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Friday, February 1, 2019

David Byrne: The Knee Plays


1) Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion); 2) In The Upper Room; 3) The Sound Of Business; 4) Social Studies; 5) (The Gift Of Sound) Where The Sun Never Goes Down; 6) Theadora Is Dozing; 7) Admiral Perry; 8) I Bid You Goodnight; 9) Things To Do (I've Tried); 10) Winter; 11) Jungle Book; 12) In The Future; 13*) Tree (reprise); 14*) (I've Tried) Things To Do; 15*) Tic Toc 2 (In The Future); 16*) Whisper; 17*) Misterias; 18*) Faust Dance; 19*) Ghost; 20*) Super Natural.

General verdict: If a brief history of American popular music in the form of sax-trumpet-trombone trios is your thing, this is a great album. If it is not, it is still a David Byrne album.

This was a very interesting (sub-)project which, unfortunately, does not make for truly great entertainment — but is well worth hearing at least once. Still not ready for a proper solo album, David spent part of 1984 working for director Robert Wilson, providing a series of musical interludes for his gargantuan opera, the CIVIL warS (hope I got all the caps right). In doing so, he had to live up to the potential of such avantgarde giants as Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars, which may be the reason why Wilsonʼs original design was for Byrneʼs pieces to serve as links («knee plays») between the major themes. Ultimately, however, since the opera was never performed in its entirety (or even fully completed, for that matter), The Knee Plays premiered on its own, as a stand-alone piece, in April 1984, and was released as an LP the following year (titled Music For The Knee Plays and featuring a slightly abbreviated set; in 2007, Byrne finally released the whole thing on CD, adding eight more bonus cuts and simply calling it The Knee Plays).

Although the opera was supposed to have something to do with the American Civil War, there is nary a hint of the Civil War in the music — or, for that matter, in the dancing program that it was supposed to accompany, largely influenced by traditional Japanese theater and featuring nine dancers in white doctorʼs smocks. That said, the music is definitely American in nature, with New Orleanian brass bands taken as the major influence, and the melodies covering jazz, blues, marching band, and even doo-wop territory. Clearly the most unusual feature is that, percussion aside, all the music is being provided by brass instruments alone — no fewer than sixteen musicians are credited for saxophone, trumpet, and trombone parts (fortunately, not all of them are playing at once), while Byrne either keeps silent or recites, rather than sings, his lyrics against the melodies. Yes, the effect is precisely as schizophrenic as it sounds.

In all honesty, I suspect that Byrne intentionally took up this challenge so that he could make the least Talking Heads-like album imaginable — though, in order to succeed even better, he should have invited Bob Dylan to perform lead vocals (which is actually not a crazy idea at all), and he should have included more tracks like ʽThings To Do (Iʼve Tried)ʼ, apparently a traditional spiritual number rearranged for Byrneʼs brass band, meaning that most of the other music is still too broken-up and jerky in the finest of Talking Headsʼ traditions. That said, it is still a perfect cold shower after the Marathon experience of Stop Making Sense — and, dare I say it, not the most enjoyable, or even the most understandable, cold shower in the world.

Arguably the most, if not the only, properly memorable track on the album is the final entry on the original LP — ʽIn The Futureʼ. Like most of the vocal numbers, its musical structure is elementary (two or three very simple brass phrases from the jazz-pop idiom overlapping each other), and the emphasis is on Byrne as he lays down one forecast after another — "in the future everyone will have the same haircut and the same clothes", "in the future everyone will be very thin from not having enough to eat", "in the future it will be next to impossible to tell girls from boys, even in bed"... The hilarious thing about this dead-pan delivery, of course, is that he seems to be collating together all possible prognoses — optimist, pessimist, idealistic, cynical, techno­phile, apocalyptic — which is a natural thing for his stage character, suffering from personality disorders, splits, paranoia, and paralyzing indecision... wait, no, this is not the most hilarious thing. The most hilarious thing is that so far, out of all these forecasts, only one — the very last one to be spoken — has come true: "In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it".

Other than that particularly striking performance, The Knee Plays is really all about the strange atmosphere. ʽTree (Today Is An Important Occasion)ʼ introduces the proceedings with a three-note melody that is part royal fanfare, part New Orleanian funeral ceremony, and everything that follows sounds like a band of little tin soldier men with brass instruments, all pulled by Byrneʼs subtle invisible strings. They are not playing anything particularly challenging: the melodies are really quite traditional, sometimes going as far as to delve into Bulgarian folklore (ʽTheadora Is Dozingʼ) or Les Baxter-ish exotica (ʽJungle Bookʼ), but more often staying within the safe confines of jazz-pop. The weirdness comes from banning all the instruments except the brass ones, and from Byrneʼs occasional (and always mentally disjointed) narrations.

It is up to the art lover to decide whether this «grooveless» approach to music-making, coming from one of the finest groovemakers in pop history, is acceptable or not. In my opinion, the value of these pieces is more intellectual and symbolic, and they should be valued on the same plane as modern art installations; also, I feel as if there may be some serious waste of talent here (most of the tracks are too minimalistic in nature to really warrant the presence of so many professional jazz musicians). But at least the album definitely deserves to be heard, if only because it truly sounds like nothing else ever recorded — not by a pop artist, at least. And this leaves plenty of room for your personal interpretations and associations.

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