This summer a San Francisco ice cream shop released an unorthodox flavor: sweet corn and blackberry. Most people like corn, and blackberry is known by ice cream aficionado to be an excellent alternative to strawberry or cherry. But would the combination work? Unfortunately, it tasted like loads of butter with sickeningly sweet syrup drizzled on top. An adventurous and worthy effort, but not a candidate to enter the ice cream pantheon of mint chip, vanilla and chocolate.
Novel musical collaborations are similar. We should celebrate established artists getting together and trying something new, even when they fall flat. Metallica + Lou Reed is the most obvious noble failure. On the other side of the coin, the music gods have given us David Bowie + almost everyone he played with in 70’s, Loretta Lynn + Jack White and Cat Power with 2/3 of The Dirty Three. Most collaborations don’t fit into either category, akin to two lumps of ice cream that don’t really add or subtract from the enjoyment of the cone.
With David Byrne and St. Vincent’s new Love This Giant you get an explosion of flavors. Two artists who have well defined and idiosyncratic voices that couldn’t be mistaken for any other musician. David Byrne is the silver fox who looks fetching in his spandex in Soho; the denizen of everything that was right with the misery of late 70’s downtown New York; the man whose music would work just as well at the Museum of Modern Art as a retro-80’s VHI New Wave show. He now trades less in post-punk than in studied eclectic internationalism of the NPR set.
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) is the angelic upstart who has manages the trick of looking like the human form of Bambi while unleashing precise lightning bolts of lead guitar and signing about blood in her mouth. She is the proto-typical music school drop out, who gleaned enough knowledge from Berklee to know that to push boundaries of music you have to have one hand in the pantheon while simultaneously uncovering new aural flavors.
The lead single “Who?”, a track full of propulsive brass, syncopated acoustic guitar and short stabbing bursts of electric guitar, for the most part sounds like a St. Vincent song. The lyrics though, are all David Byrne; a series of questions both mundane and philosophical. “Who’ll share this taxi cab? Who wants to climb aboard? Who is an honest man? Who is an honest man?” All of the answers are equally baffling and important.
The album’s final track, “Outside of Space and Time,” is a gentle ballad with harmonies from St. Vincent and David Byrne that feels like the aftermath of a galactic wedding where you didn’t know any of the guests. Similarly, “Lazarus” has a wonderful call and response melody over horns blasting short simple declarative notes. St. Vincent’s guitar is pushed back in the mix and merely parrots the horn lines. Nonetheless, it’s a superb realization of something new created from old parts. That sense of a true collaboration isn’t present on every track though
“Dinner for Two” is pure baroque pop pulled though David Byrne’s kaleidoscope worldview. St. Vincent makes little more than a cameo appearance on it. And “Ice Age” and “Forest Awakes are similar but opposite, in that they could have easily come straight from St. Vincent’s last album. The only difference is their less of her wonderful herky-jerky guitar in favor of more horns.
That minor “misstep” aside, taken as a whole, Love This Giant is a flavorful record that should inspire other established artists to hook up with younger innovators to make new sounds. Who’s next? Morrissey and Jens Lekman? Nick Cave and The National? Such collaborations could sound like sweet corn ice cream with blackberries, but you never know until you try.