TV On the Radio
4.5 out of 5 stars
The Brooklyn-based quintet TV On the Radio has been branded with every label in the indie-rock manual, ranging from funk to free jazz, avant-garde, post-punk and even electronic. Despite attempts to pigeonhole these musicians, the band continues to defy both convention and definition. The best recipe for any listener’s trepidation is to simply hear the group’s mesmerizing catalogue. Mere words invariably fail when trying to characterize its work. Perhaps “experimental” suffices, because there is little doubt that the band doesn’t shy away from trying new elements for the sake of its art – no matter how offbeat or straight-up “weird” they may seem on first listen.
Thankfully, TV On the Radio’s newest release, Dear Science, takes this calculated experimentation to a never-before-heard level, allowing the album to be classified by two words: near perfection. The disc is the band’s third full-length studio album, following a self-released demo, several EPs and two widely-acclaimed LPs.
Return To Cookie Mountain (2006) was the band’s first major label release via Interscope, and judging from the spell-binding result, it’s reassuring to see the band is still allowed creative control over its work. Furthermore, Interscope has given the band the production tools to flourish and a marketing team to get their music to the masses.
After all, this is not music for the Top 40 crowd. Hell, it’s doubtful that most of these songs are even “indie-pop”-friendly enough for the average college rock station. This somewhat harsh distinguisher — insinuating that the average music fan might be turned off by the band’s otherness — may unwittingly push the band into the unwarranted arena of uber-pretentiousness, at least for some wary listeners. Do not let this false characterization be a deterrent, because the band’s newest blissful production actually deserves all of the gushing jabber it’s generating.
Album opener “Halfway Home” carries the dual singers’ (Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone) vocals over a triumphant drumbeat, entrancing its audience before a full verse is even uttered. As the song’s tension continues to build, while the ever-steady drumbeat propels the song forward, the singers ooze and mesh in verse “Is it not me? / Am I not folded by your touch? / The words you spoke / I know too much / It’s over now / And not enough.” Despite its relatively simple lyrics, the song has a complex structure, culminating in a buzzy guitar-driven bridge. The track’s conciseness reinforces the message the band is back and ready to dazzle.
Not a single track that follows “Halfway Home” can be called either a hasty rehashing or a neglected filler track. Every cut on Science serves its purpose, whether that’s to enthrall, inspire or entertain. But there are a few gems that stand above the rest. “Crying,” a piece of funk-based perfection that cannot be quickly categorized as a George Clinton tribute, is among them. The two lead singers play their voices off each other throughout the song. As one laments the drug abuse of nobles, the other begins to tick off a list of Biblical references that might normally seem more appropriate in a Ralph Williams lecture than an experimental disc. On this cut, however, the allusions shine, like in the appropriately high-pitched verse “And Mary and David smoke dung in the trenches / While Zion’s behavior never gets mentioned.” The single criticism to be had with “Crying” is that, at a full four-minutes in length, it ends far too soon.
The remaining numbers can only be classified by how widely they contrast each other and themselves. The rousing “Shout Me Out” starts with a drum-loop beat as the vocals croon delicately. At the track’s halfway mark, the relatively soft beats explode into an exuberant mishmash of real-life percussion and busting guitars. It closes with a powerful drum solo over several distorted strings. The cleverly titled “Dancing Choose” issues spitfire verses at breakneck speed juxtaposed with more tame and soulful choruses. The band returns to its bass-driven funk beats on “Golden Age,” while emitting programmed pulses as its singers proclaim that you need to “clap your hands” to the beat.
One of the album’s greater triumphs is the captivating ballad “Love Dog.” Emitting quiet “ooh ooh ooh”s over a somber drumline, the singers drive the song, reeling the audience into it as the tension builds toward cathartic release. As the song reaches its climax, the vocals croon in subdued anguish, “Lonely little love dog / That no one knows the days of / Where the land is low is / Where the water flows to / And holds you.” The track then breaks down into a breathtaking string outro that’s no less than stunning.
TV On the Radio is quickly becoming one of the best bands of the decade, and its latest disc more than confirms that the group is far from a passing fad. Not only has it released some of the most original, inspiring music of the past few years, but it also makes the entire endeavor seem so effortless that it’s hard not to hold all other artists at fault. With Dear Science,, TV On the Radio solidifies its position as the current standard-bearer of modern music, and the future looks awfully bright.