Everyone’s Getting Involved in the Talking Heads’ Legacy, But Barely Anyone Knows What the Hell to Do With It

Miley Cyrus, Paramore, Lorde and the National headline an all-star lineup on A24’s companion tribute album for Stop Making Sense’s 40th anniversary, but most of the covers aren’t exciting enough to warrant even pressing play to begin with.

Music Reviews Talking Heads
Everyone’s Getting Involved in the Talking Heads’ Legacy, But Barely Anyone Knows What the Hell to Do With It

I get why the Stop Making Sense tribute album exists. Much of the rollout for the 40th anniversary of the Talking Heads’ landmark, generational concert film has been centered around the reunion of the band itself, so it’s only fair that, to pay homage to the greatest American group of all time, A24 has assembled a 16-track all-star cast to cover the concert’s setlist. And while a few of the compilation’s guests got the memo, many of them fall short of producing anything of substance or, really, getting to the gist of the Talking Heads’ ingenuity and mark on the last 50 years of music in the first place. Part of the Talking Heads’ legacy is that their timelessness is firmly rooted in their own shape-shifting. They released eight studio albums in a span of 11 years, and none of them sound alike. David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz made it their mission to step out of their comfort zone every time they hit the studio, and it’s why records like More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light are three of the greatest records ever made and all sound perpendicular to each other—but they all sound like the Talking Heads.

To embody the spirit of the Talking Heads, you must have the gusto to take a big swing—or, at the very least, do something straightforward that is bulletproof and defensible. Byrne, Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz would want you to breathe new life into their decades-old work, like how Jean Dawson does on “Swamp” or DJ Tunez does on “Life During Wartime,” but you have to know, first and foremost, whether the song you’ve been assigned to cover demands a new wardrobe or just needs polished up. It’s likely that the Talking Heads themselves love the originality that many of these cover artists employ, but that doesn’t always mean the final product is a collection worth listening to.

Miley Cyrus kicks off the party with “Psycho Killer,” and it sounds like she’s doing a Lady Gaga impersonation rather than a Talking Heads homage. The way that the melody of this cover sounds so much like “Bad Romance,” they should have just invited Gaga to tackle this track herself. Coming off of the massive success of her smash-hit single “Flowers,” Cyrus’s rendition of “Psycho Killer” sounds like it exists in a similar orbit to her Grammy-winning tune—but the issue is that, really, “Psycho Killer” requires an off-kilter sense of showmanship, and every time Cyrus has ever tried to be weird in her art, it’s been a babbling failure (Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is one of the worst albums of the last 10 years for a reason, you know). The National make up for Cyrus’s misfires with their cover of “Heaven,” which makes sense. The original version of the song, which is a definitive piece of Fear of Music, is contemplative and beautiful—something Matt Berninger and the Dessner brothers know a thing or two about. In terms of artist and song pairings on Everybody’s Getting Involved, this is the one that makes the most sense, and Berninger’s slurring, tender lead vocal sounds exactly like the afterlife band Byrne wrote about in the first place.

Blondshell appearing on the compilation is an on-the-nose feature, given how respected by alt-rock greats like Sleater-Kinney and Liz Phair she is. Her buzzing upswing and slow-burn placement in the echelons of her own generation’s affections for the noise and distortion of yesteryear is palpable here, and she turns “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” into a thick, heady bout of riffs—a distinct counterpart to the Talking Heads’ galloping, acoustic original. This is not to say that Blondshell’s cover is particularly gravitational or anything of the sort, though; it sounds like an under-rehearsed, throwaway cover she might just put into a setlist on one of her tours, not like a compilation puzzle piece with a shape that was very thought-out. It’s fine—but if you’re going to be showing respect to the Talking Heads, shouldn’t the endgame be better than fine?

Like Blondshell, the Linda Lindas appearing on the tribute album just feels right, at least spiritually. They match the Heads’ OG energy of “Found a Job” all while injecting their own youthful, frantic pace into it. It’s more punk rock than the psych-funk wedged onto More Songs About Buildings and Food, but the song manages to remain faithful while also being a refreshing change of pace. The Linda Lindas sound like themselves, with explosive guitars and an actual groove; you’ll miss that by the end of this thing, I promise. Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado’s cover of “Slippery People” is pretty run-of-the-mill post-punk that fails to really capture the vibrant character of the original, though the global representation of bands (especially African artists) on this record deserves to be highlighted (and it’s a nod to the Talking Heads’ global sonic interests that feels well-earned and nuanced). Él Mató’s vocals aren’t particularly interesting, and tacking on an extra two minutes to the song’s runtime was an unnecessary choice.

Saving Side B from being totally forgettable, though, is Paramore’s animated, faithful take on “Burning Down the House.” Hayley Williams and her band waste no time trying to fit the Speaking in Tongues hit into a Paramore-shaped box, and that is what makes the cover work so well. And yet, Williams does let her bandleader sensibilities ooze into the soundscape here, and the rock ‘n’ roll charisma she’s flaunted for two decades rages on here and brightens the entire compilation up until this point. As an added bonus, Paramore loves this cover so much that they’ve been playing it every night at their current gig: opening for Taylor Swift in Europe.

Where many artists on this compilation sound like covering their songs was a chore or an in-and-out cash-grab, Paramore dress “Burning Down the House” up just as the Talking Heads did 40 years ago—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Williams sounds like a true David Byrne progeny here. But Nigerian producer DJ Tunez arrives immediately after Paramore with his unique and unrivaled approach to “Life During Wartime.” Understanding the assignment given to him, Tunez really latches onto the alienation that Bryne and co. were singing about—all while turning the arrangement into something danceable but in a much more contemporary way than the Heads did in 1979. The horns are great, and this is a reinvention where you can tell that the artist holds great reverence for the band’s work they’re reinventing.

But the second-half of Everyone’s Getting Involved is mostly forgettable. Out of the nine songs, only two of them are certifiably great: BADBADNOTGOOD and Norah Jones’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and Chicano Batman and Money Mark’s “Crosseyed and Painless.” The three-song sequence of Teezo Touchdown’s “Making Flippy Floppy,” Jean Dawson’s “Swamp” and The Cavemen.’s “What a Day That Was” are average at best and not worth the price of admission at worst. Teezo has the best track out of the bunch, mainly because his energy mirrors the Heads’ on the original. While his singing is good and the arrangement kicks up into a level of octane that would probably be really enjoyable in the same live setting Stop Making Sense exists in, Teezo missed an opportunity to really change the entire algorithm of one of the Speaking in Tongues highlights.

Dawson, however, makes “Swamp” sound lifeless. I think this is one of those instances where, if you haven’t already bought into Dawson’s solo music, his cover here is going to be a hard sell for casuals—and that’s not necessarily a good thing on a tribute album. This rendition of “Swamp” is very much akin to his own style, and the acoustic arrangement sucks the funky, riffing life out of the Talking Heads’ original. Dawson’s inability to nurture the off-the-beaten-path “hi hi hi hi hi” chorus by, instead, trying to turn it into something orchestral doesn’t land, either. Like “Burning Down the House,” “Swamp” might just be the kind of track that demands a faithful rendition. The Cavemen.’s “What a Day That Was” is shorter than the Heads’ concert version, and maybe it could have been even shorter. It’s mostly filler serving as a bridge between a bad cover (“Swamp”) and a great cover (“This Must Be the Place”).

And, indeed, BADBADNOTGOOD brings the note-for-note heat to the “Naive Melody.” I’m glad the Canadian trio didn’t bother trying to rewrite the song’s instrumental DNA, instead letting Norah Jones sing lead and absolutely charm her way through the whole thing. “This Must Be the Place” is one of those songs that, on its own, exists in the pantheon of all-time best rock music ever composed (and the Stop Making Sense version is, miraculously, even better!), and in the wrong hands a cover of it can be mundane and unwarranted. I’m not saying I will be returning to this version—I’ll likely never listen to it again, to be honest—but for the assignment and for this compilation, it hits the spot just by not doing too much.

Kevin Abstract ought to deliver a handwritten apology to both the Talking Heads and BADBADNOTGOOD for his cover of “Once in a Lifetime,” which disrupts any of the momentum Norah Jones got cooking and is a laughable, regrettable feat of stupidity. But this is not all on Abstract. Whoever commissioned him to cover this song needs to be held accountable. What exactly was it about Abstract’s recent solo album, Blanket, that screamed “Yes, let’s give him one of the most consequential and revered parts of the Talking Heads’ catalog and let him do his thing”? I tried to keep a running tally of how often I paused the song to laugh throughout, but I lost count. Maybe there is a world where “Once in a Lifetime” makes sense as an experimental hip-hop track (if the right artist is behind it) but for now, Abstract needs to stand in front of a mirror tonight and ask himself, “My God, what have I done?”

And Toro y Moi and Brijean’s cover of the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” isn’t able to pick up Abstract’s slack, either. Granted, trying to capture the original chicness of Tina Weymouth’s magnum opus isn’t a responsibility I’d pin on anyone. Also, this cover is way too short! If there were ever an opportunity for an artist to stretch the runtime of their song, this would be the one. But Toro y Moi puts too much of a focus on evoking “vibes” than nurturing any substance—the synthesizers sound nice, but the rap interlude and rough re-hash of the “James Brown!” adlibs that Chris Frantz perfectly ripped during the Stop Making Sense performance make the track lose steam quickly.

The antepenultimate and penultimate songs—girl in red’s “Girlfriend is Better” and Lorde’s “Take Me to the River”—are easily the worst combination on the entire record, as girl in red fails to throw herself into the liveliness of Byrne’s mutant, invigorated vocals. Some might see her chilled out rewrite of the song being a reinvention, but it just comes across as half-hearted. And what are we to do about Lorde, perhaps the artist on this tracklist with the most documented instances of Talking Heads crossover? Why her cover of “Take Me to the River” fails is because she is trying to riff on the Talking Heads and not Al Green. Jerry Harrison recently told me that he hadn’t listened to Green’s original until years after the band made More Songs About Buildings and Food—which might just explain why their style is at the forefront of such a great R&B tune in the first place, and why their cover took off and the ones by Foghat, Levon Helm and Bryan Ferry around the same time did not.

But thank goodness for Chicano Batman, who are still coasting off the good vibes of their recent album Notebook Fantasy and show exactly why, if you come into it from the right angle, “Crosseyed and Painless” can be done well by anyone. The arrangement begins nearly identical to that of the Talking Heads’ original, albeit with a slightly more psychedelic hook, only to avalanche into a swamp of flipping, flopping, squishy beats and tones. The Los Angeles three-piece, along with Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark, put a noteworthy and spacey exclamation on an otherwise slog of a record. It helps that vocalist Bardo Martinez has the wildness to arrive like a worthy successor to David Byrne.

Once Everyone’s Getting Involved closes, you have to wonder: Did A24 put any thought into this tribute album at all? Or did they just scrounge up as much money as they could, throw it at the biggest artist names they could find, and just hope for the best? I think the problem lies in the assignment itself: To cover the Talking Heads in an amusing way is a fool’s errand. No song on this record is interesting enough to warrant being more listenable than the Heads’ originals, and no song on this record is compelling or experimental enough to, at the very least, make a listener dole out any props whatsoever.

But covering the Talking Heads doesn’t always have to be a challenge. Phish covered all of Remain in Light at a show in 1996 and it remains one of their all-time greatest sets; the String Cheese Incident’s rendition of “This Must Be the Place” has no business being as good as it is; Big Something have been doing Heads covers in their sets for a while now. It can be done, but it will likely never exist under the guidance of a popular film studio’s deep pockets.

Everyone’s Getting Involved does nothing to further the Talking Heads’ legacy—but it doesn’t tarnish it either, as the band’s fame and influence are too tall to knock over by now. Rather, the tribute album just exists. It’s wallpaper. It’s background music that never gets exciting enough to make you pull out your phone and Shazam it. You won’t think twice about this album, and you very well might just forget about it altogether once you start listening to something else. The Talking Heads deserve better than this, but it’s not like any combination of artist/song pairings would have worked anyways. A24 bringing in 16 musicians to deliver lights-out, jaw-dropping covers of lights-out, jaw-dropping originals was never going to work. Brilliance need not be replicated, even if imitation is the highest form of flattery. Everyone’s getting involved, sure, but most of these artists didn’t earn their invitations in the first place.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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