More Songs About Buildings And Food
Released: July 1978
Chart Peak: #29
Weeks Charted: 42
Certified Gold: 11/16/83
David Byrne's resemblance to Anthony Perkins would be remarkable even if he hadn't called attention to it by entitling a song "Psycho Killer." Onstage, his head lurching to a rhythm his rigid body doesn't recognize, Byrne is a dead ringer for Perkins' Norman Bates: clean-cut, boyish (his songs are full of boys and girls but bereft of men and women) and batty. Movie critic Robin Wood's comment on Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic, Psycho, applies equally well to the music of Byrne's band, Talking Heads: "It is part of the essence of the film to make us feel the continuity between the normal and the abnormal: between the compulsive behavior of Marion [Crane] and the psychotic behavior of Norman Bates." Or, as Tony Perkins tells Janet Leigh shortly before slaughtering her in the shower: "We're all in our private trap."
For Talking Heads, the trap is the Cartesian disjunction between mind and body, and rarely -- if e'er -- the twain shall meet. Byrne's own head is distanced from his body by a long elastic neck, and he sings as if he were being strangled by a tightly knotted tie (from Brooks Brothers, no doubt). His high-pitched voice seems to emanate entirely from his straining vocal chords, not at all from his diaphragm. Quite literally, Byrne is a Talking Head. And his group's compulsively rocky beat -- martial yet nervous, halfway between a goose step and St. Vitus' dance -- is exciting, but seldom sexy and never cathartic. Though rock & roll usually celebrates release, Talking Heads dramatizes repression. If they're an anomaly, they're also one of the very best as well as most interesting American rock bands performing and recording today.
Love and work, of course, is what Freud said all of us need, but on More Songs about Buildings and Food, Byrne appears able to imagine the proper equilibrium only in "Found a Job," wherein a bickering couple's relationship improves while collaborating on television scripts. He sings about this improvement with considerable sarcasm, though, and elsewhere on the LP, love and logic are at loggerheads. The tension between the two, like the similar tension Bryan Ferry creates between sentimentality and sophistication, is excruciating, and when it snaps in the album's final song, "The Big Country" (a title taken from a line in Ferry's "Prairie Rose"), Byrne is bounced into the void. Flying over the United States, he looks down with regret and revulsion at life below: "I wouldn't live there if you paid me." Yet, at the same time, he's "tired of traveling" and wants "to be somewhere." Like a hijacked airplane that no nation will permit to land,the singer seems doomed to fly until his fuel is exhausted and he plummets to a fiery death.
Sound gloomy? Well it would be if Byrne didn't see hilarity in tight-assed hysteria and laugh at his Puritan pratfalls. Or if coproducer Brian Eno, once Bryan Ferry's colleague in Roxy Music, hadn't crammed so much humor and energy into each song. The cerebral, brittle sound of Talking Heads: 77 has been fleshed out with supple synthesizer fills, and Chris Frantz' drums and the synthesized percussion leap boldly out of the mix. Almost every cut has a percussive gimmick -- handclaps, clattering rim shots, a heavily echoed backbeat -- that rivets the attention, punctuating the melody or hammering home the words.
These arrangements bustle without sounding cluttered. Whenever the agitated jangle of guitars starts to nag, it slips into something mellifluous. Thus "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" shuttles back and forth between the staccato attack of a mid-Sixties garage band and the playful lilt of a nursery rhyme. "Stay Hungry" manages to meld James Brown, the early Beatles ("Things We Said Today") and a "progressive"-rock synthesizer. The eclecticism of More Songs about Buildings and Food -- its witty distillations of disco and reggae rhythms, its reconciliation of "art" and punk rock -- is masterful. The music represents a triumph over diversity, while the words spell out defeat by disparities between mind and body, head and heart.
This, presumably, is why Talking Heads make music -- and superb music at that. Because talk is cheap.
- Ken Emerson, Rolling Stone, 10-19-78.
Talking Heads may be the oddest band in America right now (not counting the various as-yet-unrecorded imitators they've inspired, such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), and a lot of writers have sort of gone off the deep end in rhapsodizing about their particular kinks. But that shouldn't put you off, as it did me for a time. You have to realize that although superficially Talking Heads is not all that different from some earlier English Art Rock annoyances, like Sparks or Roxy Music -- one of whose former members, Brian Eno, produces Talking Heads -- they're a lot smarter and a lot more accessible. Oh, David Byrne my do a lot of pointless glottal contorting as he spits out the lyrics that caused one critic to classify him as "an uptight WASP finally rocking out"; Eno may have tarted up the sound with his usual gratuitous electronic effects (mostly percussive); and yes, this kind of theoretical Soho Minimalism generally makes me wish that anyone schooled in the visual arts were prohibited from dabbling in rock-and-roll. And yet, for all the reserve of their songs and performances, Talking Heads is one of the wittiest, sharpest instrumental groups since Booker T. and the MG's. I don't doubt that these kids could have backed James Brown, so precisely tooled is their ensemble work. And if that seems an absurd comparison, I suggest you take a listen to the cover version included here of Al Green's (!) "Take Me to the River," which by no stretch of the imagination qualifies as White Soul but is sexy as hell.
Not all of the Heads' own material comes off as well. There are times (on "Found a Job," for instance) when the eccentric chord changes, Eno-isms, and Dink-Stover-on-psilocybin lyrics combine to make the Heads sound like a bad surf band run amuck. But other times ("Warning Sign" and the really quite exciting "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" are my favorites at this point) one simply has to accept the music for what it is: the quirky, charming musings of a bunch of emotionally constipated yet brilliant kids who are breaking all sorts of rules, not because they're incompetent primitives but because they really don't know any other way to vent their particular frustrations. It's not Punk, and it may not even be rock, but if your ears are the slightest bit open, I can't imagine you not liking at least some of it.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 9/78.
Eno's influence is evident throughout this superbly produced collection of 11 songs that are infused with the group's nervous brand of rock'n'rolI without the effect of a grating machine. Velvet Underground influence is strong also, including incongruous pop hooks that provide buoyancy for the sometimes weighty themes. Best cuts: "With Our Love," "Artists Only," "I'm Hot In Love."
- Billboard, 1978.
Here the Heads become a quintet in an ideal producer-artist collaboration -- Eno contributes/interferes just enough. Not only does his synthesized lyricism provide flow and continuity, it also makes the passive, unpretentious technological mysticism he shares with the band real in the aural world. In fact, there is so much beautiful music (and so much funky music) on this album that I'll take no more complaints about David Byrne's voice. Every one of these eleven songs is a positive pleasure, and on every one the tension between Byrne's compulsive flights and the sinuous rock bottom of the music is the focus. I have more doubts than ever about Byrne's post-hippie work-ethic positivism -- on one new song, he uses the phrase "wasting precious time" and means it -- but if it goes with music this eccentric and compelling I'm damn sure going to hear him out. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
The experimentation begins. Brian Eno becomes the Fifth Head, at least for a while. The textures and tonalities of the band's sound expand, but the stance (modernism, minimalism) and central musical element (the tension between Byrne's vocals and the music) remain a constant. More Songs About Buildings and Food also introduced an R&B aspect to the Heads' sound that would endure. The album also produced their first hit, a cover version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." The CD's sound is good, again, an enhancement: beautifully spaced and defined with a slight tendency to some overbrightness. A-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
Producer Brian Eno added muscle and flair to the group's arty funk-rock, making this a dense and beautiful set. * * * * *
- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
In three consecutive years (1978-80), Talking Heads -- along with producer Brian Eno -- released three remarkable albums of incredible growth and adventure. The first, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was firmly rooted in pop but added World Music touches and electronic sound experiments; it also got the band some radio play with its cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." * * * * 1/2
- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
David Byrne and Brian Eno were a match made in art-school heaven. The Talking Heads debut, Talking Heads: 77, good as it was, showed the band needed focus and Eno provided that without whitewashing the Heads' wild eclecticism or undermining Byrne's individual voice.
The modernist cover design by Byrne, which shows the four Heads reconstructed on a grid, only hints at the experimental nature of the album. The singer's eccentric, smartly self-conscious lyrics remain at the forefront of "With Our Love" and "The Good Thing," but they have to elbow for space against the increasingly complex rhythm work of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz. If ...77 was primarily for your head, More Songs About Buildings And Food was equally intended for the feet as it boogied through classical minimalism, spacey disco, and African funk.
The frenzy of the band's earlier hit "Psycho Killer" would materialize again with the stunning opener, "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel," and Byrne absolutely twitches with nervous energy on "Artists Only." The tempo drops, and the intensity lifts, for a powerful reading of Al Green's "Take Me To The River," the band's first Top Forty single.
The album was a moderate commercial success. More significantly, it kicked off a four-year association between Eno and the Heads that culminated with 1980's Remain in Light. That run stands as the zenith of the band's career and equals the string of albums Eno recorded with David Bowie.
- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
After meeting in art school, Talking Heads established themselves as the radical preppies on the CBGB punk scene. For their second LP, the band's first produced by ambient-sound sculptor Brian Eno, they lifted their taut, nervy minimalist sound straight to New Wave heaven. David Byrne giddily yelped his way through the galloping opener, "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," and sang about dourly surveying America from the sky on "The Big Country," while drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth locked in for hit cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River."
- Jon Dolan, Rolling Stone, 6/20.
Spawned in the punk scene of 1970s New York, Talking Heads struck out in a surprising direction with their second album, weaving in funk and gospel, including a cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" that became their first radio hit.
More Songs About Buildings and Food was chosen as the 364th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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