Review Summary: Talking Heads accidentally find a pop sound, and also inadvertently score a hit with Burning Down The House.
Pop music is different things to different people. Some people like their pop music catchy, danceable and throwaway, whereas some like songs crafted deliberately with a style and tone that is fitting for the band through the album and in one particular song. Pop music has no doubt changed a lot since rock & roll revolutionized it in the fifties, but the appeal and approach of it hasn't changed a bit, songs that are either deliberately mainstream run along pop tunes that are not as conventional but still hit records.
In 1977 the Talking Heads released their first album, and it wasn't really pop, it was more punk styled with a nonchalant attitude, a style that would come to be known as new-wave. The band progressed, scoring critical acclaim with each album they released, until in 1983 they released Speaking in Tongues, their most 'pop' effort yet. The album is undoubtedly a departure from form, neat and tidy guitars gave way to bottom shattering funk, groovy basslines and offbeat drums. Most shockingly of all, David Byrne found a voice that would become synonymous with the Talking Heads evermore, the cool yelping shriek that everyone knows the band for.
The album opens on huge hit single, Burning Down the House. The song is essentially an exercise in how funky four geeky musicians from New York could be, without sounding sarcastic, a tactic that works extremely well for the band, and one that scored them their only top ten hit in the U.S. The song is fairly standard of the album, rolling disco rhythms with sparse indie-punk guitars and David Byrne sputtering out mono-syllabic odes to nothing in particular, yet it seems to mean something.
Next up, in Making Flippy Floppy, Girlfriend is Better and Slippery People, the Talking Heads find the true sound of the album, a style of music that is too cool to be labeled as disco, yet actually undeniably is. All these tracks cement the Talking Heads new style as a departure from their last album Remain In Light, the sound which found the band experimenting with more multicultural rhythms and song structures, on Speaking In Tongues the band now experiment less, cutting and trimming away at the loose fat on their sound, the album sounds remarkably streamlined and basic.
I Get Wild, Swamp and Moon Rocks carry the album on in a similar fashion, on the latter the band revealing an even more minimalistic sound, with just Byrne, a funky bassline, a loose and roaming synth all piled on top of Chris Frantz' pop drumming. Though the album seems to lag a bit in these tracks, they are by no means filler or throwaway, if any, the ridiculously over the top Swamp is a bit unnecessary at times, picking up a bluesy rhythm that sounds more conveniently like swampy Louisiana R&B. Though they may seem weak in the middle, Talking Head's often bizarre and irrelevant lyrics keep the listeners attention, just by being so odd and hilarious.
Pull Up The Roots follows on from where Swamp left off, only much more subtly. The song does contain the raucous ale-house stomp, but it has more of what everyone loves about the Talking Heads, David Byrnes sudden rising intonation and yelp, Jerry Harrison's neat indie guitar twang, Tina Weymouth's funky roaming bass, and Chris Frantz' huge drum sound make this track one of the best off the album, though not the best, that would probably be reserved for This Must Be The Place, a track which goes as far as summing up the Talking Heads sound and career in under five minutes. It's an excellent track, quiet, understated but brimming with wistful anguish, slowly building up to the momentous chorus 'Hi - Yo. I got plenty of time. Hi - Yo, you got light in your eyes'.
Speaking in Tongues is by no means the best Talking Heads album, but it does an excellent job at a band finding a new accidental pop sound, a sound which would take one track into the top ten in the U.S., and finally reach the pinnacle of respect by being covered by Tom Jones (!!!). It may not be as experimental or listenable as a lot of other Talking Heads albums, but it just proves that the band didn't really put a foot wrong until about 1986.