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Monday, September 17, 2018

David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel

DAVID BYRNE: THE CATHERINE WHEEL (1981)

1) Light Bath; 2) His Wife Refused; 3) Ade; 4) Walking; 5) Two Soldiers; 6) Under The Mountain; 7) Dinosaur; 8) The Red House; 9) Wheezing; 10) Eggs In A Briar Patch; 11) Poison; 12) Cloud Chamber; 13) Black Flag; 14) My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks); 15) Combat; 16) Leg Bells; 17) The Blue Flame; 18) Big Business; 19) Dense Beasts; 20) Five Golden Sections; 21) What A Day That Was; 22) Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open); 23) Light Bath.

General verdict: An uneasy, but ultimately efficient marriage between Eno's ambient soundscapes and Byrne's funky paranoia.


If there is one particular art in this world about which I understand absolutely and utterly nothing, it is the art of dancing; for all I know, any dancing in the world might be about architecture, or about life insurance, or whatever. Fortunately, in order to enjoy David Byrne's first solo album, one does not at all need to process the information that it was specially commissioned by the famous dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp — for one of her very first and most critically acclaimed Broadway performances. Just like the Heads, Twyla, too, was based in New York, and there is nothing surprising about her interest in Byrne as a musical partner, what with the perfect modern synthesis of brain and body stimuli in the Heads' music.

What is actually more surprising to me is how all these early solo projects were still so strongly intertwined, despite all the alleged animosity between individual band members. Here, we have Jerry Harrison assisting Byrne on several of the tracks, although, admittedly, there are no signs of Chris or Tina — however, Eno is playing bass and keyboards, and then there is the ubiquitous Adrian Belew, who somehow managed to contribute to all the solo projects of the Heads in that very productive year of 1981, before finally picking up his checkbook and making the move to King Crimson territory. This ultimately makes The Catherine Wheel the closest in sound to a bona fide Talking Heads album, although the instrumental and snippet-ish nature of many of the tracks only really allows to place it on the «auxiliary» shelf.

Originally, the album was released in a shortened LP version, which only included most of the long, self-sustained compositions; and in a longer cassette version, which also included all the brief snippets for the suite — in the CD age, the cassette version became the default one, though I would guess there'd be no serious harm done anyway, were you to shear away all the brief inter­ludes. Most of the numbers are purely instrumental, but there is a small bunch of vocal songs, and these typically seem to be the important centerpieces: particularly ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, a classic Byrne-style paranoid tribute to our mad mad world and the album's one nearly-complete quasi-Heads masterpiece — something that was so clearly understood, they later went to the trouble of beefing it up with the full support of the band's powerhouse rhythm section (here, the bass and drums clearly sound underwhelming) and including it into the setlist for Stop Making Sense, where it became one of the highlights. (The grim funk rocker ʽBig Businessʼ would also be performed at the same show, but you can only see it as a bonus track on the DVD release).

Overall, however, the main problem of The Catherine Wheel is precisely the same as it was with Harrison's solo debut: it sounds way too much like a slightly undercooked regular Heads album — too much to stir up extra curious interest, yet not enough to make the experience just as exciting as it was with Remain In Light or Speaking In Tongues. Case in point: ʽHis Wife Refusedʼ, a song that immediately brings on associations with ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ by merely having the words "wife" and "house" in it, features an impressive and astounding amount of odd guitar and keyboard sounds in it, sometimes up to the point of sounding like two or three swarms of alien bees from distant planets fighting over new territory. But as a song, it is not particularly memorable — no anthemic chorus, no fresh hook other than David, in his usual tone / style, delivering short bursts of hysterical emotion. There are also severe problems with self-repetition: ʽBig Blue Plymouthʼ, directly stepping on the toes of ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, is pretty much the same song, just a little bit louder, but with the same dynamics — a tense-'n'-nervous verse gallop resolving into an anthemic chorus with dreamy back harmonies.

This is why the long version of the album, with all the atmospheric snippets, is actually better: these tiny bits of ambience constitute the record's experimental core and explore an impressively diverse array of styles. Some of the tracks are purely atmospheric, somewhat in the manner of Eno's Another Green World (ʽCloud Chamberʼ, with its nice synergy between clinky percussion and heavenly synth tones); some are in the avantgarde-minimalism vein (ʽCombatʼ, with several simple bass, piano, and guitar lines playing the quirky dissonance game with each other); some can only be described as bits of psycho-pastoral jamming (ʽAdeʼ — possibly named after Belew, though he is not credited for the writing). Nothing is particularly great in itself, but taken together, this little collection of melodies and atmospheres is fun, pleasant, and, most importantly, is a good case of several distinctly talented people pooling their ideas together, rather than sticking to a set formula.

Compared to Byrne and Eno's other joint project from the same year (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts — previously reviewed in the Eno section), The Catherine Wheel is nowhere near as groundbreaking — not that it was ever supposed to, being, after all, a specially commissioned side project for somebody else — but it is still a piece of work that will be of interest to fans of both Byrne and Eno, because no other record in the world sounds so much like a chemical synthesis of Fear Of Music with Another Green World. Come to think of it, Fear Of Another Green World would have been a much better title for this thing than the symbolic reference to a set of fireworks, even if it may have inspired the name for one of the 1990's most quintessential shoegazing outfits. 

1 comment:

  1. Your depth and breadth never cease to amaze me! Not only did you review The Red and the Black, but now The Catherine Wheel (LP, cassette AND CD versions!) I had started with the LP and was intrigued that it did not include the whole score. When I got the cassette, I was blown away. Have the CD now and love it. It's certainly not an everyday thing, but it's great to groove to in the right mood (I've not found many who agree.)

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