Idiosyncrasy is an invaluable trait in pop music. The sheer number of musicians in the world, aspiring and established, ensures that most of them will be pale reflections of their idols. So when someone actually brings something new to the scene or creates a style so distinct as to be instantly recognizable, they are showered with acclaim.
David Byrne is the classic example of the idiosyncratic musician. Throughout his illustrious career, both as the front man of the Talking Heads and in his unique solo releases, he has consistently been a path breaker to untrodden areas of music. Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, is a similarly singular artist, though she has had less time to prove herself, having released only three albums. Two such strong musical personalities would seemingly have a hard time meshing. Yet on the new album Love This Giant, released Sept. 10, they somehow collaborated to create a delightfully quirky set of songs.
The combination of such personal styles as Clark’s and Byrne’s could easily cause Love This Giant to be a disjointed mix of irreconcilable elements, but it is saved from incoherence by a few unifying elements. First, each track is built off of brass arrangements. This is a particularly Byrne-esque touch; his 1985 album Knee Plays was influenced by New Orleans brass bands, and he has written for orchestras on his soundtrack to the film The Last Emperor and on his album The Forest. Clark also has some experience working with orchestral instruments, from her album Actor, which used flute, clarinet, and French horn, among other instruments.
Lead single and opening track “Who” is an exemplary track from Love This Giant. It is driven by a drum- and horn-led groove that stutters and all but compels dancing (The music video for the song features Byrne twitching through herky-jerky dance moves as Clark imitates him). Over this rhythmic base, Byrne sings with his trademark nasal timbre, the quiver in his voice giving the impression that he is on the verge of a neurotic breakdown. That slight tinge of madness is reinforced by the ease with which the song switches between ominous foreboding and naïve tenderness, all over that inescapable beat.
Many of the songs exhibit a similar sinister schizophrenia, as if someone were projecting an air of good humor in a not entirely successful attempt to hide their insanity. Threatening chords ooze from the shadows at the edge of the dinner party described in “Dinner for Two” while Byrne tries to assuage any fear, unreassuringly singing “The guests are fine behind the sofa” over a jaunty beat. Brass that alternates between malignance and joy masterfully conveys the insidious danger and seductive joy of conformity in “I Should Watch TV.” Saxes slink behind Clark during “Lightning” as she attempts to catch a flash of light, becoming increasingly unhinged.
The lurking darkness finally breaks free in “I Am An Ape,” one of the album’s standouts. Seedy brass lines and spooky vocals conjure a nightmarish world inhabited by “a hairy beast… inside your head.”
Besides the prevailing mood and the brass arrangements, there is a third common element: these are incredibly danceable songs. The only two tracks that fail to move your feet are also the weakest: the insincere ballad “Optimist,” and “Outside of Space and Time,” which begs to soundtrack the final scene of an inspirational movie.
The only other complaint that can be levied at this album is that, with such powerful grooves and talented brass musicians, some horn solos would have been an energetic addition. “The One Who Broke Your Heart” flirts with this possibility, allowing the brass to cavort through what sounds like a dance on a Caribbean cruise ship.
But these are rather weak complaints for such an effort. Collaborations are always a chancy endeavor, especially because they encourage impossibly high expectations. Byrne and Clark seem to be aware of this fact, having ironically titled their album Love This Giant. And they sure make it easy to love.