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.

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“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.

Alynda Lee Se­garra of Hur­ray for the Riff Raff per­forms dur­ing the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val, 2017.

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