It's encouraging that the multiracial rock band TV on the Radio has stormed the New York rock scene without anybody making much of the group's demographic novelty. Their latest recording, Dear Science, (Interscope) is so engrossing and powerful that the band members could be from Mars, Venus and Saturn and that little detail might escape the attention of most listeners.
TV on the Radio's music is brainy and infectious. Rolling Stone compared their 2006 release, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope), to a savvy fusion of the Talking Heads' Fear of Music, David Bowie's Station to Station and Prince's Sign 'O' the Times. With Dear Science, they've added Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to their canon, through an embrace of catchy hooks and melodic resolves.
In an era where many rock bands are proudly lo-fi in the name of maintaining "indie" cred, TV on the Radio aims high in sonic scope and audience appeal. Dear Science is one of those rare records that proves that popular music and creativity are not polar opposites.
Rather than sounding like a pastiche or a mash-up, the band conveys everything from hardcore to funk to surfer pop to trip hop with a music lover's attention to detail. The album opens with "Halfway Home," a track that rides a riff of "baba ba ba bah/ba ba ba ba bah," from a '60s garage rock hit. All the baba-ing hits at the album's lighter, more accessible feel. Still the lyrics maintain a wary sense of dread. Tunde Adebimpe brings an urgent sense of declaration to the vocals. Kyp Malone, who shares lead vocal and writing cred with Adebimpe, sings in a voice that is equal parts pained vulnerability and strident call to duty.
Adebimpe, a filmmaker, started the band with producer/guitarist David Sitek in the then heavily bohemian Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg six years ago. The two were renting rooms in the same loft and discovered a mutual affinity for music and a passion for albums, coherent collections of songs that must be heard as a unit rather than songs that can be easily dropped into iPod mixes or reduced to ringtones. They recruited Malone, drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist/keyboardist Gerard A. Smith into the mix.
The traditional impulses of the band are best illustrated by their collaborators. Most tracks are imbued by either strings or a horn section from the Brooklyn-based Afro-beat band, Antibalas. There are also contributions from the fierce up-and-coming jazz saxophonist Matana Roberts. Although you could listen to this disc for the hand-clap samples alone, the mix accents the organic nature of the instruments. The horns yelp, the strings sound scratchy at times. TVOTR has a sound that is of-the-moment, but the components are as basic as music gets.
For me, the core of the disc is a cluster of four songs, starting with "Stork and Owl," a delicate meditation on life and beauty among the ruins of urban existence. Malone's gritty croon meshes beautifully with a string quartet. Next, comes the funky drive of "Golden Age," the best updating of early '70s Stevie Wonder that I've heard. The rhythms pop and sizzle, and the resolves delay until the very last—very, very last—second to break the tension. The backing on Adebimpe's "Family Tree," gets so stark at times it sounds as if he's singing a capella, before building to a gentle cadenza. Then "Red Dress" captures the band in full throttle and fury.
Although the music is upbeat, catchy, winsome and—compared to their previous recordings—downright happy, the lyrics are where TV on the Radio hedge their bets. Most are cautiously optimistic at best. Take, for instance, the final song, Malone's "Lover's Day." At the outset, he sings "oh but the longing is terrible." over a military drumbeat and blasts of horn ostinatos. But by the end, after the music soars heroically under a litany of the usual carnal promises, he concludes with several pronouncements of "I'm going to take you home," that are so matter of factly delivered that they sound neither like gleeful boast or gentle seduction but rather like a promise from one exhausted refugee to another. It's as if TVOTR are too aware of the clichés of the genre and the realities of this world to let a love song be.
For all of their rustic flourishes, TV on the Radio sounds best via ear buds or headphones. It's there—ideally with as few distractions as possible—you get the full impact of all of their musical ideas. And in the interim, between the final song and the remixes that are tacked on to the end like bonus tracks, I couldn't stop but think about how the band's overall impact owes to their belief in the transformative power of music. Most music, be it rock, jazz, hip-hop or country is played as an archival experience, comments on the past rather than our future. TV on the Radio isn't afraid to put forth a position on the current zeitgeist. The result is enough to make you want to believe in music again.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.