Adrian Belew’s reputation as one of alternative music’s leading guitarists was built on albums by David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads and, most recently, as the guitarist/vocalist for the re-formed King Crimson. His signature guitar sound included a sort of animal squall that became the centerpiece for songs like Tom Tom Club’s “L’elephant,” Crimson’s “Elephant Talk” and, on his debut as a solo artist, Lone Rhino. Although Belew’s exotic guitar work and half-spoken vocals lend the music a certain artistic high-mindedness, at the heart of the artist is an affection for simple melodies, producing a kind of warped pop effect for much of the album. “The Momur,” “Adidas in Heat,” “Swingline” and “Stop It” are catchy at their core, skewing familiar rock & roll and swing motifs to suit Belew’s particular talents. In fact, Belew’s style is a unique amalgam of past influences, borrowing bits of Bowie (the digital buzzing of “African Night Flight”), Tom Tom Club’s layered percussion, and Robert Fripp’s alternately frenetic/ transcendental arrangements to flesh out his ideas. As an arranger, Belew proves to have a knack for smooth and swift movement, handling the drums himself while fretless bass player J. Clifton Mayhugh and pianist Christy Bley support the shifts from airy instrumental segues to well-grounded rock structures. Lyrically, Belew can be smartalecky (“Adidas in Heat”) or suprisingly sentimental (“The Man in the Moon”), delivering the words in a competent manner despite a somewhat limited voice. Although the record didn’t generate a genuine hit single (“Big Electric Cat” comes closest to qualifying), there are a number of songs that remain among Belew’s best, including the title track and the over-caffeinated “The Momur.” Because Lone Rhino bears a close resemblance to the “new” King Crimson’s most accessible music, it adds little to that band’s body of work other than to show that Belew may have been the most commercially minded of the four. The likely beneficiary of stockpiled songs, Lone Rhino remains the best introduction to Belew’s catalog, and should appeal to art pop fans and adventurous guitar aficianados.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE GREAT COMMISSION. In my middle doughy age, prior to the proper dotage that awaits me, I mused that Laurie Anderson plus a backing band of alternative rock stars equalled pure left-handed Heaven, an observation occasioned no doubt by Mister Heartbreak’s stylish handshake, “Sharkey’s Day.” After that handshake, however, Anderson returns to the haunts of her earlier work, mixing minimalist accompaniment with all the warmth of a low-wattage lightbulb and words like shadows, weightless and ominous. “Langue d’Amour” and “Blue Lagoon” favor the primitive, powerful style of her earlier work. “Gravity’s Angel” sounds like it was deconstructed and reconstructed with the wrong parts, which is what a lot of Bill Laswell’s music feels like to me. “Kokoku” is a collaboration with kayagum artist Sang Won Park, who had recently emigrated to New York City and insinuated himself with the avant-garde elite. The album’s second collaboration, “Excellent Birds,” is the most boring thing on here. It’s a case of Peter Gabriel appropriating Anderson’s art for his own designs, with her consent I’m sure, but birds of a feather they’re not. The album closes with Anderson doing Burroughs doing himself on “Sharkey’s Night.”
O Superman, where art thou?
“O Superman” is a miracle of music. The trouble with miracles is that they cease to be miracles the second time around. You’ve seen it happen once, so you know it can happen again. Eventually, the miraculous act becomes a matter of fact. There are some miraculous moments on Mister Heartbreak, but they seem like minor epiphanies in the shadow of Big Science. Maybe the biggest epiphanies are that Laurie Anderson can rock and roll and sing. But the album doesn’t achieve anything musically that Talking Heads didn’t already achieve on Remain In Light. Their excellencies Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel? Lol Creme and Kevin Godley bested them by a few years on Ismism’s “Ready For Ralph.” Mister Heartbreak is a very smart album made by a very smart lady who had attracted a coterie of high-profile admirers and the cachet to make the art she wanted on a big budget. It’s not a breakthrough moment, it’s not a standing in place, it’s a plain commission with a song about birds.
Kronomyth 4.0: STOP MAKING DANCE. The first sunflower we see from Van Gogh is a revelation. By the third or fourth sunflower, they start to look like sunflowers and lose their alienage. This, Laurie’s fourth sunflower, was conceived as part of a staged performance. I saw it on television and it left me nonplussed, but I’m not the artiest animal on the ark either. Talking Heads had brought music to the stage with Stop Making Sense and Byrne’s collaboration with Twyla Tharp, The Catherine Wheel. That Anderson was now using some of the same musicians as the Heads (Adrian Belew, Dolette McDonald) made the David Byrne connection clearer. Byrne is more musical than Anderson, Anderson more verbal than Byrne, but their artistic sensibilities align nicely so that fans of the one should appreciate the other. Home of the Brave (the album) is even more musical than her last album, Mister Heartbreak. It’s still nontraditional rock music, but that I’m even calling it rock music is a leap forward. However, I’m not so much interested in what she has to play as what she has to say. The opening “Smoke Rings” (shades of Sylvia Plath) and “White Lily” are pure poetry, for my money the best things about Home of the Brave. “Talk Normal” to me seems incidental, “Sharkey’s Night” (different from the version on Heartbreak) noisy and indulgent. And the single from the album, “Language is a Virus,” lacks the subtlety that I most admire in her music. However, Home of the Brave isn’t after subtlety; it’s in your face, over the top, an intellectual circus. I came here looking for sunflowers, and found only a lone white lily alienated by noisome weeds of the unconscious. Any Laurie Anderson album has its share of revelations, but this may claim the smallest share.
Kronomyth 4.0: THE JUNGLE BOOK. Having exercised his artistic demons by chasing his tail for a good forty minutes, Belew returns to his natural melyew: the digital pop jungle. Mr. Music Head even contained an actual hit, “Oh Daddy.” Throughout, I’m reminded of another pajama’d pop star, Paul McCartney, especially on the nearly perfectly postscripted patchwork of playful pop genius, “1967.” The first side of the album is from the same family tree as Lone Rhino and Inner Revolution, with plenty of animal mimicry along the way. Adrian wades a little too deeply into the woods beginning with “Peaceable Kingdom,” but the first five tracks are right in lynne with what you’d expect from the author of “Big Blue Sun.” Unlike his first two albums, which were strung-out showcases, Mr. Music Head is an ivory merchant, as likely to peddle pop songs written on the piano and peopled with Belew’s guitarzan zoo of animal noises. If The Bears taught us nothing else, it’s that Belew is more bearable on his lonesome than playing all cutesy in a quartet of like-minded popophiles. Young Lions wasn’t a roaring success either (pretty pink rose or not), but Inner Revolution got a lot right and, together with this album, began to deliver on the honeyfied pop music that The Bears appeared to be after. In fact, both Music Head and Revolution, while DIY albums, have more musically going on than most Bears tracks, suggesting that Belew was confined in a normal setting. He runs free here, right into the arms of Jeff Lynne and Paul McCartney most of the time, but sets enough boobytraps to keep listeners on their toes.
Kronomyth 5.5: ODD SAVE, THE RHINO KING. This is a strange beast: a digitally remastered compilation/sampler from Adrian Belew’s three Island records. Despite a generous selection that reprises nearly half of each of those albums, the choices (selected by Adrian himself) are sometimes baffling. Surely “Stop It,” “Another Time” and “I Wonder” belong with his best work, right? The track order is equally confusing, beginning with “The Final Rhino,” an interesting but wholly directionless instrumental. “Swingline” would have kicked things off on a brighter, bouncier note. Dividing Desire of the Rhino King into three sections (eight tracks each from the first two albums, five from the Tail sessions) doesn’t help. Honestly, the songs and instrumentals from those albums are interchangeable (excepting that the third album was more about ethnic sounds and altered pitch than animal emulators). If you own the Island albums (and I do), Desire of the Rhino King is completely unnecessary. The lone addition of “Joan Miro etc.” is just three more minutes of weirdness you can live without and the digital remastering doesn’t make that much of a difference. If you haven’t heard the Island years, better to spend your money on the twofer repackage of Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King (Beat Goes On, 2009). Again, I have to wonder what kind of relationship Adrian and Island had to allow yet another commercially challenged animal to slip into the mainstream market. For all I know, they’re working on a compilation of instrumental outtakes from his first three albums right now. I never saw his early albums as “difficult,” but Desire of the Rhino King takes pains to make them seem that way. Oh well, maybe Atlantic will do a better job of it someday with Inner Pink Daddy or whatever.