David Byrne: The Knee Plays (Nonesuch)



This 1985 album finally sees the light of the digital dawn.  Right around Halloween, this slow jazz, street march and infectious New Orleans inflected production will finally be released on CD.  Byrne originally collaborated with playwright Robert Wilson on an extravagant and suitably eccentric theatrical production.  The collaboration grew out of a monumental piece Wilson intended to mount as part of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival (a two week smorgasbord that also spawned Cirque du Soleil’s launch in America, from a tiny lot in Little Tokyo).  Wilson invited Byrne to work on the small vignettes in the midst of the sprawling play Wilson called the CIVIL WarS.  The epic play was never produced, but these interstitial pieces now stand alone as a tasty CD and DVD package.  The CD features the remastered album, with 8 additional previously unreleased tracks.  The DVD is a slideshow with music comprised of 400 black and white photos of the original staging.

Byrne was inspired by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and set out twelve songs that ostensibly tell the story of a group of people who “make a boat out of a tree and travel to strange and foreign lands.”  While not everyone’s cup of tea, it is somewhere between random and eclectic.

Byrne sings not a note, but talks through about half the tracks in his infectious and geeky voice.  The lyrics are an extension of the elliptical style we have come to know and love from Byrne.  “In the Future” sets out a laundry list of Byrne’s prognostications. The most accurate already seems to have occurred: “In the future, everyone’s house will be a total entertainment center.”  The lead track is addictive, not only for its title “Tree (Today Is an Important Occasion)” and “Winter” reaches an almost epic sound.  One of the new tracks “Whisper” pulls away from the mesmerizing New Orleans sound, and evokes an Asian feeling.

Fans of Byrne’s genre-bending oeuvre will need this reissue, and adventurous newbies will find a dollop of delight.

Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.