David Byrne: Music for The Knee Plays


David Byrne
Music from The Knee Plays

Garnett Brown trombone
Ray Brown trumpet
David Byrne vocals
Pete Christlieb saxophone
Rich Cooper trumpet
Ernie Fields baritone saxophone
Chuck Findley trumpet
Bill Green baritone saxophone
Bobbye Hall percussion
Dana Hughes trombone
Paul Humphrey drums
Jackie Keslo saxophone
Harry Kim trumpet
Don Myrick saxophone
Nolan Smith trumpet
David Stout trombone
Phil Teil trombone
Ernie Watts saxophone
Fred Wesley trombone
David Blumberg conductor
One On One Studio, North Hollywood, April 4, 1984
Engineer: Mark Wolfson
Studio Sound Recorders, North Hollywood, April 5 & 6, 1984
Engineer: Joel Moss
Mixed at RPM Studio, December 8-17, 1984
Originally Mastered at Sterling Sound, NY
Produced by David Byrne

A tree is best measured when it is down.

This 1985 release, a rare one for ECM, comes from the fertile mind of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Originally intended as incidental music for Robert Wilson’s grand opera The CIVIL warS, to be played while actors and crew prepared set between acts, these brass-heavy arrangements of traditional tunes, folded into a rich batter of original compositions and spoken word, take their inspiration from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans and have since come to constitute a standalone work in their own right.

“Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion)” sets the tone for a journey of horns and voice that is as even-tempered as it is dramatically sincere. This postmodern dirge for the otherwise voiceless intersections of body and materials that govern our lives is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written. Colors and fashion, each linked to specific emotions and personality traits, roll through the mind like an art gallery disassembled and thrown. As possibilities of self-expression are donned and discarded like replaceable skins, we are left to determine our own subjectivity in the onslaught of objective pretense we call our daily lives. The mélange effect of worlds colliding is dazzling in the moment yet darkly tinged in the remembering.

“The Sound Of Business” is a detailed assessment of our work-obsessed culture. Its uncanny chain of images contrasts the bustle of everyday life with the slow-motion fantasies struggling for air beneath its surface. “Social Studies” pulls away another mask to reveal the colonial scaffolding of well-to-do urbanites. Through deconstruction of knowledge-seeking privilege and the impulse to study that which does not belong to us, it puts our desire to live vicariously under a sonic microscope.

Byrne’s voice is a powerfully understated element. With consistent, even-tempered brilliance, he speaks matter-of-factly about large ideas (and hugely about the mundane), such that the very notion of importance stands on its head until it passes out. Even in his absence, the effect remains. Among the instrumentals he helped arrange, “Theadora Is Dozing” is a particularly enchanting tessellation of brass and percussion, while his own “Admiral Perry” is another standout for its evocative cast, as is the haunting “Winter.”

“In The Future” is quintessential Byrne, and imagines a time when sameness is the norm and norms are all the same. Like an intimate shadow of his timeless “Once in a Lifetime,” this crushing indictment of individualism shows us the horrors of an age when everybody becomes like everybody else. And so, ending in the comforts of the opener’s reprise, we realize that wheels are all there are, and that we, the ephemeral rats running nowhere within them, might one day destroy each other until there’s nothing left.

3 thoughts on “David Byrne: Music for The Knee Plays

    1. Totally! Having grown up with Talking Heads as a child of the 80s and not knowing much of Byrne’s other work before listening to this album, I was amazed by the versatility of his voice.

      1. It must have been quite the discovery for you. I got to listen to the entire Talking Heads and David Byrne discography and other projects in the same period – it was still mesmerizing. Being inside the musical magical head of Byrne feels amazing.

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