Even at his "funkiest" -- and just try using that word with a straight face when talking about David Byrne -- the former art-schooler has as much rhythm as an anthropologist lost in the bush with a tape recorder in one hand and a notepad in the other. He knows what it takes to make the music move -- usually, it means hiring out -- and he's got ears enough to stay out of the way; if nothing else, the man's done God's work by bringing Os Mutantes and Tom Zé and the rest of their Brazilian posse to these barren shores. Only, when Byrne tries to get down all by his lonesome, he's still standing upright, stiff as a board. Surely he was being ironic in 1997 when he titled his last solo record Feelings, because it sure didn't have a single one contained within its digital grooves. Fact is, not since 1992's hit-and-miss-and-miss Uh-Oh has he made a disc with any semblance of spark or groove, and even then, that shit was on loan from Tom Zé and Angel Fernandez.
He always was better off with Brian Eno and Robert Wilson and Twyla Tharp -- his partners in semi-accessible avant-garde, art-school refugees who listen to music and turn it into a math problem. Hence, the pleasures and pain of his latest, an Internet-purchase-only "soundtrack" to a dance piece about how you can't always get what you want, or something. By turns "organic" and "electronic" -- there's the occasional acoustic guitar strummed across a drum-machine backbeat, or string sections tangled inside sampled loops -- the album is the very essence of David Byrne, meaning it hops around for a while but never sheds the intellectual's straitjacket. Nothing worse than a brain trying to shake its ass, even if the exhausting finale (all 20-plus minutes of something titled "Danceonvaselinesuperextendedremix") does close the record out on a hyper, hopeful note.
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The irony is that things only pick up when they slow down, when the groove comes out of nothing, from nowhere, until it's suddenly and inexplicably deep beneath the skin. "Sleeping Up" is a heartbeat that builds into a heart attack, all sly bass lines and ringing bells and twisted rhythms that pile on top of one another until the house of cards nearly collapses; imagine Fear of Music rendered two decades later, "I Zimbra" stripped of its chaos and remixed by a computer programmer. But it's "Said & the Ants" that's the real emotional center of a record that ultimately sounds like a toss-off. Giddy flamenco guitars paired with a pulsating organ, Gypsy strings timed to the clapping of hands -- it's nothing less than a joyous respite on a record desperately in need of a good time.