Talking Heads – Take Me to the River

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When recording a cover, there are a few obvious paths that most artists follow: Pile on new sounds to transform the song, slow the original down and “make it pretty”, or do a more faithful, straightforward, “modern update” in your own band’s style. Talking heads sidestep all of these options on their recording of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”

As you might expect with a band as brainy as Talking Heads, “Take Me to the River” is a bit harder to pin down than your average cover song. Part of that has to do with the source material itself. Green’s original has the same funky low end, but it’s also complemented by orchestral flourishes and a big, bright, brass section. It’s also significantly more uptempo.

Al Green – Take Me to the River

Given that, the lyrics make it particularly slippery—Green released Al Green Explores Your Mind on October 2, 1974. Less than a month later, Mary Woodson (Green’s paramour) would attack him in his home and then take her own life. Then a notorious womanizer, there’s cause to think that Green, at least partially, had Woodson in mind on “Take Me to the River.” It’s not exactly the “soulful,” ostensibly religious song it might seem to the inattentive ear. That, in part, is the brilliance of the original. Green turns the imagery of baptism into a kind of raunchy catharsis in a wicked bit of subversion. There’s a reason Green all but abandoned the song after devoting his life to the church.

In a way, it was a daring thing for David Byrne and company to take on the song just four short years after it’s release. Green’s story was the stuff of tabloids. A cover could have seemed like a cheeky move. But the Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River” is not only a successful cover—it’s one of the band’s definitive early songs and helped cement their reputation as an “important” band.

A slower burn than the original, Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River” takes it share of liberties. In essence, David Byrne and company deconstruct “Take Me to the River” and reassemble it with the fewest possible elements so that it retains the core concept of the original. The throbbing bassline remains unedited but emerges as the driving force in the song without horns blaring over it. The organ sounds are there, too, in the Heads’ version but they’re drained of any melodic value. They don’t fill out the song’s sound so much as punctuate the the cavernous space between parts. Guitar crashes in and is gone in an instant. The result of it all is that what was once a sultry, smooth, and confident track into something filled with tension, hesitation, and anxiety. Both versions of “Take Me to the River” are song about a burning kind of romance but with wholly different feelings conveyed. It’s a truly rare feat, but Talking Heads pull it off. They take on a brilliant, subversive, and original song and turn it into a new, brilliant, subversive, and original song.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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