Review Summary: Talking Heads' live album does what every great live album should do: it makes you want to be there.
Talking Heads’ primetime in the late 1970's and early 1980’s may only be remembered through their tumultuous creative differences these days, but their influence on modern art rock is second to none. They focused on not only songs, but performances, something that translated extremely well to their Stop Making Sense
concert film. While the Stop Making Sense
film brought out a fantastically stylized performance from the New Wave masters (including the now iconic big suit of David Byrne), the live album itself is absolutely no slouch. By far, Talking Heads’ abstract musical persona is realized in a pure and unhindered form on Stop Making Sense
, making the live album one of the best in its class and beyond.
As ambitious rockers and art musicians alike, Talking Heads took their instrumentation and made something interesting out of it. They never did anything impossible. Their instrumentation was accessible, but the combination of bassist Tina Weymouth’s funky bass, Jerry Harrison’s nimble guitar, Chris Frantz’s thunderous drums, and David Byrne’s wailing slide of a voice became something of legend amongst the musically courageous. With Stop Making Sense
, the band feels right at home. It’s a live album that cracks the code of concert perfection.
The pace of “What a Day That Was” is uplifting and enthusiastic alongside Byrne’s rollercoaster of a voice. Weymouth’s play style is broad and interesting, running from funk, dance and rock in almost indistinguishable ways. Stop Making Sense
would not be anywhere near what it is without her stellar bass work, but you can’t ignore Chris Frantz’s minimalist drumbeats come alive in the crash and pound of Stop Making Sense
. Rounding out the group is Jerry Harrison’s slick guitar work which breaks free on songs like “Slippery People.” It's a real brew, one that works near flawlessly.
One notable track is the oddity “Once in a Lifetime.” The almost shaky tone of Byrne compared to his studio performance of the track is, bizarrely, a real heavy hitter. It’s different in just the right ways; just as Byrne begins to sound out of breath, Chris Frantz’s clicks and thumps on the drumset get to burst on the scene with Jerry Harrison’s guitar showing a clean and sublime melody. Talking Heads’ cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” is another highlight of the album. As a cover, it’s exciting, staying just true enough to the original without feeling dependent or out of place. Weymouth’s bassline and Chris Frantz’s drum beat are steady, just steady enough that the vocals can let loose. It’s a memorable cover that only reinforces the band’s performance-focused agenda.
Byrne moves from howling to snarling during the groovy “Swamp,” and while it doesn’t focus the energy as well as the other tracks, it holds a pounding beat in a slick, almost sexual way. His varied vocal style is crucial to the band’s performance. Byrne’s revving call during the live opener “Psycho Killer” is backed by a subtle acoustic arrangement, but as an opener, it’s damn near flawless. It sets the stage, nails that intimate feeling of beginning a set in front of a crowd. Talking Heads don’t burst onto the scene in Stop Making Sense
; they ease the listeners in with a quiet and inviting charm, while bringing out that power once the audience is captivated and hooked. And that’s the reason Stop Making Sense
works: it truly feels like you’re experiencing a concert on disc. The steady motion from the softer “Psycho Killer” grows and grows into a bombastic and furious intensity come “Take Me to the River.” That escalation, that sense of anticipation and growing excitement nails the concert atmosphere. It literally makes you want to be there.
Stop Making Sense
is a live album that stands the test of time by doing exactly what a live album is designed to do: recreate the live experience. It’s still easy to groove along with Weymouth’s funky bass beat and Byrne’s wailing voice. The transition from the studio to the live set is resilient and surprisingly varied. There’s an energy here that explodes during the escalating chorus of “Once in a Lifetime” or the dance beat triumph of “What a Day That Was.” It’s been over 25 years since the big suit made its debut (and we may never see another Talking Heads reunion), but every creative fiber in the band’s being is let loose in Stop Making Sense
. Stop Making Sense
encapsulates Talking Heads’ musicianship and performance skills to the letter. In the realm of live recordings, Stop Making Sense
is colossally experimental, fantastically performed, and absolutely never boring.