Dear Science, Tunde Adebimpe-Vocals Kyp Malone- Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Synths David Andrew Sitek-Programming, Guitars, Samples, Bass, Synths Gerard A Smith- Bass, Organ, Synths, Samples, Rhodes Jaleel Bunton-Drums, Guitars, Rhodes, Organ, Synths, Bass, Programming "A lot of bands have something to say," explains TV On The Radio producer/multi-instrumentalist David Sitek. "We have something to ask." Indeed. Good luck finding easy answers in TVOTR's ever-evolving soundscapes, though, whether we're talking about their new disc, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope) or the band's early days. When guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone joined, he didn't even get what Sitek and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe were going for on their self-released 2002 debut, OK Calculator. "Aspects of OK Calculator are genius," says Malone, "but it isn't as laser-focused as Young Liars." Neither were Adebimpe and Sitek's early live sets, boundless and brash bits of performance art that Malone remembers as "an open mic/karaoke night gone awry. I could hear songs peeking through it all but it wasn't really my thing." Boy did that change in 2003, as Young Liars became Malone's favorite CD-R (he'd often play it for the latte sippers at a local coffee shop) and the group's first Touch & Go release. An immediate favorite among critics, the EP nailed Sitek's goal of sounding like a "grand four-track thing," from the epic, evocative balladry of "Blind" to the spectral pop trails of "Staring At the Sun." To make things even more interesting, Malone dropped his skepticism and joined the group full-time before Young Liars' official release, with drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith rounding out the band's rhythm section soon after. "We had a gig in Iceland where we needed a full band so we asked the two best guitar players we knew, Gerard and Jaleel, to play drums and bass," explains Sitek, laughing. "It's absurd that Kyp and I are even holding a guitar when Jaleel and Gerard are f**king bananas at playing it." While that may be true, TV On The Radio's loose approach to songwriting, recording and performing leaves an incredible amount of room for instrument-swapping and role reversals. Rather than rely on a stringent and stale guitars/bass/drums/vocals setup, the quintet often brings home-demoed sketches to the studio along with the attitude that a track needs to go through everyone's filter before it becomes a fully formed song. "Music is the most flexible medium in the world for me," explains Sitek, the beat conductor responsible for distilling the band's tracks down to a living, breathing composition that's never cloying or cumbersome. "There is no shortage of ideas; the hard part is not following each whim." As much as he tries to keep a record sounding lean, Sitek is quick to admit, "It takes most bands an album to get to a high track count. I can go from 4 to 96 in a day, without question. I'm track hungry, really. A lot of stuff isn't even an instrument." The densest a TVOTR disc ever got was their third LP, 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain, a collection of songs you need to scale with hi-def headphones to truly appreciate. Sitek went a little lighter on the multi-tracking with this Dear Science, but not by much. The album's opener, "Halfway Home," is vintage TVOTR, for instance--a rich, speaker-swallowing canvas of careening beats, buzzing riffs (or are those synths?) and bloodletting vocals. Things get strange from that point on, however, as mirror balls spin (a dare-we-say-danceable "Crying," the helicopter hook of "Golden Age") and Adebimpe attacks "Dancing Choose" like a mic-wielding battle rapper. And then there are the glimmers of drum & bass ("Shout Me Out"), drunken horn sections ("Red Dress," one of several songs to feature members of Antibalas), and carefully-plucked film score strings ("Stork & Owl") that spice up what's clearly TVOTR's most challenging effort yet. Not challenging in the sense of being a rough listen--challenging in terms of rewriting the group's supposed gloomy, stormy aesthetics. "You know how people always say that comedians are some of the saddest people in the world?" asks Adebimpe. "Well, the opposite is true, too. As heavy as some of the songs get, the joking around that goes around between the five of us gets out of control sometimes." "If people are listening to us because we're dark and brooding, great," adds Sitek, "But I think there's a greater percentage looking for us to do something different with every album. Some of the darkest songs on Dear Science are the more upbeat ones. Like 'Crying' is f**king heavy, dude." If you' still toss on such beautifully-damaged tracks as "Dreams" and "Ambulance" when times get tough, don't worry--TV On The Radio still goes for the jugular in the melancholic and moody department. In fact, some of Dear Science sounds downright menacing. Take "DLZ": a fang-baring "f**k you" to the idea of death being "your last chance to do anything" according to Adebimpe, it's some of most frightening, and affecting, music in the TVOTR canon. "Stork & Owl" is much more muted in its mix of skittering beats, wilting strings and gorgeous, multi-tracked harmonies but good luck putting on a happy face after succumbing to its postmodern soul soundtrack. "It's like Bukowski once said, 'I write all of this stuff to get away from it,'" explains Adebimpe, who struggled with the deaths of a friend and family member during the making of Dear Science. "Writing is a meditation, an exercise to put away all these painful things.'" And that's ultimately what TV On The Radio still hopes to do with its music--they're still looking to connect, to make people feel something, anything no matter how up or down a song's arrangement is. "I grew up listening to Joy Division, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cure, the Smiths and the Swans," says Malone. "Some of that qualifies as 'goth' but it didn't make me depressed to listen to that music despite what my parents assumed. It didn't add to my 'angst' as a teenager. I simply identitfied with something in the music. "It made me feel less alone, you know?" he continues. "If I could be that for someone else, that would make me happy. It'd be a real form of success for me."
Review by Heather Phares
With lyrics and vocals that are just as ambitious and attention-getting as the music surrounding them, TV on the Radio have always had a lot going on in their music. Indeed, Return to Cookie Mountain was so elaborate that topping it would be difficult, so on Dear Science, (yes, the comma is intentional) the band channels its focus into lean, nimble songs with more structure and polish -- and more focus on Tunde Adepimbe's and Kyp Malone's vocals -- than any of TV on the Radio's previous work. This immediacy and crystalline clarity take some getting used to, especially compared to Cookie Mountain's lavish yet organic sound: "Family Tree"'s strings, pianos, and plainly worded vulnerability make it one of the band's most accessible songs, but it doesn't feel like anything was sacrificed to make it so anthemic. That feeling only deepens on the self-evidently sexy "Red Dress," which uses Antibalas' vibrant brass and taut guitars to show-stopping effect.
As Dear Science, unfolds, it becomes clear that it isn't so much a radical change for TV on the Radio as it is a slight but significant shift in approach. "Stork and Owl," an inspired mix of hypnotically looping samples and flowing, real-time soulfulness, and "Love Dog," which boasts some of Adepimbe's most affecting singing since "Staring at the Sun," could have fit easily on earlier albums with a few sonic tweaks. And, like Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and Return to Cookie Mountain, Dear Science, begins with an epic statement of purpose -- although "Halfway Home" is as sleek as it is grand, sprinting towards its end with streaking guitars -- and ends in an embrace with "Lover's Day," a duet with Celebration's Katrina Ford that turns "I wanna break your back" from a threat to a come-on. Tackling love and war, often within the same song, is all in a day's work for TV on the Radio. However, the band's take on these themes is subtly but notably more optimistic here, as though lightening their sound lightened their mood as well. "DLZ" broods over "the long-winded blues of the never," but on the brilliantly funky "Golden Age," Adepimbe sings "there's a golden age coming 'round" without a trace of irony. Malone's "Crying" calls out the wrongs of the world but ends up just as hopeful as it is angry, while the pun in "Dancing Choose"'s title is pointed enough that the song almost doesn't need to prove that dancing on your troubles is powerfully therapeutic as thoroughly as it does, but that's just another example of this album's rare balance between craft and passion. That comma at the title's end seems naggingly open-ended at first, but it's actually a perfect fit for Dear Science,'s openness to possibilities and positivity.
TV on the Radio:
[4AD / Interscope; 2008]
Dear Science, TV on the Radio's follow-up to 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain-- a dense and textural album with an optimistic core-- is catchier, but thornier than its predecessor. Musically, it's an instant grabber: Handclaps crack like fireworks. TVOTR's horns, courtesy of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, sound punchier and brighter than ever before. Vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/singer Kyp Malone thrive as dual frontmen: They're sexy when they're angry, and even sexier when they're not. And David Sitek's production is shiny and urgent, while his harsher synths and doo-dads hang back like a commentary track.
But making popular music sits uneasily with this art-rock crew, and so although this is TV on the Radio's slickest, catchiest, and potentially most popular LP, it nevertheless reeks with dread. Lyrics about the dead, death, and dying litter the album from its second line onward. Songs with sentimental titles carry the most dire lyrics-- like "Family Tree", a gorgeous ballad about forbidden love whose titular plant becomes a gallows. And the lyrics to "Red Dress" are almost childishly pouty. Assuming the role of industry-bred stars, TVOTR complain that instead of waving collective fists in the air, listeners are merely getting down to their Prince-like guitars and brash brass: "They got you tamed, and they got me tamed." But the self-hatred makes it engaging: "I'm living a life not worth dying for."
The promise of dancing away all your troubles hangs over every sweaty note, until TVOTR happily yank it away. On "Dancing Choose", the big chorus and synth power-chords interrupt the funk and double-time vocals to remind us this is a rock band, prone to making big statements. See also "DLZ", a half-rap, half-primal scream from Adebimpe that sounds like it's aimed at every figure of power in the world. But how do they follow that? With a big brash song about fucking. Anthemic horns and parade drums treat the whole thing like a football pep rally, "I'm gonna take you, I'm gonna shake you, I'm gonna make you cum." That could be their most transparent lyric yet.
"Shout Me Out" is the only cut that reveals any unselfconscious joy. With a chorus that borrows well from Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", it comes the closest to the raw sound of their past works: Repetitive guitar and a chiming synth loop introduce Adebimpe singing a gentle verse, as the song builds to a fantastic, frenetic release and the electric guitar crackles and rails along. This is familiar territory for them-- and they get out fast.
Yes, this is shit-hot thrilling music. But it's also brainy and ambivalent, and more engaging for it. TV on the Radio remain a true Event Band, and the sign o' the times they capture here isn't audacious hope, or fierce revolution: it's confusion. They're the house band for a country that has no idea what'll hit it next, and Dear Science is a jagged landscape of self-doubt, Bush-hate, and future-fear. And once in a while, you still get some of their optimism. Take the first single and the album's fulcrum, "Golden Age", which ice skates to heaven on billowing horns, sweet swirling strings, a video that stars harmless dancing cops, and Malone's falsetto. Malone has said it's about "utopia." And he sings like he still believes in it. But he has nothing to back him up but the beat.
- Chris Dahlen, September 22, 2008