TV on the Radio

    Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch & Go, 2004)
     Return to Cookie Mountain (4AD/Interscope, 2006)
       Dear Science (Interscope, 2008)

Regarded in certain circles as an American Radiohead (a comparison they invited by a collection of early demos OK Calculator), TV on the Radio was the most ambitious and self-consciously idiosyncratic indie band of the 2000s. Mixing pre-rock vocal styles and post-millennial beats, they're a prog-punk band with a hip-hop soul, Pere Ubu by way of Public Enemy. TVOTR's songs (primarily produced Dave Sitek, who's also the band's guitarist) are shape-shifting hot messes that often feel as if they're moving out of focus or slipping beyond reach. Even when vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kip Malone explore the paranoia and fear of reality in these shaky times (probably their biggest theme), they're also celebrating the impermanence of reality itself. Today may suck, tomorrow might suck less, so get down tonight.

TV on the Radio's elliptical spirit can at times get squashed by their gargantuan pretensions, and their 2004 debut is definitely a little too taken with itself. Atonal feedback and off-kilter grooves form a backdrop for acrimonious lyrics that wax political and romantic. The disc's gray, brooding music would've been pretty forgettable if not for Adebimpe and Malone's alluring avant-doo wop vocals, which evoke Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," Genesis's "The Carpet Crawlers" and Thom Yorke doing Teddy Pendergrass impressions in the shower. Still, the gorgeous dissonance hymn "Staring At the Sun" promises big things to come.

Return to Cookie Mountain is a vast improvement. "I Was A Lover" kicks things off with waves of symphonic noise and a hobbled groove, as Adebimpe sings "I was a lover before this war," evoking both post-breakup dissolution and anger over the Iraq war. "Wolf Like Me" is a punk rock banger piling on layers of drone candy in pursuit of the kickiest catharsis they've ever engendered, and "A Method" sets happily meditative moans to hand-claps and Buddhist bells. On "Providence," they implore us to "try to breathe while the world disintegrates," a mantra that should be emblazoned on TVOTR tour T-shirts. Like Kid A, Cookie Mountain asks question that were on a lot of people's minds during the emotional meltdown that was the Cheney Years: Do we flee or fight? Do we dig into our basement studios and invent our own worlds, or do we take to the streets to improve what history has barfed upon us? Cookie Mountain's honest ability to never offer clear answers to these questions is part of its charm.

With its more fully realized funk and radiant tunes, Dear Science expands the band's theme of rocking out while the world dies, evoking natural disasters and ghetto blasters on the ebullient first track, "Halfway Home," and jumping off towards new horizons of sonic dream-weaving. The vocals are more songful than ever and the songs have newfound dynamics. "Crying" sounds like something Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to, "Stork and Owl" is unguardedly soulful, and "Family Tree" imagines Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" as a Coldplay ballad. It's the sound a band whose basement keeps getting bigger with each record.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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