By Heather Preston
Blue in the Face, the soundtrack to a film of the same name, is a compilation of various artists produced by David Byrne and Yale Evelev. The film is centered around a cigar shop in Brooklyn. It is a series of improvised comic vignettes based on scenarios set up by directors Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (who were working on the film Smoke at the same time). In the liner notes Auster says of Brooklyn, "It has to be one of the most democratic and tolerant places on the planet. Everyone lives here, every race and religion and economic class...the city works...in spite of all the potential for hatred and violence, most people make an effort to get along with each other most of the time." This sentiment sets the tone for the music inside.
David Byrne created the Luaka Bop label several years ago to showcase a variety of world music forms. Here, he and Evelev treat us to a smorgasbord of styles and artists including hip hoppers Soul Coughing, the late Tejano singing sensation Selena in a duet with Byrne, the late Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla, Luaka Bop recording artists Geggy Tah, and the John Lurie (sax man for the Lounge Lizards) National Orchestra, among others. Peppered between the songs are humorous impressions, by Danny Hoch, of various citizens of Brooklyn.
On "My Ba-bay" Zap Mama's distinctive "afropean" sound and harmonies are a cool backdrop for Spearhead's reggae-tinged rap. Spearhead is fronted by Michael Franti, formerly of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Zap Mama is one of several Luaka Bop artists to show up here. David Byrne hooks up with Indian film music composer Vijaya Anand and his Film Music Orchestra on "Happy Suicide". Surreal lyrics and brief flashes jump from one musical "style" to the next. A Beach Boys-like intro, jazz, Indian, country, orchestral, African and avant garde sounds make this feel like a nine-and-a-half minute musical magic carpet ride. On "Egg Cream", Lou Reed pays tribute to a favorite boyhood beverage... "The only good thing I have to say about PS 92, was the egg cream served at Becky's, it was a fearsome brew/For 50 cents you got a shot of chocolate bubbles up your nose/It made it easier to deal with knife fights and kids pissin' in the street". Thank you, Lou.
It's hard to take this much variety and make it hang together, and there are a couple of places where I don't quite see how the songs fit. However, I enjoyed getting exposure to some stuff that I wouldn't necessarily pick up under other circumstances. If the intent of Byrne and Evelev was to give the listener an impression of the diversity embodied in the borough of Brooklyn, I'd say they accomplished their mission.