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David Byrne

The Knee Plays


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Well, here's one that's sure to send the kids scrambling for their favorite illegal download site. Brass-band instrumentals with obtuse, surrealist, mostly spoken-word texts from Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne, originally pegged to accompany Robert Wilson's avant-garde, Japanese dance-theater production "CIVIL warS." This thing's got "hit" written all over it!

Leave it to Nonesuch to offer us the rich experience of "The Knee Plays," the product of Byrne's collaboration with Wilson. Following last year's much-needed reissue of Byrne's tag-team with Brian Eno, the glorious "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," this new release offers a wonderfully angular, left-brain flight of fancy. It's as if Byrne hired a New Orleans brass band, penned some smart minimalist arrangements for them, and then tossed the whole kit and kaboodle into a blender with the Talking Heads' "True Stories" album/film.

Byrne's best work -- and there's so much of it, by this point -- has always exploited the credibility gaps in our perception of what is cold and detached, and what is warm, human and inviting. Remember him making that chopping motion on his arm while repeating the mantra "Same as it ever was" during the video for the Heads' "Once in a Lifetime"? There was something gleefully subversive about that video (and that song) becoming a staple of early MTV. As if the surrealists and art-school aesthetes had finally brought twisted pop-art into the great American living room.

"The Knee Plays" will reach a far smaller audience, but it will surely touch that audience in some fashion. Is it brass-band jazz? Spoken-word pop? Music made by an intellectual muso-freak for like-minded freaks?

Well, yes. Dig in.

-- Jeff Miers



Philip Glass

Book of Longing: A Song Cycle Based on the Poetry and Images of Leonard Cohen

[Orange Mountain]

Review: 2 1/2 stars

This, sadly, is not a musical marriage made in heaven. I wouldn't say it's made in hell, either, but it's a lot closer to infernal blazes than heavenly zephyrs. And that's despite the fact that Cohen even lends his comically sepulchral reading voice to the project reading a few poems.

The biggest trouble is that Leonard Cohen, along with being a poet and a decidedly idiosyncratic sketch artist, is most famous everywhere as a singer/songwriter of no mean talent. Once you've heard, say, "Suzanne" sung by almost any decent singer at all, and "Hallelujah" sung by Jeff Buckley (not to mention Cohen himself), you've heard a mating of music and text so exquisite that any interloping composer with his own identifiable melodic and harmonic style (and Philip Glass is nothing if not that) runs the risk of seeming to be a hopeless intruder and even despoiler.

It is clear that Glass likes Cohen's poetry. Perhaps he even loves it. There is beautiful music by him all through the two discs of this project. But the hard, mean truth is that never has Glass' kind of minimalist burble sounded so out of place as when it's meant to decorate a roughneck irony like this by Cohen (complete): "Anyone who says/I'm not a Jew/is not a Jew/I'm very sorry/but this decision/is final." Or this (which is also complete): "You go your way/I'll go your way, too."

Which is to say that Cohen's poetry, when not utterly complete by itself and impervious to others' musical impertinence, responds best to the poet/composer himself who, when he went to record his first album, kiddingly (and privately) told his Bohemian friends he was going to change his name to "Tennessee Cohen."

Considering the fans he has had all through the pop music world ever since, it has long since been a kind of kidding on the square. To try to return him now to Glass' kind of mass-market downtownism is an intermittently lovely but decidedly errant, even wasted enterprise.

-- Jeff Simon



Os Mutantes

Mutantes Live

[Luaka Bop]

Review: 4 stars

Os Mutantes formed as a tribe of prodigiously talented kids in late-'60s Brazil. Blending a love for the Beatles and an obvious appreciation for the zany brilliance of the Mothers of Invention, the group helped forge a Brazilian psychedelic space-pop/orchestral-rock movement that came to be known as Tropicalia. Latin music with its head in the clouds and its eyes on the cosmos, the Mutantes sound was incredibly expansive, both welcoming and forbiddingly complex. It made the kids go nuts and encouraged an attitude of bacchanalian frenzy, apparently, to the point that the Brazilian junta found it necessary to banish three of the band's principals from the country in 1968. Who says music is merely passive entertainment?

The group fell apart, but, incredibly, a cult audience for the Mutantes' gorgeously eclectic sound grew, aided by the easy exchange afforded by the digital age. In 2006, the group wisely re-formed around the nucleus of original members/exiles guitarist-singer Sergio Baptista Dias and singer-keyboardist Arnaldo Baptista. "Mutantes Live" documents that return with a concert-album captured at London's Barbican Theater.

Guess what? This music has not dated in the slightest. Guess what else? These guys still play as if they've been studying a wide range of musical forms while locked in the loony bin, and the Barbican concert merely records what they did with their weekend pass from the nut-house.

Ever wondered what the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" might sound like as a samba? Imagined Pink Floyd's "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" with a little Brazilian opera and 5th Dimension vocal harmonies thrown atop it? Fantasized about the notion of Lennon and McCartney jamming with Zappa and the Mothers?

It's your lucky day. Buy this.

-- J.M.

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