Soul on Ice

Soulful: A new box set misses the essence of the Talking Heads.Photo: Warner Strategic Marketing

Talking Heads
Once in a Lifetime (Warner Bros).

No band in rock history has ever been so associated with artiness as the Talking Heads. It’s an association that’s understandable given their design-school pedigree, the opaque postmodernism of Stop Making Sense, and David Byrne’s championing of folk artists like Howard Finster, but it doesn’t strike at the heart of what makes the Talking Heads matter. They matter because they are great black musicians. They are, of course, white, almost geekily so, which makes their love of black music—and their supreme mastery of it—all the more remarkable.

The producers of Once in a Lifetime, a new Talking Heads box set, should have advanced this argument. Instead, they chose a safe embrace of artiness. Once in a Lifetime is smothered in art. The CDs and essay booklet are covered with Impressionist-style artwork and packaged in such an absurdly long box that it poked out of my bag like a fishing pole. And the liner notes are handed over to highbrow types like Rick Moody who bungle the job with feverish prose about downtown pretensions. In a short essay, Byrne himself pins down what eludes the windy writers: The Talking Heads were soul and disco missionaries who wanted the world to know that “it was actually just as radical, at least structurally and musically, as the more critically hyped avant rock stuff that we loved.”

You can hear the band’s love for the groove in the rock-voodoo of “I Zimbra” (which is still played at discos like Shelter), the bighearted cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” or the sample-perfect synth pulses of “Girlfriend Is Better.” Stop Making Sense (sadly not represented on Once in a Lifetime) was the fullest expression of the Talking Heads’ passion for black music. The band recruited African-American players that only the most ardent admirers would recognize, Bernie Worrell, the keyboard genius of Parliament-Funkadelic, and Ednah Holt, the singer behind the monumental disco of West End Records, among them. The result was one of the best, most profound bands in rock history, up there with the J.B.’s of the early seventies or the P-Funk of 1976’s “Mothership Connection” tour.

Once in a Lifetime shies away from the Talking Heads’ life force. It presents them as winking ironists, not the true black-music believers that they were.

Tasty (Star Trak/Arista)

Sex—whether it’s Britney Spears’s regressive good-girl/bad-girl routine or Christina Aguilera’s laughable attempts at making sluttiness “empowering”—has never been less interesting in pop. Or, for that matter, less sexy. It’s a state of affairs that makes the playful sexiness of R&B singer Kelis seem radical.

Kelis’s sophomore disc has the endearingly tacky sexiness of seventies adult films or early eighties Prince, down to the album’s title (Tasty) and a dewily lensed pullout poster of the singer. But excluding an off-puttingly pornographic duet with fiancé Nas, Kelis smartly avoids being explicit (she knows that everyone from Lil’ Kim to Trina has made filthy forgettable). Instead, she masks her come-ons with hilariously indecipherable metaphors. “My milkshake brings all the boys in the yard,” she taunts, singsonglike, on Tasty’s astounding first single, “Milkshake.”

While Tasty features predictable envy-inspiring flaunts of sex and cash, the album is good-hearted, too. “Millionaire,” a duet with OutKast’s André 3000, has the pair trading clever lines about nonmaterialistic romance—“Saks Fifth Ave. don’t sell satisfaction!”—set to drum-machine beats and twinkling synth effects so stark they could be minimal techno.

Indeed, the true stars of Tasty are producers Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams (a.k.a. the Neptunes). They have been less than inspiring on most of their recent projects, running through the same patina of seventies falsetto soul on their own “Frontin’,” Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss,” and Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful.” But here, Williams (mostly) backs off the microphone and, better, reinvigorates the Neptunes’ sound by fashioning a kind of electropop that will likely be the envy of electroclash producers everywhere.

Alicia Keys
The Diary of Alicia Keys (J Records)

Classicists are as legion in pop as gangsta rappers and American Idol–style singers: There are New Wave classicists, New York rock classicists, even classicists dedicated to dance-music subgenres like acid house. Alicia Keys is a seventies-soul classicist, with a particular passion for Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Donny Hathaway. That she draws from such a shallow well of influences (and does so little new with them) hardly mattered on her debut, Songs in A Minor, because the songs were so strong. Keys even made unexpected moves with covers like Prince’s underappreciated “How Come You Don’t Call Me.”

“You Don’t Know My Name,” the first single from her new album, pulls off the tricky balance of her debut. Its gauzy, string-laden sound is straight out of soul’s sensitive era of the Chi-Lites and the Delfonics, and with her nearly androgynous whine, Keys is a persuasive pleader. The rest of Diary, however, is as rote as an album of standards by Clay Aiken might be. Blaxploitation soundtracks form its backbone, from the Shaft-y wah-wah funk of “Heartburn” to the bluesy guitar chords of “Dragon Days,” which mimics Mayfield’s work on Superfly.

The note that truly dooms Diary is thematic, not musical. The disc collapses under the weight of one song about heartbreak after another, reaching its absurd climax with “Samsonite Man,” about, yes, a man who is “packin’ his bags gotta go gotta go.” A gale force like Mary J. Blige—who nearly made a song about PMS successful—could have given this sort of cartoonish blues some gravity. But Keys is just left holding the bags.

Soul on Ice