After a false start first album (2002ís OK Calculator), the stellar Young Liars EP (2003) and the impressive but not quite all there yet full-length LP Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) comes Return To Cookie Mountain, on which this unique and talented band almost put it all together. For one thing, the band has expanded from a trio to a quintet, and having a real live drummer (Jaleel Bunton), and a damn good one at that, makes a big difference. As for their dense sound, for starters let's just say that it's difficult to describe, and that it takes some getting used to. Those who criticize it for being overly processed and lacking warmth have a point, but the band's hybrid jazz/soul/indie stew is consistently creative and retains interest well after multiple spins. In fact, I discover intriguing new details with each successive listen, and though it's not the easiest album to love, it is relentlessly fascinating, not the least because it's such a rarity these days for a primarily black band to be playing rock music. I liked my friend Trevor's description of the band as "The Platters meets My Bloody Valentine," and though I'd go with "Prince meets My Bloody Valentine" instead due to Tunde Adebimpe fabulous falsetto vocals (heard to best effect on "I Was A Lover" and "Province," the latter of which guests fan David Bowie), it's still an apt description. Kyp Malone also sings, and the band's contrasting, multi-layered dual vocals are perhaps their single most striking characteristic. As for the music, Malone and David Andrew Sitek provide the churning guitars, while Sitek also produces and is the architect behind the band's densely layered samples and loops. Throw in the odd piano, sax, or horn along with the band's focus on rhythm (bassist Gerard Smith rounds out the lineup) and you have a general idea of what TV On The Radio sound like. As for the songs, I must admit that there are times when actual melodies get lost amid a certain static-y, droning murkiness, but by and large these are very well-written songs. In addition to the aforementioned tracks, other highlights include "Hours," which is sparse yet evocative, "Let The Devil In," a funky, free flowing shout along, and the pair of closing epics, "Tonight" (6:54) and "Wash The Day" (8:09). The former is another agreeably atmospheric mood piece with soaring vocals, while the latter contains more terrific vocals and a spectacular everything but the kitchen sing wall of sound. However, the highlight, hell my hands down pick for the song of the year (with apologies to Gnarles Barkley's seemingly inescapable "Crazy"), is "Wolf Like Me," which features an unstoppable groove and whose propulsive forward drive makes it all but impossible to stand still while listening to it. I wish that the band would be as direct and rocking elsewhere, but they're on their own trip and I respect that. Besides, most of the rest of these songs are really good in their own idiosyncratic ways (depending on the day I couldíve listed other individual highlights), and with Return To Cookie Mountain TV On The Radio established themselves as one of the most interesting and original bands around today. The album received rave reviews, too, and for a change the hype was largely justified.
Dear Science (Interscope '08) Rating: A
This is pretty much everything I would've hoped for from this album in that the band retains all the elements and different styles that made them interesting while also making their songs less willfully difficult if still not exactly top 40 material. The end result is the band's most easily accessible and enjoyable long player to date. Again Adebimpe and Malone deliver striking vocals, whether via soulful crooning or high-pitched falsettos, or whether solo or (often) in tandem, and again Sitek crams the album full of rich sonic details that reward repeat plays and enrich the overall experience. Doo-wop, soul, funk (there's a definite Chic influence to the guitars this time), Afrobeat (via the Antabalas horn section), and arty rock 'n' roll all somehow coexist within the band's hybrid, rhythm centered sound, which has brightened a bit even if the lyrics remain darkly cryptic. Still, some notable lyrical sound bites emerge, such as when they talk about a "foam injected Axl Rose" or delivering this depressing gem: "I'm living a life not worth dying for." Maybe there are a couple of tracks I can live without, where the hip-hop influence is overly prominent or the band veers a little too close to Red Hot Chili Peppers territory, but on the whole the songwriting here is consistently stellar. Highlights include the superb album opener "Halfway Home," which surges a bit like a mellower "Wolf Like Me" and has catchy nonsense vocals, "Crying," which is all about its Prince-like falsettos, "Dancing Choose," whose best attribute is its hooky, lightly catchy chorus, "Golden Age," which recalls Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Something" and features more fabulous falsettos, "Family Tree,"the bandís prettiest song to date and one of several songs here with symphonic-like swells, "Shout Me Out," which grooves like nobody's business and has guitar heroics aplenty, "DLZ," which builds to an impressive intensity, and the near 6-minute "Lover's Day," a musically inventive, multi-colored, sexually explicit number that continues their penchant for epic finales. But really, the whole album is one big highlight, as TV On The Radio continue to get better and better, their songwriting having finally caught up to their spectacularly unique sound as they stake their claim as one of America's best modern day bands.
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