Phil Gifford talks up David Byrne and says “Hurray for the Riff Raff”.
David Byrne is back, looking on the bright side, and there are gems on Alyndra Lee Segarra’s new album with Hurray for the Riff Raff.
“Is it a joke? Do I mean this seriously? In what way?” So writes David Byrne in the liner notes to American Utopia, his first solo album in 14 years.
Byrne made personal angst (“You may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house... This is not my beautiful wife’”) his stock in trade with Talking Heads in the late 70s and early 80s, but he’s addressing bigger issues in 2018 – nothing less than the collapse of the American dream.
He says he sensed, as more than two centuries of the great American experiment with democracy felt on the edge of failing, that he was not the only one “still holding onto some tiny bit of hope, unwilling to succumb entirely to despair or cynicism”.
In January, he actually launched a website, Reasons To Be Cheerful (reasons to be cheerful. world), which is exactly what the title suggests: good-news stories on everything from prison reform to a video collaboration between Byrne and high school kids at the Detroit School of Arts. American Utopia is basically a companion piece to the website.
The Trump era has given a massive boost to interest in bleak, dystopian novels. Suddenly George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 leapt onto bestseller lists.
So has American Utopia, which debuted at No.3 on the Billboard charts, commercially outstripping any album Talking Heads made, and rubbing shoulders with the Black Panther soundtrack.
But the 10 tracks on American Utopia are not even remotely like the harrowing worlds conjured by Orwell and Bradbury. Byrne has created hugely listenable songs, some of which, at first hearing, defy you not to laugh. “An elephant don’t read newspapers,” he sings. “A chicken’s kiss is hard.”
However, his songs resonate beyond easy laughs because Byrne has always presented as someone who sees the world from his own deeply personal, off- centre perspective. His eccentricity isn’t a cynical marketing gimmick – it’s his reality.
In 1979, when Talking Heads had only just progressed from being an
underground new-wave act in New York, they came to New Zealand. I had a fascinating glimpse of how even his own bandmates were in awe of Byrne’s slightly unsettling charisma, during the course of a couple of hours in the cramped hotel room of bass player Tina Weymouth and her husband, the band’s drummer Chris Frantz, at the Quay St Travelodge in Auckland.
Both were extremely energised and likeable. Weymouth led chorus after chorus of praise for Byrne. “He’s really a genius,” she almost whispered at one stage.
Then came a gentle knock on the door. The man himself, rock-star skinny, dressed headto-toe in black, quietly walked in and carefully perched himself on the edge of the double bed. He gave the impression, as he would the next night at a riveting concert at the Auckland Town Hall, of someone at once consumed with what he was doing, yet not exactly sure what to make of it.
At the hotel, he was truly animated only once. The band’s first single hit was, weirdly, a cover version of Memphis soul singer Al Green’s gospel-influenced “Take Me to the River”. I mentioned that I had seen a story in which Green said he’d like to cover a Talking Heads song. Byrne’s whole face, intense even in repose, lit up, and he could hardly speak for repressed laughter. “It was a very nice thing for him to say, but I can’t imagine what song he’d do of our material. I couldn’t picture him singing ‘Psycho Killer’.”
Would anyone have ever dreamed, just a tick off 40 years later, that Byrne would produce music he hopes will “offer some kind of hope and answers”?
Of course, Byrne being Byrne (“one of pop music’s greatest chroniclers of creepy disorientation”, according to a recent headline in Rolling Stone), nothing on American Utopia is entirely straightforward. Consider the small challenges in this chorus: “Every day is a miracle/every day is an unpaid bill/you’ve got to sing for your supper/ Love one another.”
On the other hand, I do think one American reviewer goes a big step too far when he suggests the first single, “Everybody’s Coming to my House”, is a kidnapping fantasy. “They’re never gonna go back home”, sounds more like a wish than a threat to my ears.
The energy on American Utopia makes listening an uplifting experience. The production, by Byrne, Rodaidh Mcdonald (a Scottish producer who has worked with everyone from Adele to London indie pop band The xx), and New York Grammy winner Patrick Dillett (in a perfect Byrne twist, one of his Grammys was won for a children’s album, Here Come The 123s), gives a 21st- century sheen to music that doesn’t feel out of place when compared to Talking Heads in their prime.
And whisper it, but the sentiments, albeit expressed in more torturous ways, basically hark back to the patchouli oil, peace and love days of the Grateful Dead. They once sang, “Think this through with me, let me know your mind.” In his own unique way, Byrne is suggesting the same. “Music,” he writes, “often tells us, or points us toward how we can be.”
Another artist carving her own distinctive path is Alynda Lee Segarra, who fronts Hurray for the Riff Raff, a band she formed after solo busking on the streets of New Orleans.
They played to just a couple of hundred people at the Tuning Fork in Auckland in 2015, and Segarra was brilliant. Some great musicians have confessed that busking would be a step too far for them, but those who survive the ordeal of playing uninvited on the street ( locally, think the Topp Twins) emerge, like Segarra, with stagecraft to die for.
The Navigator is the sixth album from the band, which, in all honesty, is basically Segarra with backing musicians, who she often changes. In the past, the wonderful music Segarra writes (of a quality sadly not reflected in massive album sales) could loosely have been called folkrock, but The Navigator takes her right back to her childhood as a Nuyorican (a name coined for Puerto Rican immigrants in New York) in the Bronx.
Drawing on influences as diverse as salsa, doowop and even West Side Story, which Segarra says she fell in love with as a pre-teen, the album traces the story of a Segarra alter- ego, Navita Milagros Negron, in a stunning suite of songs. Her slightly bruised vocals, while distinctively her own, at times evoke the vulnerability of Billie Holiday.
Looking for something entirely different, but still easily accessible? Try The Navigator, and you might then find yourself searching out the earlier Riff Raff albums too.
Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Tina Weymouth, 1979.