April 19, 2011

Douglas Martin orders take out like nobody is watching.

In the beginning, there was Young Liars. A lot of TV on the Radio reviews open with some variation of the same phrase, and for good reason. The immensely dense brick of guitar noise. The late night, dimly lit streets of pre-gentrification Williamsburg. The chemistry of the mad scientist producer (Dave Sitek), the golden-voiced soul singer from another dimension (Tunde Adebimpe), and the falsetto hidden under a swallows’ nest of a beard (Kyp Malone). The throbbing, pulsating guitars (“Satellite,” “Staring at the Sun”). The codeine cough syrup-laced balladry (“Blind”). The barbershop quartet version of a Pixies song.

Young Liars was not a bid of promise, it was the fully-realized platonic ideal of a genuinely innovative band right when we needed them: right when the internet started to become an overwhelming and oppressive holding tank for musical knowledge. For many of us, TV on the Radio was the last rock band to emerge to capture our imagination, before we substituted it with information and back catalogues and YouTube videos of our favorite bands’ favorite bands performing to thirteen people in Chinese take-out joints. Now, we know the origin and influences of today’s most captivating artists before we’re given the receipt for our shrimp fried rice.

The times have changed in the ten years since Sitek and Adebimpe formed TV on the Radio in their squalid Williamsburg warehouse space, and with it, the band has changed right with them. Debut full-length Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes was an unsettlingly insular reaction to the heaps of accolades bestowed upon Young Liars, comparatively dark, loping, spare arrangements featuring Malone’s piercing wail swirling around Adebimpe’s cracked croon and bruised post-millennial poetry. It also showed a fiercely political side to the band, with lyrics like “Bomb your country/Don‘t shed no tears,” and “Woke up in a magic nigger movie“ jarring listeners into place. Return to Cookie Mountain was an evolution, an expansion, introducing new members (drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith) and concepts (in addition to “I was a lover before this war,” one of the album’s most quoted lyrics was, “Love is the province of the brave”) to the fold. Cookie Mountain presented a fork in the road for the members of TV on the Radio; with a record so monolithic, so impenetrable with layers, there’s no way they could evolve without a reconfiguration of some sort.

And reconfigure they did, scrubbing away their density in favor of immediacy, slowly stepping away from the light touches of drone, shoegaze, and industrial music, instead embracing funk, R&B, and the occasional prime-time drama ballad. Possibly as a preemptive gesture away from the political dystopia of the Bush regime and into the rose-tinted lenses of the Yes We Can movement, Dear Science was more introspective, but also more optimistic, more romantic. It was altogether an uneven effort, the driving intensity of opener “Halfway Home” canceled out by the corny, forced sexual imagery of closer “Lover’s Day,” and most parts in between veering closer to the middle of the road as TV on the Radio had ever been.

When the horn-driven hard-rock of “Caffeinated Consciousness” was released as the debut single of new album Nine Types of Light, there was a collective gasp of worry. After the brief slide into complacency that was Dear Science, the song contained a much harder edge, but at what cost? Was the Living Colour-esque pounding and Adebimpe’s grating half-scream, half-rap the gift for fans who thought the band was going soft? Thankfully, the album is not as much of a misstep as its lead single and closing track, but the same emphasis on clarity there was on Dear Science proves to expose as many flaws as they do introduce the band’s new strengths.

On Nine Types of Light opener “Second Song,” Savage Garden-like verses clash with Adebimpe’s half-coarse falsetto, blips, and more horns. Sitek’s fascination with horns has extended throughout his production career, but on this record he seems convinced that 30 tracks of horns is ultimately more interesting than 300 tracks of guitars. Which it is in some cases, but not in very many on this particular album. Sitek’s focus on clarity does make parts of the album richer, as small flourishes bolster songs like “Keep Your Heart” and “You,” while album highlight “Killer Crane” is masterful in its composition, blooming with pianos, processed guitars, even an acoustic guitar and banjo (no Sufjan Stevens).

On the electronic-tinged funk of “No Future Shock,” Kyp Malone continues to suffer from what we’ll heretofore refer to as Kickball Katy Syndrome, a background singer that adds loads of character stepping into center stage and faltering in the spotlight. Not that Malone’s singing is as wispy and superfluous as Katy Goodman’s, but Malone’s wildly performative, dovetailing voice pales in comparison to the measured force and versatility of Adebimpe’s. But not even his impassioned chanting at the end of “Repetition” can save the… um, repetitiveness of the refrain hand-in-hand with the sound of 90’s corporate alt-rock, where wads of cash were thrown at anything coming out of Guitar Center with a shiny new guitar strap. With this newfound directness, a lot of what made TV on the Radio great is lost.

On the 808-led bounce of “Forgotten,” Adebimpe croons softly over an eerie keyboard line reminiscent of the drops DJ Premier sampled on Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean,” passionately wishing for the summer to come, eventually fading into the night on the eve of a nuclear winter. While TV on the Radio have forged an incredibly dynamic catalog over the past decade, that decade hasn’t come without flaws. But, as Woody Allen so famously said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” And through their ups and downs, TV on the Radio has remained a remarkably creative band. But the focus is fading, and their post-Cookie Mountain output has been shockingly uneven. You have to wonder if Dear Science and Nine Types of Light are mere stumbles off the wagon, or if we are actually watching the devolution of a once-undeniably great band.

MP3: TV on the Radio-“Will Do”

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