In the mid-80s David Byrne took a break from exploring the frontiers of Mental-Funkadelic to pursue a passing fascination with regional American musical forms. I think he was trying to draw a connection between the simple artfulness of the American folk tradition that produces this music and the simple-minded commercial culture that consumes it. The results were varying degrees of interesting: the sweetly entertaining Talking Heads album Little Creatures, the unmemorable True Stories mockumentary he wrote and directed, the movie's soundtrack album Sounds From True Stories (vinyl & cassette only, and not bad if you can find it) and the companion Talking Heads album True Stories (not good), and this entirely separate selection of music composed for Robert Wilson's The Knee Plays.
I haven't seen the "play" itself so I can't comment on how this music fits with the performance, but this recording is generally lovely and works very well on its own. Byrne composed a set of pieces for brass band that draws very much on the New Orleans-Dixieland brass band tradition but with his distinctive modern twists. Some of the tunes are sweetly pastoral, but the better ones incorporate percussion and a minor key to impart an unusual mystery and tension to the proceedings. The rhythm and percussion loops of Remain in Light have become orchestrations here, as the rhythm players insistently mark time with a sense of being an approaching unstoppable force. If this were a Dixieland band marching down the street, I don't know if I'd want to stick around for the party. The tension makes sense, as the Knee Plays are part of Wilson's play cycle CIVIL warS and the music in these more dramatic pieces embodies the impending march toward war of the pre-Civil War era.
Some of these pieces are fully instrumental, but several feature Byrne doing spoken word over the music. This can be off-putting in places, such as in "Things To Do (I've Tried)" where the music is rather lovely but you're distracted by Byrne literally reading a numbered list of faintly amusing tasks. It works a little better in the opening track, where his voice tends to fill in the spaces between the music, as if in a call and response pattern. "In The Future" is perhaps the only piece where this technique is especially effective as Byrne reads off a list of not-all-pleasant predictions about society (similar to those found on the Stop Making Sense: Special New Edition (1984 Film) record sleeve) as the music again embodies this tense military x dixie band sound that makes it all seem inevitable.
Spoken word aside, the music stays with you and makes this a great listen. The darkness on the edge of this New Orleans sound is perhaps even more relevant today than twenty years ago, and I'm glad to have this on CD finally.
This new edition not only includes the premiere CD appearance of Knee Plays, but also several extra tracks and a DVD. Thankfully, these items aren't really reflected in the price, making these actual bonuses and not necessarily content you're paying for. As such, they're interesting but not essential.
The extra tracks are in two categories: instrumental versions of some pieces that in their main appearance feature Byrne's recitation, and "kabuki" music that represents Byrne's abandoned first attempt at a score for this production. The instrumentals solve one of the problems I point out above by removing Byrne's voice and spotlighting the music. The kabuki pieces, on the other hand, fail to impress me. These are very different from the rest of the music both in style and arrangement and perhaps are interesting to consider, but I for one am glad that Byrne chose a different musical direction based on the evidence presented here.
The DVD is unique in that it presents perhaps the only visual document of the Knee Plays in performance by the projection of hundreds of b&w photos of its premiere, while Byrne's entire score plays. There's no extra music here; it's exactly the same as the main part of the CD. The photos play in an automatic gallery manner. In a very nice touch, they dissolve from one to the next, approximating the illusion of movement as it happened on stage. What's hard to gauge is the tempo of movement as the pictures seem to change in uniform increments, so that aspect of the performance is diminished. If you're a real student of Wilson's theater pieces, this is a valuable document. If not, this might be interesting viewing once but at nearly an hour long it's a little dull to watch in one sitting. Frankly, the monotony really stands out with respect to Byrne's sometimes funky score. In the project's defense, though, I'm no fan of this sort of theater performance and others may appreciate this more. Thankfully, a menu allows you to select individual scenes/songs.
Byrne has included some modern liner notes about the process of designing The Knee Plays and producing its music. They also shed light on the nature of the piece, particularly that the "plot," the musical style, and the recitations were all intended to have nothing to do with each other. Thus we end up with a story vaguely about historical Japan set to New Orleans brass band music with an anachronistically modern narration. Draw your own conclusions.
Now to wait for a quality re-release of The Catherine Wheel...