These days tribute albums deserve to be treated with more than a little well-earned skepticism. However, when asked to review Up All Night : Jammin’ To the Talking Heads, the fact that it was being released on CMH Records, the indie home to the occasionally great Pickin’ On series of bluegrass tributes, I was at least hopeful. I’m happy to report that this music critic’s eyes were raised in pleasure not just once but several times in the course of exploring this set of Talking Heads revisions by some of our country’s best jam bands.
The definition of jam band is a difficult one, but the uniting thread seems to be an interest in blurring boundaries between traditionally accepted genres and a commitment to improvisation in concert. The sounds represented on this collection range blend in disparate elements of funk, jazz, country, bluegrass and soul to name just a few. For the performers chosen here, impeccable musicianship is a notable common trait. Whether the instrumentation is guitar, tuba, or Hammond organ, the standards are faultless.
As long as the original songs are not being butchered, I don’t get too worked up over the concept of a tribute album, but an all too-common peeve I have is a new version of the song that merely rides in the old treadmarks of the original…maybe using a slightly altered vocal color here or a slight change in instrumentation there. As I listened to Umphrey McGee’s by-the-numbers take on “Making Flippy Floppy” and Moonshine Still’s zip through “Nothing But Flowers,” I settled in for a version of Talking Heads music that merely added the crispness of up-to-date recording technology and some instrumental virtuosity to the brilliant originals. Fortunately I didn’t need to wait long for that perception to change.
Washington D.C.’s Exit Clov turn in a version of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” Talking Heads’ love song for the ages, that is not only beautiful but also clever. One of the attributes that makes Exit Clov unique is the tightly harmonized lead vocals of identical twins Emily and Susan Hsu. Brought forward on “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” the Hsu sisters are a dead ringer for the sisters Weymouth (siblings of Talking Heads bassist Tina) on early recordings by the Talking Heads side project Tom Tom Club…clever, yes, and disarmingly gorgeous as well. The very next song raises the stakes again. Jazz master Robert Walter’s band 20th Congress tear into an instrumental version of “Swamp” that proudly echoes the instrumental genius of the Memphis soul of Booker T. and the MG’s. Robert Walter’s extended Hammond B3 soloing adds a thrilling sense of timelessness. By now listening intently, I felt my face erupt in a broad smile listening to California-based Global Funk’s “And She Was.” Think of the coolest possible theme song for an ultra-hip TV sitcom and you have an idea of what Global Funk do with “And She Was.” Hilarious moments in the onscreen life of the lead role shoot by while the song slides by in highly memorable jazz-funk colors. It is a brilliant tribute to Talking Heads as the band were always at their best when balancing on the razor’s edge between kitsch and art.
The remainder of the album doesn’t quite reach the peaks of these 3 cuts, but there are still pleasures to be found. Garaj Mahal turn in a pleasantly diverting instrumental version of “Psycho Killer,” and the accordion, tuba, guitar, sax instrumentation behind vocalist Jessica Lurie on “Heaven” is engaging. My best advice is to steer clear of Hairy Apes BMX (the latest project by alt-rock veteran Mike Dillon) and their exploration of “Burning Down the House” unless creepy grunge-funk is really what floats your boat. As if you needed any more evidence, this collection abundantly demonstrates the enduring power behind the songs first recorded by Talking Heads and their flexibility in being adapted by other bands. This set takes a whirlwind tour of Talking Heads output from “Psycho Killer” off the debut album through “Nothing But Flowers” from Naked. I found myself wondering what these bands could do with “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” or even “I Zimbra,” but perhaps a sequel would be in order. For the most part, the recordings here maintain the integrity of the originals while frequently adding thoughtful new color to the words and music.