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Saturday, April 27, 2019

David Byrne: Rei Momo


1) Independence Day; 2) Make Believe Mambo; 3) The Call Of The Wild; 4) Dirty Old Town; 5) The Rose Tattoo; 6) Loco De Amor; 7) The Dream Police; 8) Donʼt Want To Be A Part Of Your World; 9) Marching Through The Wilderness; 10) Good And Evil; 11) Lie To Me; 12) Office Cowboy; 13) Women Vs. Men; 14) Carnival Eyes; 15) I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong.

General verdict: More or less what happens when you relocate a consummate NYC dweller to Havana or Rio de Janeiro, and then force him at gunpoint to blend in with the locals. Except thereʼs no gun.

Well, looks like it took our friend David a decade and a half of artistic work to get to the main point of it all, which he bravely states in the opening lines of the opening track of his official full-fledged solo debut: "Now and then I get horny — at night you do". Like, we could only guess previously that all that incredible Talking Head bliss was just sublimated expression of pent-up sexual energy, because there was no way in hell that a guy like David Byrne could ever hope to get laid; and, funny enough, how coincidental is it that the bandʼs music began to calm down and smooth out at about the same time that the man finally started dating? (Honestly, though, I have no idea when or how David lost his virginity, and I donʼt think I want to know).

Anyway, itʼs not like Rei Momo is any more specifically autobiographic or confessional than any other Talking Heads or solo David Byrne album; it is simply that with age comes a natural desire to get more serious, philosophical, and introspective, and what better way to involve you in your philosophical conceptions than by saying "we know what will make us happy, we know what will ease our pain"? ...and no, he ainʼt talking about universal peace or transcendental meditation, if you know what I mean. There does seem to be a fairly strong theme of male / female relationship running across the entire record — even the sequencing of the titles matters, from ʽWomen Vs. Menʼ to the tellingly closing ʽI Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrongʼ — but surely this is nothing new to those who had been following David through the years and seeing him gradually mellowing out and morphing his lyrical hero from paranoid asshole to quirky penitent.

What is somehow, if not definitively, new about Rei Momo is Byrneʼs decision to fully embrace the trend of «world music» and make a record that would go beyond carefully synthesizing Anglo-American pop genres with musical styles outside of that region and simply dive into that style pool head first. This time, though, his primary inspiration would be Latin America rather than Africa: each song on the album is based on one or more traditional dance genre from the Caribbean or Brazilian area, ranging from common forms like samba or cha-cha-cha to ever more rare variations (like the Puerto Rican mapeyé). Assisting him in this endeavor is, predictably, an enormous bunch of South American musicians — I counted around 50 names in the credits — and, for some reason, the English-Scottish singer Kirsty MacColl, who largely just sings back­ground vocals but does so on at least half of the tracks. Perhaps David thought that a random Transatlantic touch like that was just the right flourish on the way to total perfection.

With this kind of record always naturally comes the question — does the artist do this in a perfunctory manner, driven more tightly by an intellectual desire to step out of his comfort zone and pay a liberal tribute to the «underdog section» of the planet, or does he do this out of actual untainted emotional love for this kind of music that came to him naturally and without any sort of preplanned calculation? In the hypersensitive world of the 21st century, both types of situations are often indiscriminately confused and slapped with the unwashable stigma of «cultural appropriation», one of the most stupid terms that the art of political correctness has ever come up with; but any truly reasonable person would point out that only the first type deserves proper castigation — though, admittedly, it may be very hard to objectively distinguish between the two without a very detailed study of the matter.

Rei Momo should probably remain on the safe side. After all, it represents a fairly natural evolution of Byrneʼs musical tastes — in fact, there is a very smooth road that leads to it from Naked, which, in turn, is the logical successor to True Stories and Speaking In Tongues, and so on. Admittedly, the wholesale shift to Latin America is a bit unexpected, but since most of those genres are rooted in African music as well, it may have been only a matter of time before David switched from Fela Kuti to Jorge Ben as a major source of inspiration. And even if, this time around, the instrumental tracks bear no traces whatsoever of Talking Head history, the vocals and the words attached to the vocals certainly do. Think of this as a situation where The Byrne City Dweller is suddenly forced to relocate from his NYC comfort zone to the hot open spaces of Rio de Janeiro, where they do not typically play any of that gringo rock music.

It certainly helps that quite a few of the songs are still well written and work fine as intelligent pop songs with hooks rather than meaningless dance grooves where rhythm, energy, and hot sex drive is all that matters. Not that there ainʼt plenty of rhythm and energy in these grooves, but I think — far from being an expert on samba, mambo, and salsa — I think that if you really want to shake your booty off with vehemence, you are much better off with the real thing, your possible lack of knowledge of Spanish and/or Portuguese notwithstanding. Here, the samba and mambo rhythms, while done professionally and authentically, are still subjugated to ideas of melodic hooks and catchy choruses on subjects that are quite far removed from the typical lyrical subjects of Latin American pop music (i.e. love, poverty, revolution, and more love). But there is also something about Byrneʼs voice and personality that makes it a natural fit for these arrangements, something that could not have been provided by the likes of, say, Mick Jagger or even David Bowie, whose inescapable Englishness would definitely mar the landscape. Byrne, with his fairly cosmopolitan voice and the ability to combine college-style intelligence with hyperbolic emotionality, fits this musical costume like a glove.

Take something like ʽDirty Old Townʼ, for instance. It is a friendly salsa, with all the expected brass and percussion support you could ask for, but its memorable chorus is the same old mix of desperation and hope that we still remember from Little Creatures and its anthems such as ʽRoad To Nowhereʼ: "We wanna live in a dirty old town / Building it up, tearing us down" — the music and the lyrics help each other nicely, the former supporting the latter with good rhythm and energy and the latter ennobling the former in much the same way as, say, Bob Dylanʼs lyrics around 1963 helped enliven and deepen the traditional folk patterns.

Some ideas seem to just come out of nowhere, but are still fun: ʽThe Dream Policeʼ, for instance, is a personal favorite of mine — a cute, leisurely cha-cha-cha number with a delightfully seductive brass riff at the center, and, for no reason at all, a vocal delivery that has to count as one of the sweetest Big Brother confessions on record: "We are the watchdogs of your mind / We are the dream police", rendered in the sexiest falsetto that Mr. Byrne is capable of. Yes, I think he just woke up one morning and thought, «hey, wouldnʼt it be cool to write a song about dream control and set it to a Cuban dance track?» (No offense to Fidel Castro intended, Iʼm sure). Some tracks could actually trigger a different kind of police in our times — ʽOffice Cowboyʼ, a pagode by definition, seems to be about sexual harassment at the workplace, at least in the beginning, before the lyrics take an even whackier turn. Some are about Lord-help-me-if-I-know-what, like ʽRose Tattooʼ, which may refer to the Tennessee Williams play, but may as well absolutely not; in any case, the sentimental, but bitter-powerful chorus is impressive enough even if you do not understand a word of it.

I could not honestly admit that any of the tracks is singularly overwhelming; the synthesis works in general, but the songs flow so smoothly that nothing in particular stands out. I tend to favor the «darker» bits, such as the slightly sinister atmosphere of ʽWomen Vs. Menʼ ("no one knows how it started / and God knows how itʼll end / the fightinʼ continues / women versus men" seems to have majorly increased in relevance since 1989), but if you are not on your third or fourth attentive listen, you might not even notice that there are bits that sound more sinister than others. In any case, Rei Momo as a whole is a success — it may have been somewhat arrogant for Byrne to crown himself as the King of the Carnival, but it is his personal carnival, after all, and if fifty or so musicians from those fine traditions all agreed to take part in his social, philosophical, and (figuratively!) sexual fantasies, we may assume, with reasonable safety, that it wasnʼt all about the money. A fun experience overall, although it also confirmed that Byrne would never again be returning to the fight for awesome monumentality — not with the Heads, not on his own. 

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