LET'S GET one thing straight Speaking in Tongue is a conservative move career-wise for Talking Heads One of the cuts. "Burning Down the House," is getting some airplay, not an insignificant achievement, given the unconformist posture of this band. And a few other songs sound like they have the same potential. A sell out for the heros of CBGB' An error in judgement for those enemies of Album Oriented Rock (AOR)' Now, what's going on here' This record represents a doubleback from everything the Heads have been moving towards of late. But that's not necessarily a bad thing Speaking in Tongue's is a pre-emptive strike on the Lop 40 on its own terms- and in the process, it may show up the racial prejudices that define a great majority of American rock listenership Seriously.
Ever since their birth in the mid- '70s as the art school brats of the Manhattan punk family. Talking Heads have been the living epitome of progress for progress's sake, the petulant seekers of the edge of accessibility simply because it was there Things got started with the paranoiac minimalism of Talking Heads '77, but expanded exponentially in experimentation and generosity of spirit. The musical odyssey culminated in the pan-cultural celebration of African polyrhythms and Enofied guitar blips and wails of Remain in Light quite possibly take away one song. "The Overload" the most seamless piece of sound (you can't call it rock, really) heard in the last five years. The group, now expanded from its core of four to a rough and tumble crew of some nine or 10, then took some time off for a few individual projects, regrouped in the studio to mix a live album, and have now--three years after their latest--re-emerged with Speaking in Tongues.
The overwhelming impression the effort gives is that after seven years of pushing at boundaries, the Heads have taken a step back--into the street, away from the art school perhaps. What the new album amounts to is Remain in Light stripped down to essentials. Disregard for a moment David Byrne's lead singing. Though he's mellowed a bit, he yelps and grimaces vocally, much in the same way he did for the first album. But words have taken on less significance in and of themselves for T-Heads and are more an integral part--almost as instruments unto themselves--of the ebb and flow of the music. Take away also those dizzying circles of conga drums and thickly textured layers of guitars that gave that last effort its quality of a cheap throbbing hypnotist. My God what have we done?'''' It's funk.'
OF COURSE this is funk that is idiosyncratically Talking Heads Make no mistake about it this is the smartest hand to come down the pike in a long time cliches notwithstanding. The sound that is synthesized here is all their own once you admit that its base is all James Brown and its one of the best sounds around Still somewhat paranoid hardening back to the punk the Heads cut their teeth on it's celebratory no doubt. Byrne didn't learn all about African music for nothing. And it's fun to boot, thanks to drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth's joray into rap in rhythm with Tom Tom Club The Heads what's more, steal a whole lotta licks from out of the past Do you want your funk served up hot and gooey, in the form of Delta Blues' Swamp" will please your musical palate How about a little down-home gospel hour, Slippery People" ought to do the trick A Little street fun in order' The dancing bass at the end of Girlfriend is Better will have you hipping to the hip hop all night long. With Speaking in Longues it seems. Talking Heads are almost admitting that Remain in Light seminal though it was--was inaccessible to a lot of people, the way good pop or rock almost never should be. Without doubting their artistic integrity in any way, it's not hard to imagine that the latest from Byrne et. al., more than any Heads album, will have a chance to reach through to the mass audience that has thus far eluded this estimable group.
And for this reason finally, Speaking in Tongues also raises some rather intriguing and potentially depressing political questions about a music industry that is practically rotten to the core F. M. Radio and the new Music Television are in sorry shape in all ways except financial, not only in terms of vitality but in terms of simple human qualities. Black artists have--save for a select few--virtually no access to the staple of F. M. Programming, the execrable A.O.R., or to M. T. V., a veritable case-study in segregation. And there's no question that funk, which Black performers like James Brown invented and nourished, is--crudely speaking--the forte of these artists--from Rick James to Grandmaster Flash, to name the big ones. Last heard Rick James couldn't even get on MTV. It will be fascinating to see if the predominately white Talking Heads can break into the popular mainstream and all its institutions with the Black sound of Speaking in Tongues. If they do, the implications are ominous.