The Mysterious Sound of TV On the Radio

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I mentioned recently that one of the newer bands that I like a lot is TV On the Radio.  I might have included their new album Seeds in my favorite albums of 2014, but I only just got it this week, and it is still somewhat mysterious to me.  In fact, even though I own all of their records and have spent a decent amount of time listening to them, they are a pretty mysterious group.  Their records are hard to get a bead on.

They make indie rock, but their records feature stronger personalities, are sexier, and are more expansive in sound than most indie groups.  The music itself is steeped in mystery as there are heavy layers of sonics, and the musicians themselves play more towards the overall sonic picture than trying to make the instruments do anything unique in their own right.  The writer Nick Hornby talked about how we love pop records until we figure them out.  Once we figure out how they do their magic tricks we move on.  I’ve had several of TV On the Radio’s albums for a couple years now.  For the life of me their arrangements and song structure escape me.  This is not to say they are inaccessible.  Although their first few records have a post-modern dread to them in places, they always feature vocals up front.  All of their records, but especially their last two, feature strong inviting melodies.  There is just something elusive about them that makes them hard to completely pin down.

At first listen they might appear like a good deal of the other indie music that is out there right now.  However, the grooves are deeper, the singing more unique and meaningful, and their personalities are stronger than most bands in that genre.  Their records seem heavily influenced musically from the early 80’s post-punk scene.  (They do this without being married to this period as so many modern indie bands are.  They use this period as a jumping off point, but take these influences in new directions.)  Factory Records bands like Joy Division and New Order seem to hold court here.  So do 4AD acts like the Cocteau Twins.  Vocally there is also some early Prince falsetto going on at times.  There are even times when vocally the band reaches back to an early doo-wop feel, despite singing more modern melodies.  Lyrically the band touches upon everything from sex to politics.  That is the second time the word sex has come in.  Their two singers, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, often sing with a sexy soulfulness.  This does not mean that they have soulful voices in the tradition of Sam Cooke or Al Green.  But unlike so many other indie singers you get the sense that they are bringing passion to the proceedings.  (Scan my recent blogs to find where I bitch about indie rock singing and the death of sex in music.)

Yet despite what I have written I can’t say for sure if their records are above average or are actually great.  Although they can write catchy melodies, it is often the texture of their records that I think of first.  As many times as I have heard their records, they seem somewhat new with each listen.  I’ve had Dear Science on my iPod for at least a year if not longer and almost every time I feel like I am listening to an album I just got.  Sometimes, and only sometimes, I feel they are moving my intellect more than my heart.  There is no doubt what they are doing is interesting and worthy.  I feel like on certain tracks they are truly pushing the envelope, yet they do so in a way that never completely leaves behind the pop fan.

I think they are one of the few bands that you really have to hear to know if you like them or not.  Their first two records are more sonically experimental and are infused with a dark and sexy modern dread.  There is a slight amount of David Lynch in these records.  However, because of the love and soul they bring to the equation, they never take on the completely hopeless aura like many latter day Radiohead records have.  If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea try either Seeds or Nine Points of Light.  These records are much more melodic and major key.  Although the jump between styles isn’t nearly this big, I think you could almost compare their early and later records to the difference between Joy Division and New Order.  (Who were musically the same band other than singer and the addition of another musician in New Order.)  I simply am trying to get you to think along the lines of them slowly morphing from modern dread to more accessible pop music, without ever sounding like they have sold out.  I feel like Dear Science provides the bridge between these two eras.  It continues the darker vibe of the first two albums, but is has a more accessible pop sound than either one.

I think all their albums are worth exploring if you are a music fan.  They are one of the few bands to emerge in the last decade that I am generally interested to see what they do next.  I still feel like there is something about them that is evasive, that only by checking out their records for yourself, can you decide if you like them or not.  Usually when I listen to records I can think of which of my friends might like them, sometimes I am surprised, but not usually.  With TV On the Radio I’m not sure who would or wouldn’t like what they do.  The way I see it this is a good thing…

Here are two Letterman performances.  Both are from the album Return to Cookie Mountain.  The first is the exciting dread infused Wolf Like Me.  The Second is Province, which is one of my favorite songs of theirs, especially the studio version featuring David Bowie on background vocals.  This is one of their more accessible pop songs that points towards the kind of material they would do later in in their career.  Whether you like these live performances or not, I would still check out their studio work, because with producer David Sitek in the band, they are most definitely a studio band, even if their live performances can be exciting.  

TV on the Radio: Music for the Head

I have been listening to TV on the Radio the last 23 hours.  I have Dear Science, Nine Types of Light, and Return to Cookie Mountain.  There music sounds fresh every time I listen to it.  The writer Nick Hornby once talked about how we tired of pop music when we figure it out.  TV on the Radio’s music is like a puzzle inside of a riddle.  Although they have a few songs that lean towards straighter pop music, their song structures, their sense of melody, and their rhythms are all bizarre.  The question for me is do I appreciate them more than I love them?

There is no question that they are doing something fresh and original.  When I grow tired of my record collection I can put on their albums and feel as if I am listening to something for the first time almost every time.  I can’t quite crack the code.  There are a few songs in their oeuvre that I can really sing a long to and that allow me to forget my place in space and time.  However, I can’t tell if I like them more on an intellectual level or if I feel deeply moved by them on an emotional level.  I think I feel more intellectual about them, but the jury is still out.

Singing along to something in the world of pop music isn’t necessarily important.  Durutti Column always moves me, but much of the music created by Vini Reilly is instrumental, as one of many examples.  But if we are talking vocal music there does seem to be melodies that ingratiate them to ourselves and those that do not.  I mean I love Public Image Ltd., but their music isn’t something for a campfire sing along!

I think we need music for the head and the heart.  I want things that challenge my notion of what music can be, and I want some things that can make me feel on a deep emotional level.  It’s great when music can do both, but it is definitely the rarest of rare.  I am glad that a band like TV on the Radio exists out there on the perimeter.  They have managed to create a sound that carves out a new space in the conservative world of pop music.  I can’t stop thinking when I hear them.  Maybe at some point their music will open up to me and allow me to feel something deep as well.