Recording of December 2012: Love This Giant

David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant
4AD CAD3231 (LP). 2012. David Byrne, Annie Clark, prods.; Patrick Dillett, John Congleton, asst. prods., engs.; Yuki Takahashi, Jon Altschuler, asst. engs. DDA? TT: 44:23
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The world's Web-based culture has progressed to the point that you don't need to be in the same room, or even the same general region, to be inspired by or collaborate with someone else. Ideas can fly back and forth for years across time and distance. By all accounts, the Internet played a key role in the creation of this sparkling and unexpected bit of funky world pop. This pair of wonderfully hard-to-define talents, who over a three-year gestation period seem to have found a glorious common ground for songwriting and harmonizing, has succeeded in fashioning an utterly original shard of brass-band-meets-layers-of-drum-programming, all of it overflown by the delicate voice of Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, and the recognizable keen of the Talking Heads' former big-suited frontman, David Byrne.

In a less perfect (or less Web-connected) world, this rhythmically muscular collection of melodic oddities might have become yet another in the bottomless dustbin of disappointments—those "really interesting" projects that remain half-finished, forever teasing their creators about what might have been. Yet Byrne and Clark each has just the kind of curious, offbeat, artistic sensibility needed to actually make an angular art-rock project like this a crashing, tuneful, uncommonly bright success. In case you missed the point, their idiosyncrasies are humorously hinted at by the facial tweaking of Love the Giant's slightly spooky cover art.

Byrne's post-Heads solo career has always been eclectic and full of surprises. He's scored Twyla Tharp dance pieces (The Catherine Wheel, 1981), explored South American musical forms (Rei Momo, 1989), and made an unconventional folk record (Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, 2008) with frequent collaborator and Talking Heads producer Brian Eno. Texan Annie Clark, the niece of guitarist Tuck Andress, has done stints in the be-robed Texas symphonic pop collective Polyphonic Spree and in the band of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. She released her first solo record, Marry Me, in 2007. This was followed by Actor (2009) and Strange Mercy (2011), both produced by John Congleton, who's worked in indie-rock circles, having helmed records by a diverse list that includes Bill Callahan, Okkervil River, and John Vanderslice.

While Clark and Byrne handle all the vocals and guitars here, the frame on which Love This Giant hangs is a combination of Congleton's drum programming and a massive group of 49 studio horn players, who play at various moments, on clarinet, trumpet, French horn, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. Added to this are the presences of world music vets Antibalas and Brooklyn's retro R&B ensemble The Dap-Kings on "The One Who Broke Your Heart," which is the most Talking Heads–like track on the album and it's only straight-ahead dance track.

From the opening baritone-sax notes of the first track, "Who," it's clear that brasses are the stars here. In a tune like "Dinner for Two," other than handclaps, acoustic guitar, and several drum loops, the brass are nearly the entire band. The secret weaponry of Love This Giant, the grease on which its success slides, are the brass arrangements—by Tony Finno, Kelly Pratt, Ken Thompson, and Lenny Pickett—all of which have been engineered with the spaciousness and edges, sharply defined yet not shrill, that are needed for a successful brass-band recording. All brass musical genres, from Latin horn charts to New Orleans brass bands to R&B punch, are referenced in what is easily one of the most distinguished collections of new horn arrangements in recent memory. Byrne acknowledges the album's debts to the past by thanking a long list of inspirational brass writing, including that of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, and James Brown. Literally every track is a fascinating study in how to provocatively and ingeniously incorporate horns into edgy art-rock tracks. The punchy accents in the verses of "Ice Age," the baritone sax chortling away in the background of "I Should Watch TV," the calliope-like back-and-forth that underpins "Lazarus," the near-gospel intro to Byrne's delightful "I Am an Ape"—one of the album's central pieces—are all genius. And "Optimist," sung by Clark, and perhaps the record's most beguiling melodic passage, is a nod to the funk power ballads of the 1970s.

As an homage to the possibilities inherent in the brass band, the skeleton of horn charts and drum programming on which Love this Giant is built is frequently breathtaking. Repeated listenings reveal this music to be so intricate that it's actually incredible that it only took three years to create. Blow on!—Robert Baird

tmsorosk's picture

Well done Robert.

JohnnyR's picture

.........cared for David Byrne. Found him to be too gimmicky. His music videos were slightly amusing at times though.

Chris Wall's picture

Granted, I'm a long-time David Byrne fan-boy, but this album was a pleasant surprise. It seems as though he re-incarnates himself with each new collaboration. Whether it's with Fatboy Slim (a two-CD disco opera based on the life of Imelda Marcos??? Weird, but I found it to be one of his better recent efforts) or Brian Eno (an album that was much better live than on disc), his collaborative efforts have been a mixed bag, just like his solo efforts. I give Byrne credit for re-inventing himself in ways that would make fellow changeling David Bowie's head spin.

this album, however, is a much stronger effort than his previous few. Perhaps it's the addition of St. Vincent (totally smitten, I have to admit). Maybe it has to do with a sense of discipline he needs in place to share lead vocal duties. I dunno.

I still need some more time listening, but as hinted at in this review, this is an album that stands up repeating listening, revealing more and more musical layers.

itsratso's picture

really really good cd. btw the video is good too.