Up All Night: Jammin' to The Talking Heads

One must approach Tribute CDs with extreme levels of caution. There is perhaps no more dangerous bridge to cross as a music buyer. Sometimes it works out OK - pleasant enough jazz and bluegrass tributes have been produced – but it always threatens to wander into the realm of pointlessness. Is there really an audience for A String Quartet Tribute To The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Dub Tribute To Limp Bizkit? What niche of music lovers is so refined and unknown that it deserves A Rockabilly Tribute To AC/DC? It’s hard to take these tributes seriously sometimes, but that’s OK. I like to think that the musicians and producers and listeners aren’t looking for a galvanizing experience, but maybe to witness the whimsical oddity of, say, Coldplay performed bluegrass-style.

“Jam” acts have become a staple of the tribute circuit, beloved by the companies and producers for their finely honed musicianship and open-minded outlook. Hence, the next installment in the recent rush of tribute albums, Up All Night: Jammin’ To The Talking Heads.

On paper, this album looks promising. A nice cross-section of noted fusion/jazz/jam outfits (Umphrey’s McGee, Garaj Mahal, Delta Nove, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Jessica Lurie of Living Daylights), diverse rockers (Moonshine Still, Global Funk, RANA, Dark Star Orchestra, Hairy Apes BMX), and semi-unknowns (Exit Clov, the new up) combine for what makes a pretty track list. But step lightly, music fan; as you should know, all that glitters is certainly not gold. In the case of a band like Talking Heads, whose recorded output is so very singular and precisely executed, it’s little surprise that some of these bands stumble over themselves trying to replicate the sound (or in some cases, shattering the original version into unrecognizable bits). Also, some of the tracks sound as if they were recorded with an unappealing immediacy or pressure, without much time for the band to fine-tune the song.

Not so for the opening track at least. Umphrey’s McGee nicely captures the shifting syncopation and wry vocals of “Making Flippy Floppy” right down to the subtlest sound and melody. The band must have benefited from having a song that they frequently perform live. San Francisco’s the new up (with Garaj Mahal keyboardist Eric Levy in tow) tackle “What A Day That Was” with fuzzy psychedelic abandon, turning the chorus into a circus of slide guitar and synthesizers. Delighted listeners even get to rejoice in a sprightly flute solo!

Georgia rockers Moonshine Still bring percussive power, appealing acoustic tones and sweet harmony vocals to “(Nothing But) Flowers”. This song’s message is a perfect fit for the sextet’s newfound lyrical relevancy. Washington, DC indiepoppers Exit Clov are faithful to “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” except for the shrill, monotonous female vocals that cut through the syrupy musical bed created by the band. Robert Walter’s 20th Congress saunter through an instrumental reading of “Swamp” that is thick with writhing bass, zonked-out keyboards, and a saxophone, confused with effects, taking the vocal melodies. The trio soon takes the song as their own, turning it inside out with a nasty funk groove.

Reformed jazzers Global Funk showcase their recent lean towards chunky groove-rock with a solid, uptempo attempt at “And She Was.” The Heads’ vocal style proves tricky for Global Funk and others along the course of this disc. It’s hard to imitate David Byrne’s sometimes conversational delivery, so some put their own slant on how the vocals should sound. Global Funk sticks to what they do best, adding a spirited improvisation on to the end of the song. Perennial cover-mongers Dark Star Orchestra are up next with a glib take on “Up All Night” and its thudding rhythm. One can’t help but pick out the slightest bit of shuffling, Dead-style groove as they attack the chorus.

Delta Nove hits right near the bullseye with their wickedly rhythmic version of “Cross-eyed And Painless,” though vocals once again prove problematic. I think the struggles depicted on this CD should be a testament to just how inimitable Talking Heads’ music is. But for the most part, “Cross-eyed” has an admirable, horn-laced Caribbean flavor here. Especially wary jam fans might want to skip RANA’s quick, distorted stab at “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” which leaves less of an impression on the listener than a flying cotton ball to the forehead.

Garaj Mahal’s taut ethno-fusion dominates the first part of the well-known “Psycho Killer,” but the song soon becomes a typically funky Garaj jam with a prescribed looseness and a few brief detours into the song’s choral melody. As a Garaj improvisation, it works and is quite enjoyable. As a tribute to the song, it’s marginally effective. For a complete diversion from the original text, check out the indefinable Hairy Apes BMX taking on “Burning Down the House.” The quirky band turns the hit into a screaming, scathing, dirge-like exercise in listener tolerance, replete with churning distortion and anguished vocals. Anyone who can withstand the song for the duration of the track deserves some sort of positive reinforcement. Perhaps the most unique conversion ends the album, as Living Daylights saxophonist Jessica Lurie constructs a tuba-and-accordion take on “Heaven.” The instrumentation and vibe are appropriate, but it’s still a task to submit your ears to the entire thing. The disc just made me want to watch the Heads’ movie Stop Making Sense on DVD.

While there’s much to dislike about this and any tribute CD, Jammin’ To The Talking Heads at least gets itself into the listener’s head on the strength of sheer weirdness. I would have liked some more tracks from artists that have established a Heads cover in their live repertoire (Perpetual Groove’s “Naive Melody,” Moxy Fruvous’ “Psycho Killer,” WSP’s “Papa Legba” and Phish’s “Cities,” come to mind), but that’s just one person’s opinion, as is this review. On this disc, the not-so-good moments are at least interesting and the good moments (Umphrey’s, Moonshine Still, Robert Walter, etc.) will keep you coming back for more fun in the future.

-- Bryan Rodgers