Friday, July 28

Album Review: TV on the Radio

"Return to Cookie Mountain"
Interscope; 2006

For me, the music of TV on the Radio was always an acquired taste. That’s probably why their first proper LP, “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes” sat on my CD rack for over a year before I really “got” it. I can’t quite remember what it was that brought me to slide that album from between Temple of the Dog and Ugly Casanova, dust it off, and pop it into my stereo. But whatever it was, I’m thankful—since then, few albums have seen as much play time, each listen lending the music new and interesting facets that I’d somehow missed before.

So, after spending a shamefully large amount of time tracking it down on the internet, I expected TVOTR’s new album, “Return to Cookie Mountain”, to require a similar amount of work before it could be truly appreciated. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more right; the way the album has grown on me since the first time I slid it into my car stereo until now, twenty (twenty-five? thirty? forty?) listens later is truly astounding, outdone only by my love affair with “OK Computer”.

(It should be quickly noted that, although “Return to Cookie Mountain” has been available everywhere else in the world for several weeks now, it will not be available in the U.S. until September 12. It should also be noted that, since it has not yet been released, we can’t provide free mp3s for download with the album. Instead, check out the links at the end of this review to see clips of TV on the Radio playing the songs [and kicking a ton of ass] live.)

TV on the Radio was originally just two guys messing around with a four track. One was Tunde Adebimpe, who (in my humble opinion, of course) is the most underrated and innovative singer in indie rock. The other was Dave Sitek, token white dude and producer/multi-instrumentalist/whatever the fuck he wants, thank you very much. After they released the “Young Liars” EP, the two decided they needed more afro in their band. Enter Kyp Malone, lanky guitarist and falsetto-fountain, sporting wire-frame glasses and a globe of hair so monumental that for the past fifteen years Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s mop has been playing John the Baptist and foretelling its coming. The three put out “Desperate Youth” with the help of their good buddy, the programmable drum loop. These days, the band is up to five full-time members, two afros, and zero (count ‘em, zero) drum machines.

This is one of the reasons TVOTR’s “Cookie Mountain” hits you square between the eyes. They’re a bona-fide band now, backed with an energy that a computer can’t pull off. Every TVOTR fan with a “drum machines have no soul” bumper sticker on their car must be feelin’ awful high and mighty, if you ask me. Jaleel Bunton knows what he’s doing behind the kit; his hi-hat-happy performance on “Playhouses” could be playing without any other music and I would still listen to it. “A Method” is driven a marching beat gone wild—let’s just say that if TV on the Radio had army, you’d sure as hell know when they’re coming. And you’d like it.

The rest of the band more than holds their own, a grisly bass and atmospheric guitars packing the album with dynamic voicings and acting as the perfect backdrop for Sitek’s hair-brained production experiments. You’ll find no guitar solos here, no conventional arrangement, just several stunning parts adding up to a cohesive and exciting whole.

Tunde and Kyp deliver stellar vocal performances as always, aided occasionally by their bandmates and a nearly imperceptible contribution on the song “Province” by David Bowie who, at this point, is milking the props he was getting twenty years ago by sticking his sequined foot into every open door, regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not (read: the Arcade Fire live with David Bowie). Kyp is a sort of harmonic anomaly, going for notes way above the vocal range of your average male and missing them most of the time, but somehow making it all sound so damn good you wonder if him actually hitting the note would take away from the result.

Of course, Tunde is the center of attention here, as anyone as talented and dynamic-savvy as he is ought to be. For anyone who has any taste whatsoever (and I’m hoping the people that read this blog do), “Cookie Mountain” proves that Tunde is the definition of cool. He’s gifted without being showy, sensitive without being a pushover, poetic without being contrived, and chill without being detached. (Which is more than I can say for Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard, and Andrew Bird, respectively. But hey, what’s the point in bringing up certain, uh, shortcomings of other artists when talking about Tunde Adebimpe? Probably to show that, all angles considered, next to him other singers and frontmen come across as simply inadequate.) I mean come on, “Love is the province of the brave”? Shit man, that’s good stuff.

Aside from generalities that stamp Tunde as cooler than Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”, his part in the journey back to Cookie Mountain truly is an incredible one. When he spits out “We don’t make eye contact / when we have run-ins in town / just a barely polite nod / and nervous stares toward the ground” on album opener “I Was A Lover”, it matters to you. It really matters. You get the same feeling later in the song when he sings “It’s been awhile / since we wild / and that’s all fine”. In “Wolf Like Me”, he seamlessly relates late-night backseat lust to the transformation of a werewolf singing, “My mind has changed / my body’s frame / but god I like it / my heart’s aflame / my body’s strained / but god I like it.” (Also, if you play this song right next to Cat Power’s “Werewolf”, you get an interesting juxtaposition on the same theme. You know, “Wow, I’m a werewolf, I dig this,” as opposed to “Oh shit, I’m a werewolf, now I’m sad.”) His rollercoaster melody on “Dirty Whirl” is catchy as hell, and not in the Avril Lavigne sort of way. (That is, in the good sort of way.) There aren’t any a cappella bits on “Cookie Mountain”, which, considering the latter half of “Poppy” off “Desperate Youth” is my favorite part of the album, was disappointing. But when you take in everything else that’s going on, they’re barely worth missing.

In fact, there’s only one problem I have with this album, and it’s not just for the sake of being a nitpicking son-of-a-bitch music critic: the problem is in the mix. Sure, TV on the Radio has had this “wall of sound” thing going for them that’s always made their music layered, rich, and full of subtleties. That’s part of who they are as a group. The thing is, on “Cookie Mountain”, they take it too far. All the different instruments and vocals are sound great in their own right, but they’re mixed in such a way that they trip over each other, bleeding across the track and burying some things that should not be buried—namely, Tunde Adebimpe. Half the time the man is behind the wall of sound, trying to get his near-perfect vocal performances heard, but getting drowned out. More often that not, you can’t tell what he’s saying, which is a damn shame considering his lyrics are among the best I’ve heard in a long time. Dave Sitek also does some really exciting things with his crazy reversed instruments and chimes and whatnot, but, like everything else, they suffer in the mix. There’s still subtleties, room for discovery, and brilliant songs there, but this time around the music feels more like a cloud and less like its silver lining.

What weakens “Return to Cookie Mountain”, however, far from destroys it. The album is still a work of veritable genius, boasting some of the most sublime artistry, raw passion, and moments of sheer brilliance since “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” came out in 2002. And, as of now, it’s my favorite album of the year. It’s a difficult listen, granted, and it’ll take more than a few plays before you can really grasp what the album has to offer, but once you hit that point, you’re golden. Tunde and the boys have taken one step closer to the craggy summit of their potential, and while I’m not so lame as to make a joke along the lines of “It’s good to be back on Cookie Mountain” it’s the straight-up truth. Cookie Monster would be proud… especially now that he’s forced to eat vegetables because of a select group of crazy-as-shit paranoid androids that parade around pretending to be semi-decent parents. Sometimes furry blue dudes know what the fuck they’re talking about. And of course, this is one of those cases.

TV on the Radio - Dirty Whirl [Live]
TV on the Radio - Wolf Like Me [Live]

- Dominick Duhamel -

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At 8:40 PM , Anonymous Ren said...

Mmm this album is delicious! Thanks for writing about it.

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