In Brief: Dear Science was better, but this is still a worthwhile follow-up with an ear for witty phrasings, sick beats, and a highly caffeinated social consciousness.
The timing really couldn’t have been worse for TV on the Radio to lose a band member. The release of a new album is supposed to be when you’re riding high, enjoying your time in the limelight, thrilled to finally have the material you’ve been slaving over in the studio out there for public consumption and feedback. But as TV on the Radio prepared for the April 2011 release of Nine Types of Light, their much anticipated follow-up to 2008’s Dear Science, tragedy struck. Their bassist, Gerard Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer only the month before, and he passed on a mere nine days after the album was released. That sort of thing has got to put a damper on a band that would normally be eager to get out there and promote their new stuff. To TVOTR’s credit, it looks like they’ve made do in live performances due to the ability of is members to wear multiple hats (so someone either switches to bass or uses keyboards as a substitute), and even played the hell out of these new songs as if to do right by their deceased friend. Still, that’s got to be hard. And the future of the band might be up in the air as a result of it.
What’s good about the timing of Nine Types of Light – an album that was written, recorded, and shipped off for mastering before the tragic news struck, is that it’s a defiantly optimistic album. They didn’t know at the time that it’d be their last one with Gerard on board, but since knowing that tends to cause more rumination on death and despair in a band’s songwriting than usual (which in and of itself isn’t always a bad thing – see how the Dave Matthews Band bounced back after losing Leroi Moore, for example), it’s kind of nice that he didn’t go out on a downer ending. While Nine Types of Light is an aware enough record to include the biting social commentary that turns many of their songs into raucous protest parties, for the most part it’s a mellower, smoother, and surprisingly more optimistic and even romantic record. It’s a bit of a gear shift down from the highly experimental and yet highly catchy Dear Science, and as a result it might not be as “important” of a record, but it’s still a solid enough follow-up. The group’s oddball fusion of R&B, funk, indie rock, and occasional baroque pop experimentation still shines in such a way to remind you that these guys are unique, and that their fallen comrade spent a few of his last months on Earth doing something that he loved.
As for my personal reaction to Nine Types of Light, it’s a bit mixed, though mostly positive. This one didn’t quite have the same learning curve as Dear Science (which, to be fair, was my first TVOTR record), and while in some ways it was refreshing to get into its more chilled-out groove right away, it was also slightly disappointing. You won’t find anything quite as oddball here as the spitfire rap of “Dancing Choose” or the wacky marching band hijinks of “Lover’s Day”. In general, Light doesn’t have quite the same level of audacity as Science did. That seems intentional – a lean 10-song track list and a mostly mid-tempo vibe that carries from song to song (with two or three notable exceptions) would seem to suggest that they were aiming for more of a focused record. It’s something that I can put on when I need a good chill pill but I don’t need to be put to sleep. It’s all a well-constructed and passionately played mishmash of electronic beats and bleeps, soulful vocals, and brilliantly layered instrumentation. At times it’s even a bit seductive; at others it’s cathartic. Still, I get this nagging feeling that most of the songs have a little something holding them back from being completely brilliant, which leaves most of the album in the “pretty good” range. So it all depends on your perspective. Go in expecting non-stop mind-blowing art and you might come out a bit disappointed. Go in expecting something that will soothe the savage beast without having to kill brain cells in the process (this band somehow manages to be both blunt and literate at the same time), and you’ll probably come away satisfied. If you’re one of those listeners who is wary of the more experimental side of rock music due to a high percentage of experiments that don’t work, then this disc might strike you as more consistent than usual. The bottom line seems to be that TVOTR comes across as deliciously unique within the larger landscape of indie rock, but veterans of a now-familiar sound in comparison to their own past material. I wonder at times if they could’ve pushed the envelope a bit more, but at the end of the day, I really can’t complain about what they gave me.
1. Second Song
BLATANT LIES! How could they call this “Second Song” when… you know what, never mind. They’ve opened with one of their most engaging songs, definitely the most exciting thing on the record for me, though its odd false start doesn’t make it seem so at first. As Tunde Adebimpe‘s voice just sort of stumbles in where a rhythm and instrumentation should be, the rest of the band seems to catch the hint and gradually pick up, which in little time leads to a slick drum/bass groove, his vocals ping-ponging back and forth with Kyp Malone‘s falsetto chorus. There are horns aplenty as the song really picks up steam, and in many ways this resembles some of my favorite stuff from Dear Science. The lyrics seem to reflect the song’s mood of gradually waking up and becoming self-aware – the confusion of the verses (“Confidence and ignorance approve me/Define my day-to-day/I’ve tried so hard to shut it down, lock it up/Gently walk away”) contrasts nicely with the rallying cry of the chorus (“Every lover on a mission/Shift your known position to the light!”) It’s a good thematic lift-off for the album, bringing that central image of “light” to the forefront, even though at this point I’m not sure exactly what the light is or why there are specifically nine types of it.
2. Keep Your Heart
Hmmm. Isn’t it a little early for a slow jam? This one’s definitely got TV on the Radio’s oddball fingerprints on it, with the hand-clap beat and bits of atonal background noise, and for a slow-burning ballad-type song, it’s pretty interestingly constructed. Still, nearly six minutes of this so early in the album is a bit of an albatross, especially as Malone drags out most every line just to make it drip with vocal flavor. I’ve got to admire the man’s talent – he’s singing in an almost inhumanly low register at first, and as the song wears on, he gradually gets lifted up to a level of falsetto that seems to defy testosterone itself. I really do mean that as a compliment, since I sure as hell don’t have anywhere near that range. Still, it’s all a bit odd to listen to, and it feels like a deep album track thrust up toward the front for no apparent reason. I don’t dislike it; I just wish they’d put it elsewhere.
I guess it’s Tunde’s turn at a lovelorn ballad now. This one picks up the tempo a teeny bit over “Keep Your Heart”, though I’ve learned not to judge songs on tempo alone. Still, Dave Sitek‘s slow, careful guitar lick that repeats throughout the song doesn’t quite give it the push it needs to sound anything more than minimalistic, so at first, this is tough going. Basically, a guy’s messed up over a girl who dumped him without so much as a goodbye, leaving him to wonder what the hell went wrong. It seems a bit pedestrian at first – a band with as much on their minds as these guys wouldn’t let themselves get away with “You’re the only one I ever loved”, would they? But that’s exactly the sentiment here. The chorus attempts to add a little psychoanalysis, though it doesn’t get terribly far: “Constantly wrong/Though the feelings were half where we lied/Constantly wrong/Though the secrets were safer at night.” That’s marginally interesting, and some of the keyboard/synth stuff adds a nice atmosphere to a decidedly melancholy track, but still, I’m having trouble relating to the song because I have a tough time buying the “only one I ever loved” premise from pretty much any band whose members are over the age of twenty.
4. No Future Shock
Not that I mind love songs in principle, but here’s a track that seems like it has a little more on its mind. The tempo’s been bumped up again, this time we could dance to it if we wanted to, and that’s exactly what TVOTR is commanding us to do, though one gets the sense from the lyrics that it’s the kind of dance you do when someone’s shooting at your feet. Over a bumping beat, the kind you could probably feel rather bad-@$$ pumping out of your car stereo with the windows down, Tunde spits out sort of a rap/singing hybrid, ranting about systemic oppression that basically keeps the poor man down. He’s not one to mince words here, as evidenced by choice lines such as “Oh mother dear, did they really cop a feel before they robbed you blind?” or “After the war broke your piggy bank/The b@st@rds broke the world this time.” This paints a picture of a harsh and dissonant modern-day reality, a world where men have seemingly no choice but to turn to crime in order to make ends meet. It’s almost criminal that this bleak outlook is paired to such a catchy chorus as they chant repeatedly: “Dance, don’t stop! Do the no future, do the no future shock!” But getting that lodged in a listener’s head is arguably the best way to bring the injustice to light. And they’ve done so one one of the album’s best tracks.
5. Killer Crane
Another long, slow song here, but this one’s a different beast than “Keep Your Heart”. It’s more sparse, with its distant piano chords originally reminding me of Dear Science‘s “Family Tree”, while the titular bird makes me think of “Stork & Owl”. Honestly, neither of those were among my favorite tracks on that album, but I find myself really intrigued by this one once I get deeper into it. It’s surprisingly folksy, with acoustic guitar and banjo chiming in, following the melody line and doing their very best to evade preconceived notions of anything that might resemble bluegrass or “hillbilly” music*, while also comprising one of the most defiantly non-rhythmic tracks in the TVOTR discography (or at least what I’ve heard of it thus far). It keeps a cool, even pace, but the mood is more dreamlike, describing the flight of this fearsome bird as if it were a fragment of memory just barely being held onto. The chorus is its own curious bit of poetry: “Sunshine come crawling through the hanging vines/A memory of what is mine fading away/And this night heals the ground, and the moonlight steals the sound/I could leave suddenly unafraid.” It’s a rare moment of tranquility from a band known for a very busy sound, and while this seems to run at right angles from the rest of their work, it’s an intriguing mid-album breather, not overstaying its welcome despite being the album’s longest track.
6. Will Do
Another love song here, one that comes to a bit more of a simmer than those earlier in the album, but that doesn’t quite seem to reach a boil. The controlled burn is probably intentional, since the song comes wafting in on the sound of bells that could be straight from a child’s lullaby, which is interesting when it meets up with the rhythmic waves that seem to punch the listener’s ears with each successive crest. This is a song about obsession, far as I can tell – and not the violent kind, but simply the kind that will wait as long as it takes for the object of its affection to come around. Whether it’s romantic or downright condescending is up to the ear of the listener – get a load of this verse: “Your love makes a fool of you, you can’t seem to understand/Our heart doesn’t play by rules, and love has it’s own demands/But I’ll be there to take care of you, if ever you should decide/That you don’t want to waste your life in the middle of a lovesick lullaby.” See, depending on where you’re coming from, that’s either sweet, or it’s just telling the girl she’s too dumb to get the hint that she’s not getting any younger and this suitor might be the best she can do. Comparing her love to a volcano’s caldera in the bridge might not be the best analogy to win her over with, but then again, I could be taking that to mean something much more suggestive than intended. It’s just the way Tunde wraps his mouth around the word “caldera” – it just sounds dirty. Despite my biases and the unfortunate implications, this is a less imposing single than what we’re used to from TV on the Radio, yet still a rather addictive one. I feel like I enjoy it more than I wish I did.
7. New Cannonball Blues
Now this is how you turn up the heat. Leave it to a bitter rant about depression to really get the energy going! Drummer Jaleel Bunton is just on fire here, kicking out a slamming beat that makes up in sass what it might lack in tempo. Gerard Smith’s fuzzed-out synth bass gives it that much more attitude, and Tunde chimes in with one of his more inspired, tongue-twisting bits of lyricism (which, unfortunately, contains the album’s only use of the S- and F-words; to be fair, it sounds like a situation he was pretty messed up over). I wouldn’t quite call it a rap, but the internal rhyme schemes and the killer flow of it all certainly suggest the band’s still wearing their hip-hop influences loud and proud. The horn section simply adds to the sizzle, and it’s quite easy to get caught up in the downward momentum of it all due to how effortlessly the words seem to roll off of his tongue. “It’s got me f*cked up and dried up and fed up, can’t get up/And bleeding and crying like I’m mad at the song.” There’s a bit of hope at the end as he tries to pick himself up and dust himself off, and to be honest, I’m never crystal clear on what caused him to get into this funk (no pun intended) in the first place. But since it’s sort of a “get it out of your system” type of anthem intentionally written for those who identify to “sing it with me like it’s your own”, the one-size-fits-all nature of it is intentional. It took some thought and it’s not at all written to be generic, so I can forgive the vague malaise, because honestly, this thing kicks butt.
So, if you were as enamored with “Dancing Choose” on the last album, and you’re looking for something that can fill its, um, choose, then this might fit the bill. Another slick drum beat, heavy on the hi-hats this time, collaborates with minimal staccato guitar to create one of TVOTR’s most repetitive (well, duh), but also most addictive anthems. Just look at the lyric sheet for this one – it’s a dizzying crash course of words that seems to denounce an obsession with capitalism, or a judgmental attitude, or… well, I’m actually not so sure what all they’re raving about, but it sure sounds like a protest that would be fun to join! Kyp and Tunde are doing the tag team thing quite effectively here, with Tunde leaning towards rap while Kyp contributes the occasional bit of vocalization, all of it remaining precisely on point in keeping the lyrical flow. It’s all going swimmingly as the song builds in intensity, right up until its sweaty breakdown where the band makes the mistake of taking a joke that wasn’t all that subtle to begin with, and running it so far into the ground, it resurfaces somewhere in the Indian Ocean: “My repetition, my repetition is this!” yells Tunde about twenty times. HA. FREAKING. HA. That sort of ruined the song for me at first, but I guess I’ve come to appreciate the manic nature of it. This sure as hell would be fun in concert.
This spacy, post-apocalyptic song bumps along on its medium-speed, syncopated beat as if to give the feeling of exploring some sort of ravaged underwater wasteland. I suppose that mood is fitting, since Kyp’s breathy vocals are going on about Beverly Hills in the wake of a scorching summer and a nuclear winter, apparently wondering what will happen when primal urges take over and the fashionistas turn into survivalists all feeding on each other out of desperation. You can draw your own conclusions here about the superficial nature of what is honestly an easy target. Not that this isn’t a fun song, with its whistling taunts and its blasting, siren-like horns, but seriously, you guys had to go for Beverly Hills? Bit of a cliche there. Aren’t there perfectly snooty neighborhoods there in NYC for you to pick on?
10. Caffeinated Consciousness
To the untrained ear, this closing track is probably gonna sound like a lot of repetitive shouting just for its own sake. Hell, the main riff that repeats through out the whole thing is just a two note blast of horns and guitar that keeps on switching on and shutting off like an insistently blinking traffic light. This is a hook that’s bludgeoned into the listener’s skull by sheer force, no subtlety whatsoever. Yet, if you can get on board with the message of incurable optimism, of being so infused by light that you can’t even sleep, it’s quite intoxicating. Tunde’s energetic shouts take the occasional break for a much more melodic and comparatively calm verse from Kyp, but once you’ve heard that, you’ve pretty much heard all the song’s tricks. It might not be as elaborate and encore-worthy of a closing track as “Lover’s Day”, though I think it’s a much more fitting closer for this album on a thematic level than that song was for Dear Science. After all of the time spent being ticked off at society and bummed out and lovelorn, it’s good to end on an up note, and that final, cold stop after the insistent riff has had its last say certainly does seem to seem to finish off Nine Types of Light with an exclamation mark.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Second Song $2
Keep Your Heart $.50
No Future Shock $1.50
Killer Crane $1.50
Will Do $1
New Cannonball Blues $1.50
Caffeinated Consciousness $1.50
Tunde Adebimpe: Lead vocals, loops
David Andrew Sitek: Guitars, keyboards, loops
Kyp Malone: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, loops
Jaleel Bunton: Drums, backing vocals, loops, guitars
Gerard Smith: Bass, keyboards (deceased)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
* If the notion of a banjo being used by a primarily African-American group strikes you as odd, ironic, or in any way redneck-ish, then please do go read up on the history of the banjo.
Originally published on Epinions.com.