Review Summary: There are few albums that have slipped through the cracks like The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Constantly overshadowed by commercial success Stop Making Sense, Name of This Band has had an uphill struggle for acceptance since its release in 1982.
Coming off of their spacey masterpiece Remain in Light, David Byrne & Co. decided to release a live album. The resulting double LP was set up with the intent to track the band through the course of their career, marking the progression from the early art-punk of the first two albums to the more modern, paranoid affairs. The tracks were all superb cuts from various live performances, but it never broke through the same way a lot of the other output of the band did. This could be attributed due to the nature of double LP’s, but the effect of this is that the exceptional album lay dormant for a while, even in danger of being forgotten in with the advent of the CD age.
In 2004, someone finally stepped up to the plate. Rhino Records took the job of remastering it, and knocked it out of the park in every way imaginable. They went the full nine yards, reworking the sound to be cleaner and more vibrant than the 1982 version. Rhino was very ambitious, deciding to go through the archives and add more songs that weren’t on the LP version. The end result is a 2 disc, 2.5 hour, 33 song romp through the career of one of the band at the peak of their youthful energy and artistic creativity.
The main thing of note that separates versions of songs off The Name of This Band is Talking Heads from their studio counterparts is how much cleaner each instrument sounds in the final mixing. The first Talking Heads album suffered from underproduction, leaving each song very weak sounding. The first disc of Name of This Band fixes this, charging up the power of each song until it is ready to explode. Their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, suffers from a murkiness that leaves each song indistinguishable from one another. Name of This Band fixes that making each guitar part crisper, each keyboard part more noticeable, and each drum beat cleaner. The songs that suffered from lethargy have new life breathed into them.
The first disc captures the sound of the talking heads mainly from these two albums and a bit from Fear of Music. Each version of a song on disc one is essentially a strict upgrade over their studio counterparts for the aforementioned reasons. Simply put, the first disc captures the feel of a Talking Heads show back in the CBGB days. It’s stripped down, herky-jerky, art-punk that threatens to bring down the house with each number. The band plays a bit with the audience, one notable example being a tease to megahit “Psycho Killer” at the end of “Memories Can’t Wait”, lending a vision of a very energetic, fun show.
Possibly the biggest advantage of the live songs is David Byrne’s vocals. On albums, he is very quiet and subdued, mumbling and tripping over words, seeming like he is afraid to say them. Live, he maintains the spastic feel of the vocals that endeared the listener, but manages to add energy to them, making each sputter, yelp and howl that much more entertaining. Byrne hams it up a bit too, adding flourishes like his growled “hubba hubba” to cap off a song.
At this point in our tour of the album, we will be taking a brief aside to point out a few highlights of the first disc. “A Clean Break” can’t be found on any other piece of the Talking Heads’ discography and that’s a shame, as it’s a favorite of mine. The rhythm of it is very strong, keeping the song moving at a decent clip. By the end, it’s hard to believe that it was five minutes long due to that fact. A personal favorite part is how the jaunty guitar parts of the bridge and Byrne’s insistence to “take that love away” blend together capped with “wayyyy-oooo” that devolves into “na na na”s and scat singing. Songs like “Pulled Up” realize their full potential, sounding downright anthemic, with a strong guitar part that hooks the listener in and doesn’t let go until the final notes. “Stay Hungry” gets really heavy with Byrne’s growls, sounding more metal than three nerdy white boys (and one nerdy white girl) have any right to be. The tracks off of Fear of Music get the live treatment with tracks like “Air” actually gaining some substance to it (in a sickly ironic sort of way). Lastly, the geeky intelligent lyrics shine strongest on “Don’t Worry About the Government” with a thick syrupy irony lacing the whole song, complimented by tinkling keys.
Disc two is another affair, different yet still retaining that strong energy of a Talking Heads live show. The best way to describe disc two is ambitious. It takes primarily from the Remain in Light Tour, a tour which saw everything becoming a bit more grandiose. Backing musicians were added to the tour lineup, such as a young Adrian Belew, fresh from helping Talking Heads record Remain in Light and on the verge of breaking through with King Crimson. To help step up the funky, world music leanings of the new Talking Heads, Parliament-Funkadelic veteran keyboardist Bernie Worrell was brought on board and Nona Hendryx was able to go over David Byrne with her backing vocals. Besides them, there are still many more people that helped bring together Talking Heads’ biggest tour of their career up to that point.
Everything sounds just bigger on disc two. All the individual parts coalesce into something quite grand. One of the astounding points pertaining to the band’s growing complexity is that they still can perform all the songs live. “The Great Curve” is done flawlessly, which considering the syncopated vocals and polyrhythms that the song has, is no mean feat.
Like the new versions of disc one, the question of whether the Remain in Light originals sound better than the live versions comes up. To me, the songs are two different animals, with the murky textures that Eno helped construct going up against the remastered versions like nighttime and daytime. For people that need an answer and could corner me, I’d probably have to give it to the overall experience of Remain in Light but it’s a moot point, as both should be listened to.
There are some repeats of songs from the first disc, namely “Psycho Killer” and “Stay Hungry”, but whatever negative that could be said about it is mitigated by Belew’s awesome guitar work. Seriously, the solos are to die for on the second disc, making the solos on the first disc seem like child’s play.
This is actually a good point in describing the difference between the first and second disc. The music becomes more complex further on in the band’s career, lending itself to a bit more exploration and experimentation. A song can be built up to a head, then deconstructed, then built up all over again. One of the noteworthy additions from this perspective is the eight and a half minute version of Remain in Light leadoff “Born Under Punches”, which gets into a serious groove that the original didn’t seem to have.
The band deftly handles their singles, from the Nona Hendryx infused version of “Take Me to the River” to the epitome of lyrical dissonance “Life During Wartime” getting a supercharged treatment, becoming imminently more danceable and becoming just plain huge. As I mentioned earlier, the version of “Psycho Killer” on this disc is probably my favorite they’ve done. The crackling guitars that goes over the top of the intro to “Crosseyed and Painless” just sounds damned cool, while the rest of the song has the instruments bounce around with Byrne’s choppy vocals. The version of “Cities” on the disc is downright frenetic, brimming with kinetic energy as the song’s vocals confuse the hell out of the listener. At this point, I’ll go turn off the proverbial faucet, as it seems I’m just gushing here.
Where does this leave us all? The Name of This Band is Talking Heads could be the best thing that the band’s released, and it’s even more of a testament to Remain in Light that it’s still better than this. The only things that I could see wrong with the disc are the length (you have to have a good portion of time available if you love listening to a whole album through, but boy it’s worth it) and the loss of Eno’s spacey electronics (even still, it’s not worse, it’s just different.), but these can be easily brushed aside.
If you think you can stomach listening to something this long for an introduction, it would be a great way to get into the band. If not, try listening to studio stuff and revisiting this later on. For fans of the band, it’s absolutely essential. Go and get it right now. I’d go so far as to call The Name of This Band is Talking Heads one of the best live albums of all time, and it’s in the running for best album of the 80’s. Strongly Recommended.