For many still in thrall to "Psycho Killer" and the Jonathan Demme concert tour de force "Stop Making Sense," David Byrne's music is defined by his 15 years in Talking Heads. But for Byrne, the Heads are just one aspect of his legacy.
Of course, Byrne hasn't necessarily helped his case by making increasingly obscure solo albums. But his latest solo outing, "Look into the Eyeball," is his strongest and warmest since his former band's demise more than a decade ago.
Although the whirlpool funk of the Heads' heyday is long gone, Byrne has plotted new strategies, and with "Look into the Eyeball" he gets it right after a series of solo misfires. The album pits lush string orchestrations against raw Afro-Cuban percussion, taking a cue from Caetano Veloso's recent Brazilian pop classic, "Livro." Like Veloso, Byrne has struck an intriguing balance between satin sophistication and burlap groove, with his increasingly confident voice sitting comfortably in the middle.
In a recent Chicago concert, the graying bard of the New York new wave offered a live simulation of this approach, with a limber rhythm section - drummer David Hillard, percussionist Mauro Refosco and bassist Paul Frazier - developing percolating beats underneath a six-piece string section. In particular, the ballads "The Revolution," "The Great Intoxication" and "The Accident"-on which the singer was at his most vulnerable, accompanied only by the strings - had a swooning loveliness that the Heads-era Byrne would have found impossible to negotiate.
As Veloso accomplished on "Livro," Byrne has injected "Look into the Eyeball" with a measure of queasy otherworldliness, and this was especially apparent on three warped gospel-based tunes. "Like Humans Do" found the singer celebrating the everyday as if he were a 6-year-old who just met Santa Claus, sashaying over Frazier's melodic bass runs. "U.B. Jesus" sounded like a twisted update of the Heads' "Road to Nowhere," while the reinterpretation of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" was pure celebration.
At times, Byrne's curiosity for all things exotic got the better of him, especially on his "Rei Momo"-era Latin-groove experiment and on "Desconocido Soy," where his subpar Spanish sounded awkward without the forceful support of Cafe Tacuba's Nru. But Byrne also made a strong case for several obscurities, choosing from his soundtrack work (a furious groove on "God's Child," from "Blue in the Face") and his Twyla Tharp collaboration, "The Catherine Wheel."
It added up to an imposing validation for a singular artist who insists on remaining a work in progress rather than a nostalgia act.