By Peter Margasak
On the back cover of his new album, Feelings, David Byrne is portrayed as a computer-generated action figure sporting some dope club-kid duds. Inside the package is a spinner you can use to program the mood of this "whining yuppie," as Legs McNeil pegged him last year, by changing his facial expression. It seems an odd flash of self-awareness for Byrne, who since leaving the Talking Heads has taken on musical styles like Kate Moss changes clothes. He did the obligatory electronic-collage work with Brian Eno, dumped heavy Fela grooves all over the middle-period Talking Heads records, even put in a stint as a Santeria gringo. Now, with rock dead yet again, Byrne's backed off from the quasi-alternative bent of his last few records to resume his search for the cutting edge. This time around, we get traces of his beloved Latin music, a little bit of mod exotica here, and a lot of trip-hop there. To get it right he hired the popular British trio Morcheeba to back him on half the album.
It's admirable that Byrne continues to develop new musical interests--in fact, his Luaka Bop label has made available some truly terrific music from around the world. But his game of stylistic hopscotch has grown awfully tedious. Rather than spending years with a music and really figuring out what makes it tick, Byrne either buys the musicians who make it or steals just enough from them to apply exotic cosmetic flourishes to his own desiccated songcraft. Then he moves on.
But musical oat-sowing doesn't have to be such an ugly American business. Guitarist and vocalist Arto Lindsay, who made his dent in the New York scene a few years after Byrne with the skronk trio DNA, shares Byrne's interest in Brazilian pop. But Lindsay's no effete dabbler. He was born in the U.S. but grew up in Brazil, where he had time to fully absorb the country's sensuous grooves. He moved to New York in the mid-70s to go to art school, and by 1978 DNA (with untrained percussionist Ikue Mori and bassist Tim Wright) had become a prime mover in New York's short-lived no-wave scene, along with Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the Contortions. What stood out about DNA, however, was its brutal sensuality. Lindsay's terse, throaty grunts, chopped-up diction, and strangled bursts of atonal guitar were pure expressions of lust and primal bodily congress. (Meanwhile Byrne was slapping himself on the forehead and letting the days go by.)
Lindsay's art-school pretensions got the better of him when he founded the Lounge Lizards with faux jazzer John Lurie, but his involvement was brief and he never recorded with them. It was in the Ambitious Lovers, with keyboardist Peter Scherer, that his deep-seated love of Brazilian music first surfaced in an identifiable way. The group's earliest work countered lilting Brazilian rhythms with vestiges of DNA's explosive noise, but by 1991, on its swan song, Lust, the group was peddling a rather accessible breed of Anglo-Brazilian pop.
Lindsay spent most of the rest of the decade as a producer of Japanese and Brazilian pop records, working with, among others, Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte--he even produced a recent track the latter recorded with David Byrne. Following a brief but convincing return to the grating, truncated song forms of DNA on a 1995 trio recording with Dougie Bowne and Melvin Gibbs (Aggregates 1-26), he made his first Brazilian-inflected pop record since the demise of the Ambitious Lovers, last year's beautiful O Corpo Sutil. With an international supporting cast that included Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nana Vasconcelos, Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, Bill Frisell, Blonde Redhead's Amedeo Pace, and Marc Ribot, the album delivered a gorgeously austere take on samba. Even Linday's singing was downright limpid.
While Byrne inhabits the Brazilian style like a hermit crab carrying another creature's shell, on O Corpo and the new Mundo Civilizado Lindsay soaks in it like he's taking a bubble bath. This comfort allows him to be a little playful, throwing into the mix a couple of sublimely laconic covers: Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" and Prince's "Erotic City," both of which just reinforce Lindsay's sensualist aesthetic.
Many of the songs combine Brazilian percussion, recorded in Bahia, with the sounds of New York "illbient" poster boy DJ Spooky. (A whole slew of illbient sluggers--Spooky, Sub Dub, We, and DJ Soul Slinger among them--disfigures a number of the album's tunes on its worthwhile all-remix companion, Hyper Civilizado, on Gramavision/Rykodisc.) But instead of blandly exploiting contemporary club grooves, as Byrne does on Feelings, Lindsay works them in organically, finding something in them that complements, rather than simply ornaments, the traditional rhythms. On "Complicity," which Lindsay wrote with guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, the forlorn melody and nearly naked guitar and keyboard arpeggios are undergirded by a sultry, rolling drum 'n' bass program meant not to propel but to add a sexy bottom to the languid tune. The title track, written with Marisa Monte, goes for a similar effect, a down-tempo hip-hop groove and Melvin Gibbs's minimalist bass line grounding the airy guitar plucking without weighing down Lindsay's delicate croon.
On "Mar de Gavea," a more traditional samba written by Lucas Santana, Spooky contributes seemingly incongruous dark textures, but his touch is light enough that they dance with the sunny but restrained melody. Likewise, on "Imbassai" Amedeo Pace's minimal guitar strumming sets up a droning tension with the Satie-esque piano figures of Andres Levin; Lindsay's knotty vocals on "Q Samba" wreak a nice havoc on the breezy rhythm.
Lyrically, Lindsay's as unorthodox as he is musically. Lines like "Not every thing that gives me pleasure / Goes out through the same door it came in" and images like "Butterflies, molasses" are unfettered by easy interpretations, but they're as densely sensual as the music--and the end result is a tactile sound trip that's much more about feeling than Feelings ever could be.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.