12 August 2013

A Review of “Spirit of Talk Talk” (Various Artists)

Posted by at 10:39 PM
Unlike most other musical groups of the period, I can actually recall my first experience of Talk Talk. It was the video for their song, “Life’s What You Make It” from their 1986 album, The Colour of Spring. In it, footage of the band playing the song in the middle of the woods at night is interspersed with fleeting images of various forest animals all scurrying or slithering about —spiders, centipedes, foxes, frogs—a celebration of life in the shadows. The metaphor made an impression on me for some reason. The deceptively simple three-note bassline, obstinately repeating under a shifting harmonic context. I dug it.
Unbeknownst to me, they had already released a series of records before that one. In fact,  The Colour of Spring was a turning point in their artistic trajectory, the sign of things to come. The artistic growth spurt would last for half a decade. Both of the band’s subsequent albums: The Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991), would turn out to be among the most beautiful albums of the rock era (in my opinion). This was my point of entry, though. I would eventually go on to retroactively seek out their pre-Colour work, but it didn’t quite measure up to these two albums, which for me still hold up as some of the most sublime music ever recorded. Their earlier albums seemed to me to adhere much too closely to new wave pop formulae. I think that their label had been trying to ride in the wake of the then-supremely-popular Duran Duran (who they opened for in a 1982 tour). Their music was thus fairly derivative.
That gravy train wasn’t meant to last, however. Spring was a commercial success, but then came came Spirit of Eden. This album was a complete departure, bearing very little resemblance to anything they had previously done. In fact, it bore very little resemblance even to pop music itself. It was such a radical anomaly that the label had no idea what to do with it. Owing as much to modern jazz and avant garde chamber music as to rock music, it was an album which defied categorization (it still does). Naturally, their label was less than happy, even after (or, rather, because) Spirit was followed by Laughing Stock, which was even bolder in its iconoclastic conception. It was even starker than its predecessor. The record label by this point protested the group’s artistic liberation every step of the way. Lawsuits and much public rancor ensued, hastening the group’s demise. They officially disbanded in 1992.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Now here we are more than twenty years later and a tribute album has now been released. It went completely unnoticed by me until very recently. It features many artists that the band has inspired over the years.
I doubt that I am the only person that cringes a bit when he hears about a new tribute album. I generally try to avoid tribute albums. The artist being celebrated almost doesn’t matter. Almost. But, of course, just because it is a Talk Talk tribute album, though, I had to listen to this one at least once, but I have to confess that my expectations were very low. Granted, a tribute album is an enormous expression of love and respect by definition, I realize that, but a tribute album always risks becoming a mere maudlin emulation of something, a facsimile of an object of adoration. They usually seem forced and cold to me. Some ambitious executive producer farms out individual songs to contemporary groups, and inspiration winds up taking a back seat to production. There have been exceptions to this tendency, of course. The series of tribute albums by Hal Willner to Nino Rota (Amarcord - '81), to Thelonious Monk (That's the Way I Feel Now - '84), to Kurt Weill (Lost in the Stars - '85), to Disney film music (Stay Awake - '88), and to Charles Mingus (Weird Nightmare - '92) stand out for me as tribute albums that were exceptional musical productions, they are examples of the genre at its best, and I think that they succeeded as standalone works largely because they celebrated the pioneering/experimental spirit of their respective subjects more than their individual styles. In Hal Willner’s records, the notes on the staff paper are almost (but not quite …) an afterthought. In the passionate fumblings and stumblings, in the audacity of experimentation, in the plottings of all the possible vectors of exploration in real-time, once-or-twice-removed from their original form and function … in that moment lies the deeper beauty and mystery of music for a musician. That’s where the essence is, in the spirit of the process of making music out of thin air. It is a wise producer who pays more attention to the sympathetic “magic” aspects of a performance than to the technical recreation of any planned idea.
As listeners and lovers of songs, we are privy to the eventual results of the methods that musicians use, but not to all of the calculus involved, those hermetic negotiations that songs are subjected to on the way to becoming finished songs, way before tape starts rolling. As listeners we experience songs already framed into forms. We may vicariously feel some of that overflowing spirit that willed a song to exist in the first place, of course, but a song is more than the sum of the notes comprising it.
In the case of arranging Talk Talk music for a tribute, one may as well try to arrange for wind chimes. That is to say, you gotta let the music just be, in a Cageian sense. Talk Talk's music is an uncaged, serendipitous beauty. It is the simple beauty of animals in a forest, a beauty ultimately beyond method—beyond will. Could a tribute album do this band justice? I kind of expected a Talk Talk tribute to consist of over-produced, No-Doubt-y “It’s My Life”s.
Thankfully, this is not the case. This may be no Hal Willner tribute album  (which are generally more cohesive and unified works), but, in fact, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how much I actually wound up liking this record. The collection is titled “The Spirit of Talk Talk,” which is an allusion to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album title, obviously, but it is aptly named on yet another level. As in the Hal Willner productions I mentioned above, it is the spirit of the music that is being celebrated here, rather than a rock band. It’s the spirit within the songcraft that comes through on almost every performance. That's the essential point. “Spirit” thus makes a perfect working title, a pretty good metaphor to use for this anthology.
This spiritual aspect is evident from the first acapella phrase of “Wealth,” which opens the first disc (performed by Lone Wolf). It is an invitation, a direct appeal to Spirit to come and …

“Create upon my flesh …”

This version of the song evokes the talcum-suspended-in-midair approach to arrangement that late Talk Talk originally did so beautifully, without trying to emulate it overtly. It takes a certain amount of restraint to cull such beauty from such simplicity: an organ note here; a guitar counterpoint there. This minimalist approach is taken by most of the artists featured, resulting at times in very evocative and beautiful music in its own right.
Zero 7 adds a hint of a pulse and some subtle electronic treatments to Mark Hollis’ “The Colour of Spring” (the song from his solo album), both of which add an exotic flavor to the originally sparse solo-piano accompaniment.
Dum Dum Girl,” one of my favorite early-period Talk Talk songs, is still recognizable as a pop tune almost thirty years after the original, but listening to Recoil’s version made me realize one of the reasons that Talk Talk’s work probably had to metamorphose in the way that it did from new wave synth-heavy music to all-acoustic tone poems. The electronic technology available to musicians in the early eighties was very crude. MIDI was still relatively new and unexplored ground. Nuance and any sense of timbral control was therefore hard to achieve in real-time on those old electronic instruments. Consequently, there was a certain monotone homogeneity to the overall sound and style of most new wave artists. They were handicapped, so to speak, by the tools that were available at the time. I’m almost certain that this limitation is one of the primary reasons for the transformation the band experienced. Hollis’ songs began to become more introspective. They required intimacy, and instead of trying to make synthesizers sound more human, it was a lot easier (and infinitely more musical) to simply use traditional orchestral textures in new contexts. Had early-80s synths been capable of this requisite nuance, Talk Talk might have stayed rooted in them. It’s just a speculation, but the 2012 synth sounds on Recoil’s version of “Dum Dum Girl” on this album make me wonder how much warmer those early tunes might have sounded if Talk Talk (and many other new wave bands) had had modern touch-sensitive instruments and personal computers at hand.
After Duncan Sheik’s laid back version of “Life’s What You Make It,” an understated interpretation of the song which uses a hammer dulcimer in place of the original guitar riff to good effect, we come to one of the album’s most elaborate and original arrangements, Fyfe Dangerfield‘s version of “The Rainbow.” Sharing almost nothing but the melodic outline and general form with the original rendition, his performance is rich in orchestral and choral textures. Dangerfield retains the song’s urgency and feeling of desolation despite it being completely different clay in his hands.  I swear there's a ghost in that track somewhere. It is quite a lovely and unique expression. Curiously, this same song appears unexpectedly just a few songs later (on the same disc, even, which is surely intentional), this time a very loose and stark plodding performance by Zelienople. The repetition makes for an interesting synoptic contrast. Personally, I find the former to be more musically satisfying, but that's just me.  
I won’t go on describing each tune in this album. Get it. There are two CD's worth of gorgeous interpretations here. It would take thousands of words. I might as well try to describe a sunset (as one reviewer of Talk Talk's Laughing Stock once poetically put it).  Suffice it to say that it was an unexpected joy to come across this tribute all these years after Talk Talk had an enormous effect on me. Apparently, they had a similar effect on many other musicians. This is a great tribute to one of the most underrated yet most creative bands of the late twentieth century. Spirit of Talk Talk is infused with spirit from beginning to end.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ (4 of 5 stars)
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