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Bond Ambition

Sonic Density And†Experimental Sensibilities Tie TV On The Radio To Black Rock Futurists

TAKING OFF: TV On The Radio gets closer to making its sound and fury signify something on its new album.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 7/12/2006

As far as pretension goes, TV on the Radio stacked the deck against itself: a Brooklyn art-rock band made up of former visual artists who donít want to be thought of as a rock band at all with a totally lame-ass name. Oh, and TVOTR has been championed by that old vampire David Bowie, never a good sign. (See also: cocaine, Nazism, the Arcade Fire.) Itís the kind of band where you prepare for the auto-backlash before the album arrives in stores.

But TV on the Radio is also a great band. It doesnít always write great songs, but itís got one of the best lines in swooning noises since My Bloody Valentine. (Then again, MBV wasnít exactly Cole Porter, and no one holds that fact against it.) It has great voices in Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone--lambent, grainy, wounded. And while itís not as afraid as it should be to float freely on record, live the band kicks up a shit storm of punk drive and ear-bleeding noise.

And on its second album, Return to Cookie Mountain, it gets a step closer to merging its onstage firefight, its on-record tone poems, and songs you can actually hum. And somebody, somewhere thinks they can sell it to Killers fans. The album is out now on import from 4AD. Itís "forthcoming" on Interscope in the United States with a release date thatís "still in negotiation," which means sometime between now and never given the labelís history. But it deserves to be heard whether it ends up in Best Buy or not.

Cookie Mountain opens with "I Was a Lover," and songs like this are why youíre willing to forgive TVOTR its excesses. Thereís a staggering, stumbling hip-hop rhythm that sounds like a couple of cave men got a hold of a drum machine. A sitar buzzes, and three loud, distorted guitar chords clang in response. Huge, mournful horns swell up from the wooden floorboards of a Brooklyn practice space like tidal drift and astral travel on loan from an Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders record.

Adebimpe and Malone bleed the warmth and humor and sexiness out of the great falsetto singers. Their ugly and wounded voices are perfect for this song about the ugly and wounded space that opens up between two lovers after a split. "And we donít make eye contact/ But we have run-ins in town/ Just a barely polite nod . . . Mano ŗ mano/ On a bed of nails."

Except for "Lover" and the barnstorming, almost-glam "Wolf Like Me," the rest of Cookie Mountain mostly eschews drive for drift. Songs form from loops, muggy drones, rainbow fountains of spurting electronics. But anyone looking to TVOTR for coherence at this point hasnít been paying attention. Despite the improved songwriting chops, the band is mood music in the best sense, worshipping texture over text. One of the standout songs, "A Method," is just a series of drum clicks and shivery, formless vocals that sounds like it was constructed from the run-out grooves of half a dozen Al Green records.

Forget the lazy-ass Peter Gabriel comparisons: If TV on the Radio has a peer, itís the languorous feedback squalls and fallen-angel falsettos of the long-defunct British band A.R. Kane. On records like 69--its cover art conjuring Milky Way swirls, yin-yang symbols, and the sticky sexual coupling the number implies--dreadlocked guitar players Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala sculpted erotically textured noise that swayed freely to the pulse of Jamaican dub. A.R. Kane made music as soft and malleable as molten iron.

Thereís a tribute to A.R. Kane called "AR Kandy" lurking in the 23 long tracks of More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion (TruGROID), the new double album by TVOTRís New York neighbors Burnt Sugar. Critic Greg Tate, who leads the polytendriled improvising ensemble, was one of A.R. Kaneís few American champions, shifting the bandís context away from the "black Jesus and Mary Chain" and toward Sun Ra and Miles Davis. Burnt Sugar is like a sketchbook of Tateís critical obsessions: electric jazz, black punk rock, doo-wop, avant-funk.

Tate calls Posthuman "23rd-century R&B . . . our version of what R&B bands might sound like today if live bands hadnít been derailed by sampling technology in the Black community somewhere around 1977." Itís an album that stretches the elastic, anything-goes spirit of Parliament-Funkadelic to the snapping point. The fury of free jazz and the sprawl of electric Miles Davis is compressed like anthracite into soul music diamonds.

Tate convened Burnt Sugar in 1999. At the time, he talked scale: great black painters made huge canvases, great black musicians made double albums. Burnt Sugar is all about density--34 musicians, singers, DJs, and rappers contributed to Posthuman--a kind of textural overload that makes TVOTR look monochromatic. Even squeezed into R&Bís gold dinner jacket, Posthuman covers enough ground to deserve its own section in the record store: funky bass vamps meet the organs of Ethiopian jazz meet blaxploitation chicken scratch meets the Mississippi blues meets the lilt of reggae meets solar flares of Hendrixian guitar noise.

Of course, despite the concept hook of Posthuman being an R&B album, Tate knows these songs--politicized, occasionally ugly, completely divorced from the reality of current urban radio--have nil commercial potential. TVOTR is going to suffer from a similar problem, with rock radio in retreat not just from experimentation but also from the talk, country, urban, and Top 40 formats that have all but killed it. Judged on coherency, both of these albums are noble failures, stuffed with ideas that never fully gel. But their glorious, messy overreaching outshines plenty of other stuff trying to pass itself off as ambitious right now.

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