Music: Sounds for the Solstice

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If partying inside a freezer and trying to boogie away the frostbite hold any kind of appeal, then this is just the record for the occasion. Talking Heads is one of the few bands to have survived the cresting and breaking of new wave rock, and if Blondie remains the commercial core of that dissipated movement, Talking Heads is its artistic conscience. Artistic is the operative word here. The Heads take themselves and their music with such self-evident and self-congratulatory seriousness that the dark ironic humors of their best songs assume all the depth of snide remarks at a gallery opening. Even dabbling in permutations of African rhythms, as here, the band sounds like a collection of hip grad school musicologists on a fund-raising telethon. The effect is alienating, in a way the band could not intend, and ultimately chilling.

Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA). "Illegal fun/ Under the sun." Gaucho is a laid-back action painting of life on the L.A. fault line and just over the edge. Steely Dan is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who together write some of rock's most inimitable and elliptical songs, and who play assorted instruments when the spirit moves them. Often it doesn't, and Steely Dan becomes a free-floating association of ace studio musicians doing elaborate, jazzy arabesques around Fagen's vocals. The songs have a diabolical cutting edge, suggesting some collaboration between Roman Polanski and Joan Didion ("We'll jog with show folk/ On the sand/ Drink kirschwasser from a shell"). The lithe inflections of the Becker-Fagen melodies have a grace that is both sensuous and sinister, like a lazing snake coiled under the sun. Probably poisonous too.

—By Jay Cocks

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