Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 105 - TV on the Radio

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I've been listening to TV on the Radio all week with the nagging feeling that I should enjoy them more than I am. 

I'm not exactly sure what the problem is. They incorporate a wide range of styles, which I like. They have a good ear for both catchy melodies and percussive grooves, both of which I like. They even put a bunch of brass instruments into their songs, which I really like. But there's the lingering feeling of something that's just a bit off, something that prevents me from committing fully to their music. 

The "easier-to-respect-than-love" moniker is an old trope, and one that seems strange to apply to a band with as much straight-up energy as TV on the Radio. But it might best describe my feelings; nearly every album I listened to was mediated by the niggling thought that this stuff was so close to being great. 

On Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, it was the drum machines that gave their music an unneeded robotic quality. On Return to Cookie Mountain it was the fuzzy drone that pervaded nearly every track, masking their melodies. On Nine Types of Light, it was the opposite - polished songs with no drone and none of the tight rhythms of their earlier stuff. Only on Dear Science could I full-heartedly embrace their music, and even that one took me a few tries. 

The band is pulling from such a diverse set of influences - bluesy horns and hard rock guitars sit side by side with hip-hop beats, soul melodies and pop ballads - that perhaps its inevitable something would fail to click. And there were moments of transcendence on each album, when I stopped trying to figure out what was missing and just enjoyed the music. But rarely could the band do this to me for more than a track or two at a time. 

So I'm not sure how much of the fault is mine. My favorite music feels direct, like I'm transported to a really great live concert, but TV on the Radio felt like I was only watching a really great concert on YouTube. The material was there, but some unnamable quality was not. What is the band missing? Or, rather, what am I missing? Maybe it's just an old-fashioned case of "Wrong Week," and TV on the Radio will be completely awesome next month. I wish I could fully give the thumbs up, but right now I'm on the fence. 

WEEK 105


MY LISTENING: I listened to Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) every day this week. I also listened to Dear Science (2008) and Nine Types of Light (2011) three times, and Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (2004) twice. 

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had checked Dear Science out of my public library a year or two ago, ripped it to my computer, listened to it, and promptly forgot about it. So I'd some familiarity with the band, but I was not a "fan" by any means. 

WHAT I LIKED: I think that Dear Science is the one album that fulfills everything TV on the Radio is trying to do; it occupies that perfect patch of ground between apocalyptic and uplifting. Like much of their music, the album is stylistically diverse, but Dear science also manages a coherence that the earlier albums lack. There's an optimism here, but it's optimism in the face of utter chaos.

The initial anything-goes approach is intimidating (perhaps why I ignored this album for two years after I had listened to it), but every song is catchy, the energy is undeniable, the band's crazy ambition is checked by it's concise songwriting and beautiful ear for melodies. Dear Science finds that incredible middle-ground in that all of the band's diverse aims are somehow conceived - it has their best ballad ("Family Tree"), their best tongue-twisting pseudo-rap ("Dancing Choose"), their best densely-orchestrated anthem ("Golden Age"), their best sinister crescendo to chaos ("DLZ"), and the wonderful hand-clapping of "Halfway Home," which sounds like nothing else. Hell, most of this album sounds like nothing else, but here TV on the Radio are doing their best performance of themselves, if that makes any sense. They've figured out who they want to be, and even if that image is complex and diverse, they've nailed it on this album. 

So maybe it's the "I-Listened-To-This-Album-First" syndrome, but the rest of the band's albums I inevitably compared to Dear Science, and while each album had some gems on it, none of them compared to their best effort. Return to Cookie Mountain was too hidden in drones and fuzz, but some of the tracks, like "Blues From Down Here," contain an excellent crescendo that builds into a haphazard kind of catharsis. ("Staring at the Sun," from Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, plays a similar role.) 

Nine Types of Light eschews the fuzz for catchy brass hooks, and while the album didn't affect me emotionally as much, I can't deny that it's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. The falsetto chorus from "Second Song" has been in my head all week, and "Repetition" is catchy in the most delightfully annoying way. 


As I mentioned, too many of TV on the Radio's efforts just seem a little bit off. On Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, the problem lies in that they don't have a drummer (only machines), and their lively funk doesn't quite meld with these loops they've written. So we get "Dreams," a perfectly fine song that lacks that rhythmic punch.

I think that most of the elements on Return to Cookie Mountain are pretty solid, but I can't get over the sonic haze that cloaks every song. Listen to "I Was A Lover" - it could have been a better song, but the band had to record it in this droney, washed-out, exhausted type aesthetic. Their music deserves better than this. 

On the opposite side, Nine Types of Light is polished and every song is slick and clean. But here the songwriting is more forgettable, as the band abandons full-bodied songcraft for shorter hooks. Songs like "Keep Your Heart" and "Forgotten" are inoffensive, but leave my mind immediately after hearing them, as if the band forgot to add a bite to them. And "Killer Crane" has a good melody, but overstays its welcome. Nine Types of Light shows the band growing complacent; pieces of talent are in nearly every song, but there's not much development of these ideas. 

If I'm coming across as hard on TV on the Radio, it's only because I love them. I'd consider even these albums solid B+ or A- material. Only because Dear Science showed that they can integrate the messy and the clean, the happy and the sad, the pop and the prog, I was inevitably disappointed that each of their other efforts failed to bridge these elements together. My loss, I suppose. They're a great band, full of talent and interesting ideas, but maybe they're not interested in being the band I want them to be.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's OK Calculator (2002), a self-recorded Radiohead homage that seems more like a lark than an actual record in their discography. Instead, I'd rather check out the Young Liars EP (2003) that first catapulted the band into the public consciousness. Additionally, guitarist/producer Dave Sitek made a solo album called Maximum Balloon (2010) that I think will be worth listening to. While TV on the Radio's production might be all over the place, it's certainly never boring. 



This is my favorite song from the group, mostly because I'm a sucker for the slow build to chaos.