Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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David Byrne

  • Songs From the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" [Sire, 1981] A-
  • Music for The Knee Plays [ECM, 1985] A-
  • Songs From True Stories [Sire, 1986] C+
  • Rei Momo [Luaka Bop/Sire, 1989] C+
  • The Forest [Warner Bros./Sire/Luaka Bop, 1991] Dud
  • Uh-Oh [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud
  • David Byrne [Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros., 1994] **
  • Feelings [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1997] Dud
  • Look into the Eyeball [Virgin, 2001] Dud
  • Grown Backwards [Nonesuch, 2004] C+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Songs From the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" [Sire, 1981]
Byrne's take on the rhythms of Africa is even more perilous for imitators than Coltrane's on the mysteries of the Orient, but this surprisingly apt translation-to-disc of his Twyla Tharp score proves his patent is worth the plastic it's imprinted on. The magic's all in Byrne's synthesis of the way drums talk and the way Americans talk--middle Americans, not Afro-Americans. Beset by contingencies they can't make sense of, his protagonists twist from one side to the other, yet somehow emerge from the end of the tunnel with their wills intact. Must have to do with that unnatural rhythm. A-

Music for The Knee Plays [ECM, 1985]
I didn't trust my instant attraction to these obviously derivative occasional pieces until I looked at the label and realized that five of the twelve originated with "Trad./Arr. by." There's no tune like an old tune, and if this music really was "inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band," then I think Byrne's fusion of New Orleans horn voicings with Soho-avant calm is more satisfying than theirs with bebop and funk. I also think his words do Robert Wilson proud and then some. A-

Songs From True Stories [Sire, 1986]
It isn't all as archly mawkish as the rearranged dreamsongs from his group's worst album. Pretentiously dinky is more the prevailing mood--a soundtrack only, like so many arty soundtracks before it. One where Byrne, Meredith Monk, the Kronos Quartet, and some locals who couldn't have known what they were getting into do for Texas what Byrne & Eno did for Africa. C+

Rei Momo [Luaka Bop/Sire, 1989]
Byrne respects and understands distance, an essential faculty in world-beat projects, and his increasingly sinuous singing should make this Latin synthesis a natural. The lyrics are explicitly social without sacrificing the nervous literacy of his established voice. He picks good musicians and provides proper arrangements. And the result is a respectful, highly intelligent dud. Irritating though the muscular masculinity of sonero tradition may be, any doubts as to why it's there are dispelled by Byrne's inability to wrap his weedy chops around salsa that's too tasteful by half. And I'm beginning to suspect he writes rock lyrics--words that can only impact loud, grating, and straight-ahead. C+

The Forest [Warner Bros./Sire/Luaka Bop, 1991] Dud

Uh-Oh [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud

David Byrne [Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros., 1994]
over a gawky world-groove, basic singer-songwriter stuff--the biological mystery at the core of technological life ("Lillies of the Valley", "Buck Naked") **

Feelings [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1997] Dud

Look into the Eyeball [Virgin, 2001] Dud

Grown Backwards [Nonesuch, 2004]
The two opera selections signify one thing, and it's not that those voice lessons have finally paid off. It's that more even than Randy Newman or Tom Waits (or Sting), this likable Manhattan progressive conceives himself as a performer of artsongs. As a writer of same he has his moments. Somebody somewhere could do justice to the absurdly abject "Glad" or the smarmily rationalized "Empire" or "She Only Sleeps," the love tribute of a sex worker's boyfriend. Byrne cannot. His voice devoid of Newman-Waits grit, his eclecticism even and controlled where theirs bristles with jokes, oddity, and gusto, how does he expect to connect with anyone but other likable progressives, and rather detached and inscrutable ones at that? The guy's been championing the ordinary since More Songs About Buildings and Food. But he makes such a point of approaching it from the outside you have to wonder whether as far as he's concerned that isn't just more exoticism, which for him is the only thing that comes naturally. C+

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