2008 / Music

Review: TV On The Radio Tuned In To Funkier Channels

Brooklyn Art-Rock Quintet Releases Unusual Third Album

Rock music fans are always on the hunt for what’s next whether they’re clicking through a playlist of songs or thumbing through racks of musty vinyl.

Photo: Interscope Records

Photo: Interscope Records

What they’re looking for might not be clear, but they’ll know it when they hear it. What audiophiles are pursuing is a dream, really, but they’re ever hopeful that they’ll find those three-minutes of musical perfection. They seek something that cuts through the melodic malaise and the junk peddled by the industry’s shiny, plastic promotional arm. They’re searching for songs that truly engage them, inspire them and move them. They want a song that re-generates their hope that there can still be something fresh and new about these same old chords and rhymes.

Until recently, TV on the Radio looked like a band that could help those on this sonic quest. Many thought the Brooklyn art-rock group was one of those rare combos capable of making highly original songs. But, these guys aren’t the kind of outfit that meets expectations — they defy them. The band says to hell with audience clamoring and has followed its own free-spirit star.

For those waiting with starry-eyed anticipation, the group’s new album, “Dear Science” isn’t the dense, aural masterpiece that fans might have expected from the makers of 2006’s “Return To Cookie Mountain.” The new disc also isn’t the artistic retreat that so many newbie rock stars, flush with fame, attempt to nullify their success. Instead, the funky “Dear Science” is a surprising and frustrating musical left turn.

Surprising is the ideal descriptor for both the band’s last record as well as the near-universal praise heaped upon it. TV on The Radio was already the subject of massive underground buzz because of its debut album as well as a much-touted EP, but the band stunned many with the cut-and-paste majesty of “Cookie Mountain.” The album came across like the uncompromising product of art-student geekiness. (For the money, TV on the Radio’s full-length debut, 2004’s “Desperate Youth, Blood-Thirsty Babes,” still serves as the ideal entry way into the group’s brilliant eclecticism.)

As suggested on “Desperate Youth” and the “Young Liars” EP, listeners get the band’s aesthetic vision in full regalia on “Cookie Mountain.” Each song is a highly produced, slapdash pastiche of many genres — industrial, noise rock, post-punk and R&B — that snatches listeners up and drops them into a bewildering, erratic world that shifts lyrical perspectives and struggles for identity. The music bridges stylistic boundaries by blurring each track’s constituent influences. Just when listeners think they know what to expect, the group changes the channel. The songs were conceived as high art and, like abstract painting, often times are the antithesis of easy coherence.

Nonetheless, critics and tastemakers hailed the record as a victory for geeky rock fans everywhere and the album was dutifully assigned a place on many of the year’s best-of lists. For the band itself, “Cookie Mountain” enthroned them as rock’s most intriguing act, propelled them onto the cover of Spin magazine and allowed them to be comfortably lumped alongside rock artistes like Radiohead.

But, despite the widespread praise and hype, the disc sold a mere 189,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan figures published in a recent Reuters profile of the band. While the group remains a force in the world of indie-rock music blogs, TV on the Radio remains largely on the fringes. Most likely, that’s where the band feels most at home.

If all the laurels heaped onto the band weighs heavily, the members of TV on the Radio don’t appear burdened. “Dear Science” is a record whose songs lyrically and musically shove the outside world out. Shunning material concerns and thoughts of heady masterworks, these guys now just want to groove. Many of the album’s standouts imagine themselves to be brainy versions of ’70s disco chart-toppers. They also suggest after a long period of cross-pollination, the group has been converted to worship Fela Kuti by chums and fellow Brooklynites Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. The music still seethes with New Wave keyboard haze and razor-edged electric guitar lines, but often times, the electronic tribal beats speed up the tempo and rhythms slide closer and closer toward celebratory funk.

In addition to the new direction, the band has also taken all the studio craftsmanship showcased on “Cookie Mountain” and distilled it down so that each track can be digested when listeners click on the 15-second samples available at commercial download sites. Track by track, the musicians continue their genre-jumping, but these tidier songs now have more consistent focus and there’s less of a sense that the band members are playing all over and on top of each other.

This shift toward more streamlined, dance-oriented material also marks the growing stature of co-vocalist Kyp Malone within the group. Malone was the third member to join after its founders, singer Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/producer Dave Sitek, and quickly became a key member of the TV on the Radio’s nerdy creative troika. Despite this, his talents were often outshone by Adebimpe’s vocal charisma and onstage flailing and Sitek’s role as the band’s overall sonic guardian. Malone, who until recently looked like a black Karl Marx, was in many ways an ideal counterpoint to the two with his screwball falsetto and angular guitar playing. His songwriting too was eccentric, showing the traits of a musical revolutionary more so than the others.

As on “Cookie Mountain,” Malone is credited with writing more than a handful of the tracks, but on “Dear Science,” he is more often singing lead on his cuts instead of sharing or surrendering the mic to Adebimpe. There’s less vocal harmonizing between the two and more singular showpieces for each frontman. This gravitational shift gives the record another distinct voice to narrate the shifting tone, but also an increased sense of musical strangeness.

The record could easily be seen as a tug of war between its singers. “Dear Science” is divided between Adebimpe’s songs, which often relate back to motifs and moods from the group’s previous CDs, and the newer, “Saturday Night Fever”-ish sound that Malone is pushing for. Adebimpe’s cuts avoid breaking new ground and concentrate on demonstrating the flexibility of his vocal delivery. The first song, “Halfway Home,” begins with the same kind of bouncy, doo-wop playfulness that initially made the group so unusual in a scene dominated by post-punk guitar rumbles. Adebimpe sings the song with the reverence of a Christmas carol and the futuristic keyboard hovering replaces saintly church organs. Changing to a sprint, he tries rapping through the techno maze and the guttural, mutated Stax horns on “Dancing Choose.” Overall though, these cuts won’t exactly leave anyone’s jaw open.

In the record’s second half, Adebimpe’s material finally starts to coalesce into something thrilling. “Love Dog” pulsates with a stripped-back drum attack and undulates with stacked layers of Adebimpe’s high-pitched cooing. His best performance comes during the sinister, creeping “DLZ.” The track’s goth melodic aura and the percolating digital programming make this something anything gangsta rapper would happy rhyme over. A familiar vocal guest shot by Sitek protege Katrina Ford of Celebration, who has appeared on all the band’s past records, not only recalls their common history, but finally gives Adebimpe someone with a different timbre to work off.

Meanwhile, Adebimpe’s former harmony partner is busy presenting his own songs. To be sure, Malone pens the three best (and oddly enough, the most commercial) tracks on the disc. He ushers in his neo-Bee Gees period with the glorious pop of “Golden Age.” The song struts on a staccato, “Jive Talkin'” guitar riff and polyrhythmic percussion that mirror the fluctuations in Malone’s voice and blossom into the angelic chorus. His chilly falsetto initially trembles like a whisper before ballooning into a Tarzan yelp for the crescendo.

On another funkfest, “Crying,” Malone imitates a lackadaisical, high-singing Prince, who, bolstered by synchopated guitar chops and some subterranean horn accompaniment, is trying to funk-ify a digital drumbeat that Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor might have left on his hard drive for fear it was too poppy. Lyrically, Malone is in a blue mood about the society in contrast to the peppy melody. Wisely, he sticks to personal observations to convey a point of view instead of lording over the evil do-ers.

He’s even more provocative on the Afrobeat rave of “Red Dress,” where he again dissects the external world through the internal experience. “Hey jackboot/F— your war/Cause I’m fat and in love/And the bombs aren’t falling on me for sure,” Malone squeals. “I’m scared to death/That I’m living a life not worth dying for.” What young American isn’t he talking about here? Malone did something similar to brilliant effect on “I Was A Lover” off “Cookie Mountain.” This tact is so potent because it allows him to tackle these huge issues and relate it to the general public, but artfully sidestepping any sense of preachiness. On “Red Dress,” he chucks the gloomy hiss of a serrated guitar buzzsaw and stuttering, wheezy rhythm, which suggested post-9/11 and post-Iraq war paranoia, that he employed on “I Was A Lover” for lighter fare. This song is about tuning out and living it up, with a rolling tribal rhythm and well-executed horn lines from the Antibalas crew.

If it was Antibalas who is to blame for influencing TV on the Radio’s aesthetic reversal, the transformative process that they sparked was only half complete when “Dear Science,” was recorded and Malone was obviously downing a lot more of the Kool-Aid. As such, this record doesn’t come across as a complete vision. Add to that, there’s no doubt the group was rushed to put out another product and listeners might not be wrong to guess the group’s sparer sound stems from the tight timelines in place. More studio time might have done some of these songs some good.

Overall, “Dear Science” doesn’t live up to our lofty and unrealistic expectations of TV on the Radio. It sounds more like a transitional album, when ideas first began to head in a different direction for this group. With this in mind, this latest phase in the band’s evolution can best be viewed by comparing to the album-by-album changes experience by fellow New Yorkers the Velvet Underground or the CBGB-era bands. All of them are TV on the Radio’s alternative-rock ancestors and each strove to resurrect rock’s inherent dynamism by persistently turning what had become conventional and safe on its head. Each new LP was never what their fans anticipated although what’s thrilling and dangerous about that? Similarly, much of “Dear Science,” won’t land on the top of fans’ playlists, but the brief moments of ingenuity will keep hope alive and ears toward the future.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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