite» for those who prefer Diet Coke and nicotine-free cigarettes to, you know, the real bad thing.

In order to measure the amazing amounts of genetic and social diversity on planet Earth, you could dig deep into the world of genetic samples and anthropological studies. Or you could take a trip around the globe, not forgetting all the important spots such as the Kalahari Desert or Papua New Guinea. Or, to save yourself time, money, and brain cells, you could take a quick look at some Internet reviews and see that there are real people on this planet who consider Jerry Harri­son's solo debut, The Red And The Black, to be a better album than Remain In Light. And I think to myself — what a wonderful world!

Not that The Red And The Black is a worthless effort or anything. It is simply a clear-cut attempt on one guy's part to bite off more than he can chew. Where Chris and Tina deliberately chose a different, almost antithetical route to Byrne's vision, Harrison made a record that just as deliberately claimed direct descent from the musical and general artistic stem of both Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. The funky rhythms, the avantgarde solos, the alarmingly alarmed mindset, the worried-and-or-ominous vocals, the cryptic lyrics — everything is here in more or less the same dosage as you would see on traditional Talking Heads records. The big difference is that the only Talking Head here is the head that rarely talked: Jerry himself.

He does invite some of the same people that played an important role in the greatness of Remain In Light: the ubiquitous Adrian Belew on guitar, Nona Hendryx on backing vocals (she also contributes some of her own lyrics), and, although that does not quite count, Bernie Worrell on keyboards (who had already joined the Heads' touring roster after Remain In Light was released, and would stay on with them for the next several years). But there is no Tina, no Chris, no David, and, last but definitely not least of all, no Brian Eno to work the same magic for his songs that he did for the Heads. Instead, the album is co-produced by Jerry with Dave Jerden, Remain In Light's sound engineer — technically close, but no cigar.

The difference is felt as early as on the first track. It has a nicely suitable title (ʽThings Fall Apartʼ) and a suitably paranoid mood, but the whole thing is just not too exciting. A slightly slower tempo than required. A fairly simple, metronomically-oriented rhythm section. A lilting funky guitar rhythm that is, without explanation, pushed so far back in the mix it hardly even begins to matter. Vocals that try to sound ominous but are neither deep enough to be spooky nor jerky enough to be unsettling. Moderately catchy, but not amazing hooklines. In other words — a good imitation of the real thing, but the spirit just isn't there, really.

In a way, the lyrics to the second track, ʽSlinkʼ, are self-explanatory. "Don't you rush it, don't you push it, don't you shove it, don't you lose control — you must keep it cool, keep it smooth" is the chorus recipe, and while it is obvious that our man Jerry here is simply giving you some good advice on how to survive in the insane modern age, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that the same applies to his own music as well — The Red And The Black being a non-rushing, non-pushing, non-shoving, never-losing-control reply to Remain In Light, what with ʽSlinkʼ itself built upon a steady, semi-tight ska rhythm with a perfectly normal, not-too-agitated guitar riff running through it and a perfectly normal melodica part cheering up your spirit. Besides, do you really want Jerry Harrison to give you reasonable psychological advice — and, in the process, confirm himself as the boringly sane counterpart to David Byrne's psycho persona? Next thing we know, you will be siding with Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader or something.

But enough with the criticisms. While all the songs on the album suffer from the same problems, most of them also have their virtues — Harrison is not the last person in the world when it comes to moods and hooks. ʽMagic Hymieʼ, for instance, is a lot of fun, a sort of cartoonish funky take on the vibe of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ (I have no idea who is meant by ʽHymieʼ, but the song paints a credible picture of how it feels to be pushed to the brink). ʽWorlds In Collisionʼ, starting off with a threatening sonic vibe not unlike the one in ʽMemories Can't Waitʼ, is Jerry's grim-faced post-punkish revolutionary update of the message of ʽTimes They Are A-Changin'ʼ, with Adrian supplying most of the real revolution while Jerry is mainly busy shouting out ominous slogans ("all you mothers, show your children you're not afraid to die!"). There is even some odd charm in the neo-Chuck-Berry-like proto-rap of ʽNo More Rerunsʼ, though there is little to distinguish it properly from a hundred other similar New Wave tracks.

By the end of my third listen I was actually liking the album or, at least, the effort that went into making it. If anything, it does show that Jerry Harrison was not just a replaceable cog in the Heads machine, but a serious contributor to the global whole, with a very modern vision that was very different from Byrne's, but not at all incompatible. But it also shows that Harrison was essentially a normal guy, interested in exploring new avenues but not at all willing to run down them like crazy, with no shoes and no shirt on. Indeed, some people like such characters better — these are the ones willing to say that The Red And The Black is superior to Remain In Light — yet these are the people to whom I would rather entrust driving cars than making critical evalua­tions. Bottomline: The Red And The Black is a worthy effort that sheds some much-needed light on the persona of a most important «man in the shadows», but it does not really stand out on its own — only in the overall context of Talking Heads' history.

1 comment:

  1. "Hymie" is pejorative slang for a Jewish person. It was around this time that Jesse Jackson was caught on tape referring to Jewish people as "hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown." The whole scandal was satirized on "SNL" with Eddie Murphy appearing as Jackson to sing an R&B-styled number called "Don't Let Me Down, Hymietown."