In Brief: Dear Science won’t change the world, but it might change your perception of “white music” and “black music”, and who’s allowed to make either one.
TV on the Radio is one of those bands that is difficult – no wait, strike that – impossible to pigeonhole with a single genre descriptor. I’m sure many have tried. The closest I can come is “indie-afro-electro-dance-funk-soul-rock”. See? That doesn’t work too well. Unfortunately, up until the release of this eclectic Brooklyn band’s latest disc, Dear Science, I was quite content pigeonholing them based on a descriptor other people gave them: “difficult”. All reports on their earlier work seemed to indicate that even people who liked the band had a tricky time wrapping their head around the band’s 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain, so while I heard the buzz at the time, I didn’t bother investigating. Whatever challenging material TVOTR happened to come up with in the past, I think I picked a good album to get started on the band with. 2008’s Dear Science is one of those rare discs where it’s impossible to deny the artistry behind the creation of each song, and equally difficult to deny that almost all of them are incredibly catchy. These two properties often exist at odds with one another in the music world, so it’s always a treat to find one of those “Pitchforky” bands who knows their way around a solid hook. Hooks ain’t everything, as any person fed up with mainstream radio could tell you, but they’re a darn good entry point.
What strikes me the most about TV on the Radio is that they’re a multi-racial band (4 of its members appear to be of African descent, plus one white dude) who seems to exist outside of the paradigm of “white people make white music and black people make black music and anyone who crosses over is a novelty act”. We exist in a day and age where there are plenty of white rappers and soul singers (some credible, some not so much) and plenty of rock bands whose members aren’t all white, yet sometimes it seems we can’t get over the “gee whiz, black guy in a rock band” factor and just see the music for what it is. (Never mind that rock & roll owes its origins to Americans descended from both Africans and Europeans who raised a ruckus by mixing the styles of both continents.) TV on the Radio doesn’t care who owns what, who made what, who sounds more credible doing what. If they want techno beats and rap breaks and doo-wop vocals and fuzzy indie rock guitars to converge in a single song, then that’s what they do. I like this approach – it takes the perceived boundaries of “yours” and “mine” away from the music and invites whoever happens to stumble across it to come in and join the party, without ever having to play “the race card” or make big grandiose statements to assure us it’s OK to do this. These guys mix and match genres like colorful articles of clothing, playing what they love as if it never occurred to them that this was a weird way to approach music. In the 21st century, this shouldn’t be weird. But to some of us, myself included, there’s still a bit of a learning curve.
I guess I should make it clear that Dear Science is emphatically NOT a rap/rock album. The hip-hop influence only really shows itself on one track – which for my money happens to be the album’s most obvious and catchy single, but which isn’t really characteristic of the album as a whole. I only point that out to make sure you don’t expect this to sound like a mostly worn-out genre that went the way of the dodo somewhere earlier in the decade. (I had fun with it while it lasted, but enough is enough.) The two lead vocalists, Tunde Adebimpe (boy, that’s a fun name to say out loud) and Kyp Malone, take more of a soul/funk sort of approach most of the time, but they are equally capable of doing the murky, ironic, dejected indie rock thing when the situation calls for it. Similarly, guitarist David Andrew Sitek doesn’t throw a lot of power chords at us. He’s more about fuzzing and buzzing than riffing. Since no less than three members of the band contribute drums loops and other programming (Adebimpe, Sitek, and Malone), and two members play keyboards (Sitek again, and bassist Gerard Smith), with drummer Jaleel Bunton rounding out the lineup, it’s a bit tricky to call Dear Science a “rock album” unless you define it broadly enough to catch any and all recordings that use the electric guitar in some fashion. Yet, despite the jungle of programmed sounds, I’m not comfortable calling it “electronica”, either. It’s not clinical enough. There’s too much heart to it, too much uprising and clapping of hands, too much of a party going on to make it sound like machines are doing all of the work. Shoot, there’s even a marching band that takes over for one track. That’s not something you’d expect a group of geeky guys playing around with their laptops to come up with.
TV on the Radio’s lyrical approach is a similar pastiche of influences – you’ve got your downbeat, esoteric, shoegazing stuff courtesy of the indie rock ethos, and you’ve got your fist-pumping protest songs, and you’ve got a few attitude-laden zingers perfectly designed for nodding your head to a sassy beat. Yet these divergent methods of songwriting are never played out so differently that I feel like the band compartmentalizes a single facet of their personality into a single song. I generally don’t go, “OK, this is the big rocker, and next up is the soulful crooner, and after that the weepy piano ballad.” You could classify songs this way if it helps you to remember which track is which, but any description you come up with for a single song will find elements of itself bleeding into other songs. I like this – it suggests a highly collaborative attitude among the band members and a drive to never be satisfied with “OK, now we’re gonna do this guy’s song and then we’ll go back and do one of mine”. Ownership is relative. This might lead to a few moments where I wish this guitar part was less fuzzed-out so it’d be a heavier rocker, or that the beat was better defined because I was having fun bouncing along to the surrounding songs, but these are minor complaints at best. Occasionally I don’t get where the lyrics are coming from, or there’s a reference to sex or drugs that irks me slightly, but I can’t come up with any reasons to go against the more or less universal acclaim that Dear Science has been getting. It’s a solid listening experience, once you get over your preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to sound like.
1. Halfway Home
A comfort plush all laced in lead was sent to quell your sentiment
And keep your trembling sentinel hand at bay
And when a sudden silhouette escaped the top side of your bed
I knew you’d never ever be the same…
The opening track, with all of its buzzing guitar haze and dot-and-dash drum programming, is probably a good barometer for how TV on the Radio does “straightforward”. It’s uptempo, melodic, catchy even (especially due to those “ba ba ba”s in the background), but there’s a certain hesitant nature to it due to the way Kyp Malone’s vocals slowly emit a word or two at a time, as if carefully considering how to best phrase each thought. His falsetto is used to beautiful effect during the chorus, and the song begins to pick up steam farther in, starting to reveal the traditional, driving rock song underneath the fuzzy exterior. The lyrics are somewhat minimalist and highly interpretive (particularly in their use of the title, which has a double meaning of either being 50% of the way home, or being in a “halfway house” on your way from incarceration back to the real world), so while I wish the guitars had a bit more oomph, it’s a generally enjoyable and intriguing way to lead us into the album.
Gold is another word for culture
Leads to fattening of the vultures
Till this bird can barely fly…
The band kicks the level of funk up a notch with this track that aims to see a genre which had its heyday in the 70’s nudge its way into a new century, as they do their best computer geek impression of Prince, complete with another sweet falsetto vocal by Malone, while Gerard Smith plunks around with a candy coated bassline as David Sitek’s keyboard gradually work their way into the foreground stronger and stronger toward the song’s climax. Malone could practically be singing that soulful chorus through his nose, as high-pitched and breathy as it is, but this is never a bad thing. The short, clean stabs of electric guitar here help to up the funk quotient while the band is in some sort of restrained political protest mode, with veiled jabs at characters called “Mary and David” and a place called “Zion” that may or may not be metaphors for religious leaders or ideals. Again, the door’s wide open for interpretation if you’re willing to step through it.
3. Dancing Choose
He’s a what? He’s a what? He’s a newspaper man
And he gets his ideas from a newspaper stand
From his boots to his pants to his comments and his rants
He knows that any little article will do…
This would be the “rap song”, which gets revved up quite nicely by the low-end synthesizers and Jaleel Bunton’s jerky drumming. Tunde Adebimpe comes bursting out Malone’s shadow with his hyperactive, rapid-fire verses, which are almost humorous in their attempts to shoot down a naive young activist who seems to be caught up in whatever social issue seems to have made the headlines that day. It’s a fun little jab at young upstarts wqho mean well but who go so far off one deep end or the other with their politics that they forget the value of their fellow man’s capability to make up his own mind about an issue – hence “Keep your dancing choose off mine”. (Alright, so it’s a terrible pun, but that’s the only downside of an otherwise killer song.) Malone chimes in with more of a wry, subtle tone as he sings a strange chorus about things like drowning butterflies and pretending to be Axl Rose and God knows what else. That and a deliciously insistent horn section put a surrealistic punctuation mark on a song that ironically protests ovebearing protestors.
4. Stork & Owl
“What’s this dying for?”
Asks the stork that soars with the owl
High above canyon’s mighty walls
Owl said “Death’s a door that love walks through…”
Here, the band slows things down a bit and trends toward glitchy IDM and away from funk/R&B with their rhythmic soundscape. The machine like beat pops and clicks and skips, giving the song a jerky, swaying sort of motion, as Malone wanders through a strange parable about a stork and an owl having a conversation as they take flight through the evening sky. Honestly, none of it makes a lick of sense to me, but it’s still an intriguing bit of poetry, albeit crooned so smoothly that sometimes it’s hard to make out all of the words. A string section shows up to add to the grandeur, providing an emotional counterpoint to the machinery with their rhythmic picking and plucking. It’s like something from a fairy tale dropped into a dystopian science fiction story.
5. Golden Age
Like I said, love’s light is laughter
Like the sun spittin’ happiness into the hereafter
Oh, here it comes like a natural disaster
All blowin’ up like a ghetto blaster…
This might be TVOTR at their most upbeat, optimistic, and just plain old fun – they’re going for instant smiles here with a street-smart anthem about the dawning of a new era, one which features all manner of signs and miracles. Malone and Adebimpe collaborate beautifully, with one man’s falsetto cascading beautifully into the other man’s insistent, get-your-hands-up-and-party directives that he barks out as each verse comes crashing into the rousing chorus. I love that when he sings “clap your hands”, the guys begin to do exactly that to match the addictively syncopated beat. I love that he has the gumption to not just use the word “ghettoblaster” in a song, but to make it the payoff at the end of a string of rapid-fire rhymes. Jazzy horns and classy strings spice up the mix a little farther in, just to further drive home the collision of continents that gives this band its reason to make music. The only thing that’s weird to me is the “how low can you go?” approach to the synthesizers, which burp out bass notes so low that the end of the song, where they suddenly come to the forefront, seems to reach into a sub-audible range that will make the hair on the back of your neck suddenly stand up.
6. Family Tree
Oh, take my hand, sweet
Complete your release, unbury your feet
And married we’ll be
Alone in receiving, ours is a feeling, not that they would see…
Since the blending of rhythmic, urban sounds with more of an indie rock ethos is a big part of what draws me to TVOTR’s music, this is the one song where I feel that they play against their own strengths a bit, eschewing percussion almost entirely until a subtle beat begins to worm its way in later into the song. The piano is the dominant instrument here – electronically manipulated, of course – but still not quite a substitute for a solid backbeat. The echo effect given to the piano makes the song feel quiet but tumultuous, as Adeimpe croons a somber ballad that seems to be from a man to his bride on the surface, but which quickly turns morbid as he sings about a family fighting to keep evil young and a gallows hanging on the old family tree. It’s almost as if she’s telling the girl that she’s marrying into a family with a notorious reputation for bringing misery and death to all who would dare to mingle with its bloodline. Some find this song powerful. I can see how it would have that effect, but to me, it’s a bit creepy, and it kind of brings the album’s momentum to a screeching halt.
7. Red Dress
And you’ll all shake your hips, and you’ll all dance to this
Without making a fist
And I know that it sounds mundane, but it’s a stone cold shame
How they got you tame, and they got me tame…
The band gets the second half of the record pumped and ready to go by diving straight into this feisty protest anthem, which contains the album’s only profanity as Adeimpe spits out these incendiary opening lines: “Hey Jackboot, f*ck your war! ‘Cause I’m fat and in love and no bombs are falling on me for sure.” This song seems to be the undoing of everything that “Golden Age” told us to rise above for the sake of a better future – it throws the band into full-on funk mode (angry blurting horns and all) as it takes more than a few Biblical allusions and slams the gearshift into reverse, proclaiming that plowshares are beaten back into swords and sintly white robes become scandalous, bloodsoaked red dresses. This could be your typical “War, what’s it good for?” kind of anthem that gives us all a chance to give Bush one last kick in the butt on his way out the door, but I think the real indictment here is directed at the average American citizen, too insulated from world events and too assured of his own safety this many years removed from 9/11 to really give a crap who we invade or what the consequences are. (Makes me wonder if we’ll still be writing these kinds of songs after four years of Obama. Allow me to remain optimistic for the time being.)
8. Love Dog
Curse me out in free verse
Wrap me up and reverse this
Patience is a virtue
Until its silence burns you…
This glistening ballad is a good cross between rhythmic attitude and mellowed out reflection, offering Adebimpe a chance to prove he can do the “smooth as velvet” thing despite not relying on the falsetto as much as Malone does (at least, I assume it’s Adebimpe whenever the vocals are lower in pitch – feel free to correct me if you’re hardcore enough to know who’s singing what when). A slick, homemade beat propels the song along in 6/8 time, while the lyrics seem to be seriously pondering the punchline of that old joke, “What do you get when you cross an agnostic with an insmoniac and a dyslexic?” The answer to that joke is, “A guy who stays up all night wondering whether there’s a Dog”, and while there are no bad puns to be found in the song itself, it can’t be a coincidence that “dog” spelled backwards is “god”. The protagonist of this song is more or less described as a faithful lapdog, unquestioningly looking up to the sky, willing to serve his master, but wondering in the back of his mind if no one really hears him when he howls at the moon. OK, so it takes the cynical view towards religion. But I think it could be interpreted as a question of whether blind faith is really better than an informed faith that is willing to ask the tough questions rather than taking everything at face value. That could just be me putting my own spin on it. Either way, this track is smooth, and it’s one of the most memorable performances on the album despite almost every aspect of the music feeling like it might have been pre-programmed.
9. Shout Me Out
I know freeze has unthawed
And it’s putting your love into action, dear
It’s off in the breeze and it’s shifting degrees
And it’s opened your atmosphere…
I can’t help but think of those old “Shout it out!” commercials for a stain removal product whenever I see the title of this song. Fortunately, it proves itself to transcend my initial “this is a TV jingle” impression with its lazy hip-hop beat that suddenly goes into double-time, hyper-dance mode midway through the song as David Sitek’s guitars do their best Modest Mouse-inspired freakout. The lyrics here are almost impenetrable, and I don’t have the foggiest clue what these guys mean when they plead, “Lord, if you got lungs, ‘cmon shout me out!”, but it sure feels good to shout that line along with them.
You force your fire, then you falsify your deeds
Your methods dot the disconnect from all your creeds
And fortune strives to fill the vacuum that it feeds
But this is beginning to feel like the dog’s lost her lead…
The heavy synths, the minor key mood, and the “too cool for you” nature of this song’s slamming backbeat make it quite possibly the most attitude-heavy track on the album despite its more laid-back tempo. There’s a definite feeling of stepping into a danger zone when you listen to this one, and Adebimpe practically works himself into a frenzy spitting out each accusatory line, once again using the “dog” analogy for a character who he’s had it up to here with. I’m not entirely sure what he’s so worked up about, but the sing-songy “la la la”s sure add an air of taunting to this menacing song, and the repeated line “This is beginning to feel like the dawn of the loser forever” near the end might help us to pinpoint a meaning. The person gets called “Death Professor” in addition to “dog”, so whoever it is, they wield a lot of power and influence and have done too much damage to be simply patted on the head and told “good boy”. Leave it to TV on the Radio to sound genuinely p!ssed and convincingly poetic all at once.
11. Lover’s Day
Give me the keys to your hiding place
I’m not gonna tear it apart
I’m gonna keep you weak in the knees
Try to unlock your heart…
If you’ve made it this far and you still find that the lyrics of Dear Science would require an advanced degree to fully unravel, then you’ll probably be pleased to know that the final song wears its meaning quite comfortably on its sleeve. Well, maybe a clothing analogy isn’t the best one to make here, because this song is plainly about what happens on the weekends and evenings in between all of those advanced college courses wqhen you have no clothes on. (That’s my attempt to be funny while trying to hint that it’s about sex. And yeah, I’m about as subtle in my hinting at it as the song is.) Here, the group goes all Sufjan Stevens on us, bringing in an entire drum corps to give the song a lively marching band feel, as Adebimpe basically tells a girl all about how he’s gonna go to town on her. I think it’s meant to be funny. It comes out somewhere between slightly creepy (“I’m gonna break your back”, “Make the neighbors call the cops”, etc.) and just plain too much information (“I’m gonna make you come”). But it’s not just about being a total horndog – he might like it rough, but after all the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, he seems to genuinely want to make her fall in love with him. “I’m gonna take you home”, says the last line of the song, as flutes trill like hearts all a-flutter. And that’s when I set aside the prudish part of me and just go, “Awww”. Hell of a way to end an album. You can’t say these guys take themselves too seriously, I guess.
While I’m not one of those people who foams at the mouth over Dear Science and acts like this album was solely responsible for getting Obama elected and thus TV on the Radio will be regarded as the musical saviors of our planet (or whatever so many of those bigwig cooler-than-you critics are implying), I can’t argue with the fact that it’s a darn solid record. Any imperfections that I’ve found are things that I can admit are subjective, a matter of my own personal preferences. Everyone who enjoys this album seems to have different favorites for different reasons, and that’s a good thing – it shows that the band is skilled at wearing a number of different musical hats without ever sounding like they’re too big for their britches. (Again with the clothing analogies! Sorry.)
Let’s go with another silly analogy, then: Even long after the analog signals go dark, it’s still worth tweaking your antenna to see if you can get TV on the Radio.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Halfway Home $1
Dancing Choose $2
Stork & Owl $1
Golden Age $2
Family Tree $.50
Red Dress $.50
Love Dog $2
Shout Me Out $1.50
Lover’s Day $1
Tunde Adebimpe: Vocals, loops
David Andrew Sitek: Guitars, keyboards, loops
Kyp Malone: Vocals, guitars, loops
Jaleel Bunton: Drums
Gerard Smith: Bass, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.