Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Written by guest editor, John Edge.

Sire Records ■ SRK 6093

Released in February, 1981

Produced by Brian Eno and David Byrne
Engineered by Neal Teeman, Eddie Kervin, Dave Jerden, Stacy Baird, and John Potoker
Mastered by Greg Calbi
Side One: Side Two:

  1. American is Waiting
  2. Mea Culpa
  3. Regiment
  4. Help Me Somebody
  5. The Jezebel Spirit

  1. Qu’ran
  2. Moonlight in Glory
  3. The Carrier
  4. A Secret Life
  5. Come With Us
  6. Mountain of Needles

Side One:

    1. Unidentified indignant radio host, San Francisco, April 1980.
    2. Inflamed caller and smooth politician replying, both unidentified. Radio call-in show, New York City, July 1979.
    3. Dunya Yusin, Lebanese mountain singer. (From ‘The Human Voice in the World of Islam’, Tangent Records TGS 131).
    4. Reverend Paul Morton, broadcast sermon, New Orleans, June 1980.
    5. Unidentified exorcist, New York City, September, 1980.
Side Two:
    1. Algerian Muslims chanting the Qu’ran. (Same source as 3).
    2. The Moving Star Hall Singers, Sea Islands, Georgia (from ‘The Moving Star Hall Singers’ Folkways FS 3841).
    3. Dunya Yusin (See 3).
    4. Samira Tewfik, Egyptian popular singer (from ‘Les Plus Grandes Artistes du Monde Arabe’ EMI Records.)
    5. Unidentified radio evangelist, San Francisco, April 1980.

Hey, everybody!  I made it back.  Didn’t drink too much scotch (mixed it up with a little gin, a Fitzgerald cocktail, to be exact).

Anyway, you may have noticed a bit more information up there than is the usual.  That’s because this album is a bit different from most (rock, at least) records.  All of the vocal sounds (I dare not say vocals) are sampled from various sources.  At the time of its release, this was a radical move and, in retrospect, was a pioneering one.  This makes for an interesting contrast to my Flipper review, where the lyrics were on the spot.  My Life has no real lyrics to speak of.  In fact, nearly half of the songs (Regiment, Qu’ran, The Carrier, and A Secret Life) are in Arabic1.  Some that are in English (Mea Culpa in particular) are so heavily edited and modified, that they may as well be in a foreign language.  But, this is a record where the voices are part of the music, rather than cutting through it or floating above it.  The spoken parts add to the mix of instruments (and quite a mix it was, Help Me Somebody featured 14 different instruments allotted their own tracks in the mix) and sustain or even lead the rhythm of the tracks.

A little background on this particular grouping/project might be in order (for those of you philistines who don’t know this stuff).  Talking Heads (of which David Byrne was the singer/guitarist/songwriter) had by 1980 developed a strong working relationship with Ambient musician and producer (ambient or active, I’m unaware) Brian Eno.  Under Eno’s watchful gaze Talking Heads would craft some of their strongest (by many estimates, mine included) albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light.  In collaborating on this album at this particular time in either of their careers, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts successfully melds the African beats and unusual instrumental selection of Talking Heads with Brian Eno’s trancy and textural, rather than strictly melodic, work.  The songs are not necessarily divided into strict sections of verse, chorus, middle eight and so forth.  The structures are droning and repetitive, eliciting a sense of tribal chanting and drumming, more than Western pop music.

Perhaps the most representative of this chanting quality (to my ears, and I’m the reviewer, so I get to make those calls) is the track Qu’ran2.  The track samples Muslims chanting the (you guessed it) Qu’ran set to a rollicking rhythmic backing with synths carrying a buzzing melody almost in the background.  The droning rhythms and jagged synth backing combined with the almost mechanical vocal sounds leave the listener alternately feeling lulled and having the urge to move to the persistent beats.  As Eno stated was the nature of Ambient music, the listener can tune in and groove, or leave the music as a pleasant background noise, completely ignoring it.  I imagine listeners around a fire, coming and going as they please, tending to their business, while Byrne and Eno beat out these strange sounds from electronic djembes, talking drums, and keberoes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few ‘normal’ (whatever that means) songs on the album.  The most notable being Help Me Somebody, which David Byrne actually plays live.  Interestingly, I saw him in 2009, where he made mention of the fact that literally singing the words was somewhat strange, due to the fact that they were originally sampled.  Unlike many of the other tracks, the words in this one are in English and readily understood, functioning almost like lyrics.  In addition to that, the song follows slightly more closely to a traditional pop song format, featuring lyrical and instrumental sections that could conceivably be thought of as verses, choruses, and even a middle eight (or bridge, for you uncultured folks out there).

Even still, the song presents a strange format and even stranger (and extensive) instrumentation.  A few years back, digital copies of the master tapes were released on the Web, providing an interesting view into the creative process.  One of the first things that lept out at me was the fact that all of the instrumentation was recorded more or less as a sound loop.  Therefore, all of the structure of the song was decided on in the editing process.  Instruments could be raised or lowered (or cut, for that matter) in the mix to control where a guitar began playing, the bass dropped out, or a drum beat cut through the mix.  This sort of recording method is novel to rock music (at least, I think we would still call this ‘rock’) and is more in line with electronic music or musique concrète, where form, structure, and melody are all manipulated in the editing room, rather than during a live performance, as is typical with most music (of any form, really.)

Unlike my last review, I won’t go in depth on all of the tracks of the album.  In many ways it doesn’t readily lend itself to that in the same way that other, song focused albums do.  Instead, the best way to take this album in is as a whole, rather than eleven parts.  The ambient melodies, droning rhythms, chanted and manipulated vocal sounds, and insistent, tribal beats all mesh together to create something that is much more than the sum of its parts.  In hindsight, writing about the album is also an exercise in futility.  The music itself is frequently without (discernible) words itself, so how could words convey the feeling in the music?  Rather than reading and writing about the music, it should be set in the background, played around a bonfire, embers and ashes wafting through the air, as a storyteller regales the audience (maybe they are intently listening to the music, maybe to the storyteller; perhaps they are staring into the fire in a world of their own), and the gathered group comes, goes, and shifts about as the rhythms play in droning loop, lulling everyone into a sense of calm or urging them to dance.

So, what are you waiting for?  Go listen to the damned album, already!

1. Perhaps someone who is a native Arabic speaker may find these tracks to have lyrics of sorts.  Though, the comments I’ve seen indicate that various Arabic speaking friends who’ve been asked about the album refer to it as “Devil music”.  So maybe they just sound like Judas Priest to them.
2. For better or worse, Qu’ran was deleted from later pressings of the album and substituted with the track Very Very Hungry by request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain because of the previous selection’s use of Qu’ranic chanting samples.  Don’t get too worked up though, Eno and Byrne complied willingly.  In their own words, they were trying to make good music, not piss people off.   


Davenport Cabinet – Our Machine (2013)

Evil Ink Records ■ 

Released January 15, 2013

Produced by Travis Stever and Mike Major

Mixed and Mastered by Mike Major

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Night Climb (Intro)
  2. Deterioration Road
  3. Simple Worlds
  4. Sister Servant
  5. These Bodies
  6. Our Machine
  1. Black Dirt Burden
  2. Drown It All
  3. New Savior
  4. Dancing on Remains
  5. At Sea
  6. Father

NOTE: There are two obvious points here I could gloss over, or choose to address, and I’ve decided on the latter. First: It has been quite a while. I’m working two jobs now, so in the interest of not just rushing through listening, writing, or both, I’ve been simply letting things slide, and instead working out a schedule that works for the jobs and for my own sanity. I apologize all the same–I’m obviously not even close to succeeding at my original goal of “a record a day,” which has effectively become impossible without becoming Robert Christgau in writing style. And Christgau is often too acerbic for my tastes anyway.

Second: This is also why I’ve chosen to omit the “day numbering” in the title of the entry. I should hope it was not exactly something people looked forward to (at least, as compared to actual content), so I also hope it will not be missed too severely.

I’ll admit that part of the reason I ended up delaying at first was that I’d originally hoped to work this album in to its “logical” place, though that has long since passed. I knew it was coming, but could not nail it down in all senses, and I knew quickly it could not arrive in an alphabetically correct place (indeed, we’ve already seen three records that come after it in the alphabet). It’s such a good record though, and I wanted to give it a spot here. Of course, I say that and did not, at the time, have it on vinyl–heck, it wasn’t available on vinyl–as it was only announced then to be coming.

I did finally snag it at a live show, pre-signed (I guess whatever you can do to cut down on dealing with a whole audience seeking signatures!) and was very pleased to do so. I’ve actually listened to both my digital copy (purchased on its release day) and the record numerous times since it was released a few months back, enough to be both pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised by how much I like it. Davenport Cabinet (named for the “spirit cabinet” of the Davenport Brothers magicians show a good century and some change ago) has only released one other album (Nostalgia in Stereo) and a split 7″ prior to this, both released multiple years ago.

Nostalgia is an interesting album for me–I picked it up a few years ago, listened to it a few times and let it sit on the shelf. I came back to it thinking I should give it another chance because it hadn’t made much of an impression, but realized as soon as I started listening again that I didn’t need to give it a chance and it had made an impression that had somehow slipped away. This made me pretty excited when Our Machine was announced, though I found myself feeling “not bad” was the assigned judgment of the title track, which came out with the now popular “lyric video” approach to single releases.

The album, however, was immediate, and framed even that track into such a place that it gained leaps and bounds. As I mentioned–I really wanted this record to be something I got to talk about here, as it deserves it and is likely to, comparatively at least, slip between the cracks for various reasons I’ll get into.

The feeling of Davenport Cabinet’s first album was almost perfectly described by its own title: it was nostalgic, and it was so with relation to stereos (a bit of a play on words perhaps–it’s playing in stereo or on one, it is nostalgia, it comes from nostalgia, and relates to music and nostalgia for it–not so much ambiguous as multi-faceted in meaning). It’s not much different from how you could describe the second album as well–now Travis Stever has involved his cousin Tyler Klose in not just performing but writing, turning it from a solo project to a duo, though of course others are involved in various performance aspects as well.

“Night Climb” is an interesting intro, as it strikes up the mood of the album, or its source, at least: on the heels of crickets and comfortable evening sounds, very natural hand percussion is matched to guitars and lightly phasing electronics, while wordless vocals cover territory you might call “haunting”, if it weren’t all so familiar and friendly.

I am left a bit with the notion that perhaps “Deterioration Road” might have better served as an introductory song for folks–but that may be indicative of my peculiar tastes, rather than any kind of reality. It uses an isolated guitar lead to strike a chord that takes the whole album and plops it right in front of you and gently places itself around your ears to hold your focus. Rory Hohenberger’s drums, Stever’s bass, and the clean, guitars of Klose and Stever together give it the feeling of a track that has fallen from the radio out of a past decade–and I mean that in the best way possible. It feels familiar, laid back but infused with a kind of energy despite that. I first heard Travis sing in the voice of Richard Manuel, when I heard him covering “I Shall Be Released”. He’s shakily confident, or confidently shaky–or something else that I can’t quite find the words for. Perhaps the tenor might be better described as “fragility”, as there’s no wobble or warble to it, it’s just carried at a pitch that it just seems like it oughtn’t be able to sustain–not a falsetto, just the probable high end of his range. Distorted guitars weave their way into it, but don’t overpower, instead feeling like natural, “classic” sort of guitars. The chorus makes it a more full-sounding song, that seems as though it should be a “classic rock” mainstay we’ve simply missed for some time. Maybe it’s a style from Jimmy Schultz, who contributed the distorted lead that really hammers this home, I’m not sure.

“Simple Worlds” is quite possibly my favourite track on the album, with an acoustic intro that has a snaky lead shot through it. More the feel of a few guys on a porch blazing through a song they put together quietly and privately, with beautiful harmonies on the chorus–but then guest vocalist Laura Tsaggaris appears, and it’s more like a whole group of friends performing together, practiced and expert despite their humble choices. A cappella repetition of the chorus after her verse highlights the careful construction of those harmonies and the wonderful sounds of them. The lead slips back in, Travis’s voice layered in a second time to run through a few of the song’s other lines (including the brilliantly constructed opening ones, which appear in variation throughout: “I’m at a loss for words/But I can see you’re innocent”, the rhythm of it so perfect as to tickle me each time I hear it. It’s a “simple” song, though one shouldn’t be mistaken–it has the sound of a quality and expert recording, and there are clearly tricks only a studio could manage (in particular, the vocals–unless we’ve got a second Travis Stever hiding somewhere, a fact which would certainly not cause me to weep).

Interestingly, Stever takes on the drums for “Sister Servant”, even as he continues on bass duty. It’s a more uniquely modern song, despite the firmly planted notion that this is a relic of decades past in feeling–the guitars that open are rhythmic despite their melody, short, blunted points that don’t blur into each other, even as the bass remains slinky and fluid. Stever’s drumming is deliberately jolting, almost tripping over itself in an interesting rhythm that seems to imply he was caught off guard and is racing to catch up. It’s an interesting contrast to those cool (in all senses) guitars, and particularly the chorus’s sudden introduction of slightly effect-ed guitars that hit a warm note that is beyond appealing. The final third of the song highlights the generally lower pitch Travis employs through much of the song, which is turned into a beautiful repetition and a final a cappella rendition that is left to hang for only a moment.

“These Bodies” is perhaps the closest to the songs that appeared on Nostalgia in Stereo, holding its focus on neither electrics nor acoustics, and layering a variety of sounds and effects, with turns in style more familiar and comfortable, highlighting that nostalgic association of Davenport’s music. When the chorus hits and the song gains some weight to its movements, it stays in that same kind of territory–like a band that was caught between the popularity of the elitists and the populous, and then lost to time as a result, neither overtly cerebral and esoteric nor light and vapid: carefully constructed and thoughtful, but accessible and clear. The electric lead in the song is blistering, but makes no big waves about itself, even as it begins a fretboard dance through the chorus. Klose is allowed to close the song with a quiet keyboard outro that repeats the melody in a very appealing way.

I think all it took was coming out of a song like “These Bodies” to really put “Our Machine” in the proper place–an acoustic twist into chords that follows the notable electrics of a keyboard, light whine of electronics behind it–it makes a kind of emergent sense here, a gently manifested song, not as big and bold as the prior songs, even when the chorus first comes in and Travis and Tyler’s voices begin to blend. When Travis’s drums come in, it still doesn’t make a big noise and attempt to draw attention to itself, it’s just an easy ride, those clean and lightly jangling acoustic sounds keeping it grounded, but grassy and breezy, not clumsy and stiff. Finger-picked moments (I could swear that’s a banjo) emphasize this sense of field-mounted playing to the sky, even as it speaks to another human. It makes for an excellent closer to the first side of the record, or a good, lightened sound intermission in the course of the album for a straight run, even calming to its end without any huge bursts of unnecessary crescendo.

While he retains his intermittent drum duties (for the last time on the album, though), Stever passes the bass to Tom Farkas on “Black Dirt Burden”–I seem to recall in an interview he said the song just felt like it needed someone else’s touch on it. It starts with a subdued but suggestive beat, implying an energy not yet present, and kept low to the ground by the introduction of a banjo (this time for sure!), but then a sort of beam of talkbox appears and spreads itself across the track, and it’s kicked into gear by a soaring talkbox lead and electric riffing, which all wash out like a wave’s aftermath to leave only aftershocks of their explosion in the moments following. Travis’s voice is at its most powerful and emphatic–that chorus, bolstered by the electric guitars behind it–amazing. “Raise the curtain/They all run for their lives you stand your ground/Black dirt burden…” it’s not a boast, or any other kind of over-confident, false sound–it’s an utterly appropriate burst of energy, passion and sound, and it’s effective in all the best ways. When it slowly falls back to the ground the second time, it leaves space for an electric lead that introduces quieted vocals and occasionally reappears. When they end, the talkbox returns to for more histrionics, of the kind of showing off that is less hollow display and more the kind that leaves an engaged audience cheering–and it brings us back to that bloody amazing chorus, which could not work with a voice unlike Travis’s, which feels like it’s pushing at all of its edges, defining the highest, smoothest arc of its range possible.

Coming out of that, it’s probably best Klose and Stever went with the more relaxed down-the-road ramble of “Drown It All”, as the clean and acoustic guitars, the harmonized vocals and the light but mobile drumming of Hohenberger keep things far more gentle than the heights of the prior song. As a song, it focuses heavily on the harmonies of our two vocalists, leads sliding, clear, and clean over the top, and guitars below flecking the flavour of the song out here and there for the best appeal, unintrusively experimenting with movements around the neck. We’re back to the porch and three guys jamming with expertise and care, recorded expertly and clearly, but without any fireworks or unnecessary frills.

Opening with a bass line seems to suggest differing grounds for “New Savior”, and the entrance of guitar both encourages and discourages that; it’s not an out of character moment for the band, but it’s definitely a shift in style away from “Drown It All” or even “Black Dirt Burden”, the honed edge of staccato distortion not used for aggressive or loud purposes, but effected as a kind of stuttering brake, or maybe even a faltering attempt to push forward–it would seem like the kind of thing that might exaggerate the sound or energy of the song. Instead, it’s like an inverted image of an EQ “Bar chart”, as if it is flat at the top and all the variation is on the underside, keeping it from getting too loud, while remaining varied and interesting. It becomes a swirl of vocal harmonies, though, and the guitar is let loose to experience both ends of its range for a moment of ominous questioning–“Who’s that starless¹ in my fortress?” It’s a darker edge to the song, but it’s immediately freed, oddly, by a flurry of distorted lead guitar sparks, though it can’t escape the gravity of that question or the lumbering sound that backs it, as it returns to it again to end the song.

The introductory guitars on “Dancing on Remains” are achingly beautiful, fluid and sharpened on this point. It’s not laid back like “Drown It All” or “Our Machine”, it’s more like a solo moment of introspection. Of course, Klose is accompanying Travis on keys, and the chorus brings more voices in beyond Travis’s solitary descriptions in verses. The fuzzy layer of electronics droning in the background is like another pull at the gut like the guitars, though in a different way, as if holding each part of your gut–or your heart, perhaps–in suspension so that the lyrics, the feel and the atmosphere can all reach you directly, and avoid your being in the wrong place to hear it, keeping a balanced frame to aim the final, complete intent, which includes the few solitary lines from guest vocalist Pete Stahl’s voice. The semi-a cappella moment at the end (over ringing bass line and that droning electronic) is one of the moments that is haunting, instead of seeming like a strange, comfortable aural relative.

“At Sea” manages an interesting amalgamation of the free acoustic instrumentation and the more aggressive or loud distorted guitars, even as it shambles along through a swing and rhythm that strongly imply the title’s accuracy. There’s a tugging guitar sound to the chorus, pulling in one direction, until a shouting chorus that comes out to crashing waves of emphasis and up-front emotion. It’s an odd thought, but it almost feels like Travis standing with Tyler at the prow of a ship, shaking a fist at angered waves, defiantly expressing these thoughts and feelings at a foe that has neither interest nor concern for them, but an unexpected malicious desire for harm all the same. It’s not unknowing, of course–it feels as if these things are being expressed for himself despite that absence of chance at defeat, instead being defiance that manifests an internal confidence and need to establish self. A wash of waves and drums slowly fades out of the song and carries not so lovely implications for this interpretation–but doesn’t seem sad for that, interestingly.

Functioning as a kind of outro, “Father” is an instrumental track, with Rory now supplying an acoustic guitar instead of drums (which appear to be electronically supplied). It’s an interesting marriage of acoustics and electronics, with a searing and wonderfully warm lead striking across it, slowing the rhythmic propulsion of the track’s beat and squalling electronic accompaniments. At the end, there’s a release of the harsher noises, and reverberating electric guitars, instead, let things float off easily.

It was difficult to manage this properly.

Travis Stever, as you may or may not know or have realized, is actually the guitarist for Coheed and Cambria. He released Nostalgia in Stereo around the time of their first “Neverender” tour, where they played each of their albums in succession over four nights at a handful of venues. This was five years ago, and was the last time we readily heard from his solo voice–indeed, it was video from that very tour that was the introduction I referred to. During an encore, Travis sang “I Shall Be Released” ahead of the rest of the band, and it was an eye-opening moment. Who in the world would expect a Band cover from Coheed? Somewhat cynically, I also wondered how many would recognize it–perhaps unfair, but certainly not too odd a thought, considering the chasm of difference in sound, style, and time period. But it really set the stage for the Davenport records, which do clearly echo earlier sounds than he employs even for his own parts in Coheed and Cambria.

Of course, I didn’t hide this out of shame (naturally)–I did so because it might colour expectations, and do so quite unfairly. Because Claudio Sanchez is largely responsible for at least the overarching direction of Coheed, and has received solo writing credit on at least most of the last two albums, there’s a real lack of surprise to find that Travis’s personal sound is very different from the band he is most known for. I cringe inwardly at this, largely because I think it’s somewhat criminal that Davenport is not as immediately accepted–even if this is, to be honest, mostly a result of the natural human tendency to identify bands by voices. Particularly the less musically intense people of the world tend to do this, but I think almost all of us does in some respects unless we are devoted enough to an instrument to hear it first (or, of course, listen to largely instrumental music). There is a character to those instruments the rest of us aren’t listening as intently to, of course, and you can hear Travis’s character in his Coheed parts, but because they are blended so much more there, it’s harder to discern directly–easier to go back after hearing these and nod sagely.

I can’t fault people–I have my own great affections for Claudio’s side project, too (The Prize Fighter Inferno), but I think Davenport’s lack of obvious connection (ie, vocals) makes it less immediately familiar and thus less immediately accessible to some fans. And then, in reverse, the strange attitudes toward Coheed and Cambria would discourage many who would appreciate this record from thinking it might ever be appropriate for them. I think that’s the brilliant thing about this album, though–it could (and should) stand outside that association, but it’s hard to escape it. Every interview I read, Travis is quite gracious and thankful when the questions inevitably turn at least to “How is this band different for you?”

It’s a different beast, as I’ve said, from even the first ‘Cabinet record, and this is further emphasized in whatever format you purchase it in–I bought the digital release January 15th, and then eagerly snapped up the vinyl when I last saw Coheed a few weeks ago. Both versions contain digital bonus tracks–“Sleep Paralysis”, “14 Years-Master”, “Buried or Burned”, and “First Dive” digitally; “Cheshire Cat Moon”, “Letters to Self” and “Weight of Dreams” are included on the vinyl download card–and they aren’t roughs, demos, or songs that deserved to be omitted. The album is a lean and mean 42 minutes as is, and I think it does well at that length, but losing “Sleep Paralysis”, “Buried or Burned”, the stomping “First Dive”, the driving acoustics of “Cheshire Cat Moon”, the somewhat 80s inflections of “Letters to Self” and the gentle throb of “Weight of Dreams” would be a shame.

Go and sample some of the record, maybe Our Machine’s video, or the quiet performance of Travis and Tyler alone at “Deterioration Road”, that shows off their voices and harmonies.

¹I’m notoriously terrible at hearing lyrics correctly, which often informs my greater emphasis on appeal in their rhythm, sound, and construction, which I know at least a few writers actually start from anyway (“Scrambled Eggs”, anyone?). It’s entirely possible, as a result, that I have that first phrase entirely wrong or partially wrong. I’ll blame it, at least somewhat, on Shiner’s album Starless, which I acquired only recently. But I hate anyone confidently asserting or spreading incorrect lyrics, so here’s my caveat. Still, they rhythm as well as the fact of the questioning nature of the lyric (I know I have the last part right, though it changes a bit each time–eg, “this fortress”) feels important.