Saturday, September 27, 2008

TV on the Radio- Dear Science,

Quick story as introduction: I saw TV on the Radio at TwiRoPa in New Orleans about three years ago, when they were touring in support of the New Health Rock EP. Two dreadful opening acts played before them, and the band stood out in the crowd smoking cigarettes and hanging out, pretending to be supportive. The guys were about five feet from me, but I left them alone because a) That's not me; I don't bother people, and b) I didn't have anything to say other than the Chris Farley-esque "'re awesome." (If I had that opportunity now, I would ask Dave Sitek what Scarlett Johansson smells like.) Then something interesting happened: the guitarist for one of the opening acts broke a couple of strings on a guitar. Sitek ran backstage in order to grab his own axe to lend to the dude, and during the next song, Kyp Malone re-strung the broken one. I tell you this not only because it makes me seem like a gadfly man-about-town, but also because it shows how down-to-earth this fantastic band is. And their new album is anything but down-to-earth.

TV on the Radio, very quietly, has become a personal favorite. Behind Sitek's fuzzy but angular guitar and Kyp Malone's fallen angel backing vocals, TVotR has offered some of the most artful, original sounds of the decade. Still, their last album was a bit of a letdown considering how laudatory the reviews were. It seemed like more of the same, as good as that same was.

Then they release Dear Science,, which is easily their most accessible, straight-ahead record to date. And that presentation turns out to play to all of their strengths.* Whereas something like "Staring at the Sun" stood out for the way the chorus soared twice as high as the verses, here every single song has a huge hook like that. They're also able to access so many more moods, from the raucous openers to more seductive slow-burners. What the new outlook means though, basically, is that the vocals take center stage, and Tunde Adebimpe's wounded howl is up to the task. He seems to be channeling Bowie more than ever on the tender "Stork and Owl," and he's almost rapping on the boisterous lead single "Dancing Choose." He is helped by songwriting that is more honest and less cryptic than their previous efforts.

Speaking of that rapping, I had never really bought into the point that TVotR was influenced by hip-hop. It seemed like an unimaginative observation based on most of the band being Black. But here, with the increased role of the bass drum and some really capricious tempo changes, I can kind of hear it. It's often said that the best thing, musically, about hip-hop is the mistakes: a sample might be in a different key than the vocals, and so on. What's interesting is the naive juxtapositions that kind of work. That's never been more true on than on Dear Science,'s "Shout Me Out," which has about three transitions that make you cringe but are so damned compelling that you end up nodding your head.

Album closer "Lover's Day" is the perfect victory lap for summarizing what the whole album feels like. With a consistent rhythm section that eventually reaches its "rollicking" setting, even throwing in some African signposts, superfluous horns introduce those earnest, tender harmonies that Adebimpe and Malone have perfected. The song expands from that point into a choir's variation on that melody that makes it even more heartbreaking. Before I describe at any greater length how poignant this shit is, please get the album.

*- I'm sorry that the only time I have the energy to write a review is when something's great. I'd love to write my "okay, I guess" review for We Global or my "pretty crappy actually" review for Towelhead, but I feel compelled to write one for this album.

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