Review: David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Love This Giant”

September 11, 2012 No comments yet

There’s a moment on Love This Giant, — the collaborative album featuring avant-garde, alt-rock Talking Heads founder David Byrne and, equally avant-garde, baroque-pop singer/songwriter St. Vincent — during “The Forest Awakes”, when the horns swell in time, and the string section alternates crescendos from baritone to alto, where I thought to myself, “Wow, this might be the greatest St. Vincent album I’ve ever heard.” And then, as if to hear my thoughts, David Byrne’s voice comes bellowing in on the following track, drawing me right out of the euphoric trance of experiencing one of the best musical performances Annie Clark has ever put on record. As selective as that recollection may sound, Love This Giant is a tale of two albums: One is exceptional, the other I probably could’ve done without.

To be clear, I came into this LP thinking Byrne would outshine his co-host, and he certainly holds his own in spots. Many have viewed his previous collaboration with Brian Eno, 2008′s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, as a setback creatively. I saw an expansion on a sound that David may not have had a total grip on, but embraced full-heartedly. That was the same impression given by the lead single, “Who”, a ballsy, brass-driven indulgence in new-wave jazz and adult contemporary. No where did it seem like that would get old in the context of, quite honestly, two of my favorite artist working today. But, as the following, St. Vincent commandeered track “Weekend in the Dust” proves, it’s Ms. Clark who clearly has the more diverse conceptual direction for this arrangement.

Lyrically, David Byrne is as sharp as ever. “Dinner for Two” and “I Am an Ape” are both great expositions into human thought process juxtaposed with minute circumstances, and built upon rather grandiose verbiage. The latter even makes a case for modernized primal behavior in a sort of, reverse-Darwinism, type of satire. Yet, none of it sits comfortably on the plateau of the instrumentation. The horn section — which sees contributions everywhere from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra to a, Sharon Jones-less, Dap Kings — seems to be performing on a plain that Byrne is constantly clamoring to reach. They especially smother Byrne “I Should Watch TV”, which has some compelling social commentary, but gets buried under the funkiest, most intricately executed groove here. The best pairing of the two musical approaches is “The One Who Broke Your Heart”, though, which combines David’s frantic delivery with a fluid, almost Soca-style swing. Unfortunately, it comes 11 out of 12 tracks into the album, leaving an exhausting level of underwhelming ideas that seem to be almost there, but not quite.

Yet, what keeps me from viewing Love This Giant as a failure is St. Vincent’s take on the, decidedly horn-dominated, affair. Apparently by her suggestion, Annie Clark not only seems to be having the most fun, but she expands the concept further than simply, “here’s my voice and mannerisms backed by a half-a-dozen trumpets and tubas”. “Ice Age” sounds quintessentially St. Vincent, with it’s familiar electric guitar backing and punching drum cadence, but Clark’s comfort within the fanfare is key. She can sound just as frantic and riled up as the orchestral backing on the refrain, but she sounds even better when she’s commanding your attention with subdued confidence in the verses. The same managerial disposition is upheld in “Optimist”, which comes off as more Beirut than anything here, simply for it’s gorgeous melodic build. Where Byrne sounds reactive, Clark slips her way between the full and half notes, and ornamentally affixes herself upon the coda.

The aforementioned “The Forest Awakes” is the amalgamation of all of these traits. Written by Byrne and sung by Clark, it’s everything this album could have been in one track, (leading the listener to reasonably believe that this probably could’ve served better as an EP, sans some dead weight) and there isn’t a finer example of what either artist excels at. Clark sings, amidst a horn line built upon jarring dynamic paranoia, “I’m marching along the street where you live. I’m calling your name; the song is a gift. The scene is a road. A road is a face. A face is a time, and a time is a place”; a perfect coupling of David’s idiosyncratic phrasing and Annie’s dryly emotive vocal delivery. It’s a masterful centerpiece that could’ve used similar examples along its guidelines.

Of course, the album isn’t split between the two, track by track. The songs that feature both Byrne and Clark simultaneously often spur interesting moments (again, “Who” being the pinnacle) within a fairly basic template. “Lazarus” captures Annie and David assuming interacting characters in a, somewhat, conversational respite. Love This Giant could’ve benefitted more from this type of close encounter cooperation, seeing that much of the rest of the album is one artist representing a separate modicum of the musical frame. As compositionally rich as the album is, much of the collaborative aspects seem forced upon examination. The organic nature at which this pairing came about doesn’t always translate into, admittedly expected, natural cohesiveness.

As reductive as all of this may sound, there’s a lot to take away from Love This Giant, but much of it is between the lines. There is, of course, a fanatic pleasure in seeing two incredibly challenging artists challenge each other, which certainly produces some “challenging” results. But, the skeletal aspects of these songs show that, while the collaboration was built on a mutual love for the craft of each artist respectively, one (Clark) is more tethered to the composition, while the other, possibly unintentionally, is more drawn toward the idea of the project. Basically, St. Vincent came away from this album discovering an aspect of her musical makeup that she may not have known was so prominent, while David Byrne essentially came away with one more thing to cross off of his list, sonically. Either way, the dissonance built from those two ideologies rubbing against each other is, at the very least, quite the voyeuristic listen.

7.3/10

Love This Giant is in stores and on iTunes now. Stream the entire album here.