Search This Blog

Monday, February 25, 2019

Jerry Harrison: Casual Gods


1) Rev It Up; 2) Song Of Angels; 3) Man With A Gun; 4) Let It Come Down; 5) Cherokee Chief; 6) A Perfect Lie; 7) Are You Running?; 8) Breakdown In The Passing Lane; 9) A.K.A. Love; 10) Weʼre Always Talking; 11) Bobby.

General verdict: Nothing outstanding as usual, but quite a few unexpectedly cool grooves — I guess that the word ʽcasualʼ is truly key in this context.

Technically speaking, Jerryʼs second album is actually credited to a band called «Jerry Harrison: Casual Gods», since the exact same moniker would be featured on his next one, Walk On Water. For some strange reason, he refrained from using an apostrophe — perhaps thinking that «Jerry Harrisonʼs Casual Gods» would sound too arrogant (let alone «Jerry Harrisonʼs casual gods walk on water»!!!). But the idea makes sense: with ex-Stop Making Sense pals Alex Weir and Bernie Worrell featured throughout the record, it is as if Casual Gods is supposed to be the true Talking Heads, carrying on the old flame even as Byrne gets more and more buried in his other projects, and usurps the bandʼs name for releasing pop albums with nary a sign of the old funkiness.

It works inasmuch as Casual Gods seems to be, at the very least, an improvement over the second-rate mediocrity of The Red And The Black. That record, coming fresh off the heels of Remain In Light, could not help looking like a ten dollar bottle of cheap wine next to the rarest of vintages. By 1988, however, «Talking Heads» and «groove-based music» were no longer synonymous, and Harrison may have seen that as his chance — from the very first notes, you can sense a touch of inspiration and, most importantly, genuine energy of somebody who has clearly been missing this kind of fun for quite some time now.

On the whole, Casual Gods is a soft electro-pop record: programmed percussion and harsh, robotic interlocking synth and guitar riffs form its backbone, with the differences being largely limited to tempo and mood (rowdy vs. romantic). Parts of it are reminiscent of Bowieʼs output in the Eighties, while other parts more openly follow the guidelines of Funkadelic (with Worrell around, that should come as no surprise); one thing it does not manage to do is establish a distinct identity for Jerry Harrison, but perhaps that was not even the plan. The plan, so it seems, was simply to create a bit of intelligent dance music — actually, at times we might even need to scrap the «intelligent» part, because the opening lines of the opening number ʽRev It Upʼ ("got the heat turned on and the windows down / sheʼs hell on wheels, telling everyone how good it feels") surely bear the stamp of Brian Johnsonʼs and Gene Simmonsʼ approval.

That is a bit of a problem: I really like the old-school-turned-new-school groove of ʽRev It Upʼ, and it gets me blood pumpinʼ and all, but I cannot come to terms with Jerry Harrison, the typical nerdy art-rock guy, suddenly coming out as the big hunky ladiesʼ man. The only thing to do is just ignore the lyrics and give yourself in to the groove: in any case, it is hard to associate this particular line of cold, robotic funkiness with «sexy», so the only thing that falls out of line are the lyrics (not their delivery), and it is easy to ignore them... though this is precisely why, when all is said and done, Casual Gods could never succeed in truly taking over the legacy of the «real Talking Heads».

The good thing is that there are truly quite a few solid dance grooves here. ʽRev It Upʼ is one, but I like the rapid-fire fussiness of ʽSong Of Angelsʼ, the gruff get-out-of-my-way riff of ʽCherokee Chiefʼ, the nonchalant dialog between the disco bass and the alarmed synth blasts of ʽAre You Running?ʼ, and the relentless (though somewhat amorphous) bubbling of ʽBobbyʼ. All of these are perhaps not quite enough to earn Jerry the title of «accomplished groovemaster», but they all have staying power and emotional resonance — ʽAre You Running?ʼ is probably as close as he ever comes to matching Byrneʼs paranoia, and ʽCherokee Chiefʼ is a nice slab of musical satire that, for some reason, David had always avoided, perhaps seeing himself way above cheap potshots at Mr. Big Man. Jerry does get away with it quite fine, though.

Some things do not work that well in the context of the times: thus, ʽBreakdown In The Passing Laneʼ rather blatantly rips off the main groove of ʽFreak Out!ʼ, and a couple other tunes sound too much like second-hand Duran Duran pastiches. Arguably the best known song is ʽMan With A Gunʼ, which somehow made it into a movie by Zalman (Sleazebag) King and into Jonathan Demmeʼs Something Wild — but musically, it is one of the least interesting things here, riding a stiff, unchangeable quasi-romantic riff throughout and largely sounding like a sermon on the overriding powers of love. Perhaps Lou Reed could have made something out of this material, but Jerryʼs delivery is fairly flat, as usual.

It is interesting to note how «early Eighties» the album sounds in general — for a record released in 1988, it is almost outdated, with a «flat» rather than «deep» echo on the drums and quirky, thin, New Wavish guitar tones that were quite out of fashion by the decadeʼs end. It is as if Jerry commandeered a mini-time machine that took him about five years back, so that he could make himself a proper sequel to Speaking In Tongues. Nevertheless, the album still managed to hit the Top 100, and ʽRev It Upʼ even made it as high as #7 on the charts — perhaps the public did hook up to its ironically hedonistic vibe after all. These days, I could only recommend the record to big fans of all sorts of electro-pop: it hardly has any lasting intellectual value or shows big bright flashes of charismatic personality — but you can have honest and genuine fun with about half of it, I think. Then again, what else do you expect of your average casual god?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, you are way too hard on this. Underrated, although I admit that seeing the band (featuring Weir, Worrell, Brooks and Tina and Chris coming out for the encore!) on the tour heavily biased me. I think the first half of the album is really solid. The lyrics really paint little film noir movies in my mind. I don't think of "Rev It Up" as macho posturing. Quite the opposite - a nerd picks up (or is picked up) by a woman who gives him the ride of his life. "Man With a Gun" depicts, for me, an affair between a man and woman who is the wife of wealthy older man. But is the man with the gun the husband or the lover? "Let it Come Down" evokes a dark depression. "Cherokee Chief" is a scary number about mercenaries. The rest of the album isn't quite as strong , but solid. "Bobby" seems to be about a suicidal schizophrenic, but I concede that 12 minutes of it is overdoing it (my CD has two different mixes of the track included). And while Jerry isn't the most charismatic singer in the world, the vocals of solid. This album is much more inspired than "Naked", that's for sure. The band was running out of steam, but Jerry was not. Get it, everybody!