Collaboration Between Musical Giants Deserves Love

Daniel Hautzinger

Originality is an invaluable trait in pop music. The sheer number of musicians in the world, aspiring and established, ensures that most of them will be pale reflections of their idols. So when someone actually brings something new to the scene or creates a style so distinct as to be instantly recognizable, he or she is showered with acclaim.

David Byrne is a classic example of the idiosyncratic musician. Throughout his illustrious career, both as the front man of the Talking Heads and in his unique solo releases, he has consistently been a trailblazer, exploring new areas of the musical universe. Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, is a similarly singular artist, although she has had less time to prove herself, having released only three albums. Two such strong musical personalities would seemingly have a hard time meshing. Yet, on the new album, Love This Giant, released Sept. 10, they somehow collaborated to create a delightfully quirky set of songs.

A few unifying elements save Clark and Byrne’s album from incoherence. First, each track is built off of brass arrangements. This is a particularly Byrne-esque touch; his 1985 album The Knee Plays was influenced by New Orleans brass bands, and he wrote for orchestras on the soundtrack to the film The Last Emperor and on his album The Forest. Clark also has some experience working with orchestral instruments from her album Actor, which used flute, clarinet and French horn, among other instruments.

The lead single and opening track “Who” is an exemplary track from Love This Giant. It is driven by a drum- and horn-led groove that stutters and all but commands dancing (the music video for the song features Byrne twitching through herky-jerky dance moves as Clark imitates him). Over this rhythmic base, Byrne sings with his trademark nasally timbre, the quiver in his voice giving the impression that he is on the verge of a neurotic breakdown. That slight tinge of madness is reinforced by the ease with which the song switches between ominous foreboding and naïve tenderness, all over that inescapable beat.

Many of the songs exhibit a similar sinister schizophrenia, as if someone were projecting an air of good humor in a not entirely successful attempt to hide his or her insanity. Threatening chords ooze from the shadows at the edge of the dinner party described in “Dinner for Two” while Byrne tries to assuage any fear, unreassuringly singing, “The guests are fine behind the sofa” over a jaunty beat. Brass that alternates between malignance and joy masterfully conveys the insidious danger and seductive joy of conformity in “I Should Watch TV.” Saxes slink behind Clark during “Lightning” as she attempts to catch a flash of light, becoming increasingly unhinged.

The lurking darkness finally breaks free in “I Am an Ape,” one of the album’s standouts. Seedy brass lines and spooky vocals conjure a nightmarish world inhabited by “a hairy beast … inside your head.”

Besides the prevailing mood and the brass arrangements, there is a third common element: These are incredibly danceable songs. The only two tracks that fail to move your feet are also the weakest: the insincere ballad “Optimist” and “Outside of Space & Time,” which begs to soundtrack the final scene of a cheesy, inspirational movie.

The only other complaint that can be levied at this album is that, with such powerful grooves and talented brass musicians, some horn solos would have been an energetic addition. “The One Who Broke Your Heart” flirts with this possibility, allowing the brass to cavort through what sounds like a dance on a Caribbean cruise ship.

But these are rather weak complaints for such an effort. Collaborations are always a chancy endeavor, especially because they encourage impossibly high expectations. Byrne and Clark seem to be aware of this fact, having ironically titled their album Love This Giant. And they sure make it easy to love.