The Knee Plays [Bonus DVD]by David Byrne
When The Knee Plays was originally released by ECM in 1985 -- on LP -- it offered such a wildly different view of the Talking Heads' frenetic, nervous frontman and guitarist it took listeners aback by how consciously "underwhelming" it was. The back-story is unusual in and of itself: David Byrne and Robert Wilson had begun a/a>/i>… See more details below
When The Knee Plays was originally released by ECM in 1985 -- on LP -- it offered such a wildly different view of the Talking Heads' frenetic, nervous frontman and guitarist it took listeners aback by how consciously "underwhelming" it was. The back-story is unusual in and of itself: David Byrne and Robert Wilson had begun a friendship that became a working relationship. Wilson had a commission to create a work to be performed at the 1984 Olympic games called the CIVIL WarS (sic). He invited Byrne to compose the "knee plays," or, the pieces that existed in the gaps between this enormous set of plays, which were to be performed over multiple days during the games. Byrne, who had visited New Orleans and taken in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, had been deeply influenced by their approach to harmony and rhythm. Byrne tried to get the Dirty Dozen to perform the material he had written for Wilson's work -- which never happened the way it was supposed to due to some kind of politicking, but he claims in the liner notes that, "musically it was not happening...they weren't comfortable being strapped into scores, [it] was not a comfortable creative place for them." OK, so Byrne eventually hires a crack band in Los Angeles with players like Chuck Findley, Pete Christlieb, Rich Cooper, Ray Brown (the trumpeter, not the bassist), Garnett Brown, Paul Humphrey, Fred Wesley, David Stout, Ernie Watts, and others. They record the thing and it comes out on ECM in a somewhat truncated form (Byrne takes a sideways swipe at them in his liner notes that isn't all that obvious, but since he admires codes in popular culture so much, he often speaks in them too; this is one of those times). There are 12 pieces and it sounds somewhat stilted. It was simply so far outside the work Byrne had been doing, what with its spoken narratives that were as inspiring as milk. The music, however, is beautiful, killer, in fact, despite the fact that it's very warm, extremely melodic, and not terribly funky -- despite the players. If anything, Byrne is the hindrance to the project despite being its creator. Knee Plays is wonderful, it has the overtones and suggestions of a New Orleans brass band without any of its feeling or energy. This is studied, rather disciplined music; it feels like what it is: a score. The band probably felt confined, reined in here, too; but it's still a very compelling listen that reflects the identity of its creator more than anything else -- which is fine. That said, Byrne's voice, as it speaks in clipped, controlled tones, is still bland enough that it can be audibly edited out by shifting perspectives to make his voice and words just another instrument in the set, since his narratives are trite and nonsensical for the most part. When heard in this way, the work takes on an entirely different feel, one that moves the listener along some railroad track to unknown places -- much in keeping with the original concept of Wilson's work. This new edition is done in grand Nonesuch style. Not only is the original recording beautifully remastered for its debut on compact disc, it also contains eight bonus tracks bringing the total to 20 and the total length of the CD to nearly 80 minutes. In addition, there is a DVD enclosed in the package featuring the musical work once more, but this time accompanied by 400 black-and-white photos from the original staging for the work. Byrne's liner notes are long and detailed and fill in a great part of the story of the work's creation; but they're purposely sketchy when it comes to the scandal of the work not making its grand debut as an entire work in Los Angeles. It was canceled. The flip of the fold-out booklet contains 16 panels of sketches and story boards for the Knee Plays. It's quite lovely, presented in black-and-white on brown paper. The Knee Plays is a piece of musical ephemera. For some, Byrne remains an important figure, but not for his own musical work, which has been spotty since the Talking Heads, his My Life in the Bush of Ghosts project with Brian Eno, and his collaboration with Twyla Tharp on the Catherine Wheel. The Knee Plays is interesting, pleasant, and even engaging at times (the stiffness of the charts are what make it so, and it does feel as if this were done on purpose) particularly in "Theadora Is Dozing" "Admiral Perry," and in one of the bonus cuts, "Tic Toc 2 (In the Future)," but as a whole it floats by rather than grabs anywhere. It's another piece of the cultural detritus that stops by to say hello and goes on its way as you go on yours.
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