TV On The Radio
Rating: 8 out of 10
When I’d first listened to Return To Cookie Mountain, TVOTR appealed to me as more of an Art band, an updated encapsulation of a vision shared by the likes of Eno, Byrne or Bowie. Their melodies recaptured Motown better than modern-day R&B has in the last twenty years while also employing some of Brian Wilson’s brilliant vocal arrangements and they seemed to perfectly sum up the last fifty years in Pop music, but in a very contemporary and distinguishing way. They grabbed genres, mixed them together and created this blissfully atmospheric soundscape that essentially absorbed all attention. It was the album that made you thankful someone came up with the idea for headphones.
Dear Science isn’t so much a deviation from what they’re known to do as it is a danced up and tidier version. Dave Sitek, main production entity, still ably supplies a slick backdrop for singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone to wax harmoniously atop, hitting smooth highs and lows like some hipster barber shop quartet. Listening to the first track, “Halfway Home,” it doesn’t initially sound like much of a departure from Cookie Mountain, although it’s a cleaner mix employing a larger, more extensive bag of tricks.
Throughout Dear Science, TVOTR further blur the line of delineation between Art and Pop music, crafting a more accessible and pleasant mixture of dance-friendly constructs and power ballads. So much do they blur this line that they almost exist on the other side of it, potentially residing outside the comfort of their credible, formidable and artistic integrity. A song like “Crying,” were it not for TVOTR’s established identity as an Alternative act, could put them dangerously close to TRL rotation. With “Crying,” it has to be pondered, that were this record put out by another band or performer, would it deserve any attention? Or, would it effortlessly be lumped in as disposal Pop-manufactured dreck?
Maybe it’s an unfair question to ask. The fact that TVOTR, like Talking Heads, make as much of an effort to expand the public perceptions of what Pop or Rock is deserves kudos. But, in a time when producers seem to be the ones adding credibility to Pop stars and starlets, stretching their mostly-limited range and integrity into new realms of appreciation, (fooling people, basically), it’s difficult anymore to know when you’re being caught up in a bad case of “bait n’ switch.” Sitek, now being one of the more established and relatively renowned of his ilk, and having already helped add some credibility to Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers, is in a position to keep his band on top of their game no matter where he takes them. That being said, Dear Science makes me paranoid, like I’m being sold a lie.
But, the outwardly enhanced aspects of Dear Science notwithstanding, TVOTR have still pulled together a decent record that resonates with the present day and age. Overt political overtones tear through the nearly-rapped “Dancing Choose” and Latin-flavored “Red Dress.” “Stork & Owl” gets emotionally weighed down by an abundance of stringed instrumentation, almost taking on the life of DeVotchka’s “How It Ends.” Still, Kyp Malone sings it beautifully. “Golden Age,” a song that defines catchy, marries Prince with Sly in a symphonic dance track that is sure to gain some admiration. “Family Tree” is like the “She’s Leaving Home” of Dear Science, sung over echoed piano notes and what sounds like a fleet of graceful violins.
For me, the album’s highlights come into being with “Love Dog,” whose elements unite in a beautiful and seamless array of vocal harmony, plucked strings and light brass. Gerard Smith’s deep low end takes on a life of its own toward the end of the track, almost to techno proportions, but serpentines around Jaleel Bunton’s drum machine, like pronounced current gliding through static. “Shout Me Out,” builds up slowly and then shifts into a quick reminder that these guys use guitars and the mood goes somber for fuzz and beat-heavy, “DLZ.”
“Lover’s Day,” (Because what’s a soul-based album without a jam about banging?) puts Kyp Malone on a parade float with backing vocalist, Katrina Ford, (on loan from the band, Celebration), long enough to threaten, “I’m gonna take you/I’m gonna shake you/I’m gonna make you cum.“ The beats march on, trumpets blaring, till the album ends.
Realizing while writing this that Dear Science may not necessarily be a “sugarcoated follow-up to a veritable masterpiece,” it is, nonetheless, somewhat of a regression. Being too kind to the ears, no matter their content, TVOTR will appeal to a wider audience now and put themselves in a position to either sink into the Pop abyss where they may alienate their fanbase, or continue to tread in familiar waters. As much as growth is necessary for stability, TVOTR are in risky territory. But, they’re gaining a lot of positive feedback and there is some consolation to a band like this being a part of the otherwise plastic and unremarkable world of Popdom. Maybe they can restore its worth. Either way, they’ve definitely left Cookie Mountain.
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