TV on the Radio - Dear Science Review

Three years ago, TV on the Radio was a small-time success story, a band riding the high of the indie sensation, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. Then they dropped the masterpiece, Return to Cookie Mountain, on a mostly inexpectant world, along with killer single, “Wolf Like Me,” a track so immediate, startling and appealing that it remains a likely candidate for top ten song of the entire decade. Now, they release their third full-length, Dear Science, which may very well be the most hotly anticipated album of the entire year. Still not quite household names, they’ve still captured the attention of any and all music listeners who’ve sampled their wares. And, of course, we want more.

Those with realistic expectations knew that they wouldn’t, couldn’t and probably shouldn’t top Cookie Mountain. Any attempts to up the ante would invariably lead to disappointment. Radiohead knew they couldn’t out-okay OK Computer. But Thom Yorke went to abstraction. TV on the Radio savvily goes the other direction: irresistible catchiness. No one really sounded like TVOTR then and no one does still. But for all of their genre-jumbling, electro-rock-jazz-a cappella-pop fusion, the songs on Science almost always strike home on the first listen. Their triumphantly weird opener on Cookie Mountain, “I Was a Lover,” was a potent gem, but one that improved exponentially with multiple listens so we could scavenge out every nook and cranny. There’s no doubt that spinning Science again and again will unwrap hidden little treasures (hell, it already has by my mark), but leadoff, “Halfway Home,” will have even the most jaded of listeners tapping along by the three minute mark. It’s no anthem (really, none of them are), but they seep into your ears and stick to the bones, causing a reflexive agitation that can’t be contained. The first listen is for the visceral response and this album is chockfull of, um, ass-kickers.

Critically, the “ass-kicking” comes from the way TVOTR can hypnotically build any simple or familiar pace by layering subtle textures and working each note to a fever pitch at all the right moments. Most songs are like “Halfway Home”—it wins over the listener gradually instead of revealing every trick right off the bat with a generic rhythm. “Stork and Owl” unfolds slowly as well, using strings, carefully timed plucking and hypnotic vocals to slowly transform the early low-key melody into a soulful grabber. “Dancing Choose” starts out in shaky territory with singing that borders on a rap, but the stuttering beat is joined by handclaps, horns and shifty guitars, before emptying out in a bouncing falsetto chorus. And “Family Tree,” for all of its bleak lyrical imagery (“And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree/There's a hundred hearts soar free/Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young”) is absolutely gorgeous.

While they trade some of their earlier obtuse uniqueness for more hook-heavy musical inspirations, there’s nothing overly obvious or derivative going on here. The closest they come is when their clearly-defined adoration for Prince is unleashed. The band has always had a Prince edge to their music, but “Golden Age” is blatantly inspired to the point where I half-expected him to show up and vamp on the mic (they got Bowie for Cookie Mountain, after all). And on closer, “Lover’s Day,” they decide to up the alluring, sweaty raunch of Prince’s Dirty Mind by moaning, “I'm gonna take you/I'm gonna shake you/I'm gonna make you cum."

For all of its accessible and grabbing musical constructs, this is by no means a joyful and optimistic affair. Common themes range from regret, anger, depression, lust and confusion. The melodies are all inviting, but the words are intentionally brittle and prickly. “DLZ” best addresses this internal conflict, traversing from a spare and bubbly beat straight into an encompassing tirade: “Congratulations on the mess you made of things/On trying to reconstruct the air and all that brings/And oxidation is the compromise you own/But this is beginning to feel like the dog wants her bones.” What once seemed playful now careens towards a hard-edged cliff of sinister atmospherics blanketed with steely sonic thorns. “Never you mind, death professor,” it continues, “Your structure's fine, my dust is better/Your victim flies so high all to catch a bird's eye view of who's next.” Potent stuff, and that sort of edge keeps things interesting as we have no choice but bob along to each impeccably crafted and strikingly layered tune.

The only times when Science stumbles a bit is when we sense the non-Prince déjà vu setting in. The lofty ooh-ing on “Love Dog” made me immediately think of the stellar (and untouchable) “Tonight” off of Cookie Mountain. Sections of the vibrant “Red Dress” just sound like a funkier take on the harmonizing pattern of “Province.” And to address a minor, personal quibble, “Shout Me Out” employs that recognizable descending three-note hook from Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” (also recently heard on Cake-rip-off Flobot’s “Handlebars” and countless other songs in between). But these are all so trivial of imperfections that it’s essentially akin to saying the Beatles weren’t all that great because you didn’t care for “Revolution #9.”

While not as arty and distinctive as Cookie Mountain, Dear Science exceeds its masterful predecessor in immediate gratification. Even on the first listen, I identified at least a half dozen tracks capable of becoming hits, though none as stunning as “Wolf.” The band’s appeal lies less in their talent and more in their widespread sound. There’s not a person alive that wouldn’t be able to find some element in TVOTR’s sound that they could latch onto. They’re diverse and quirky enough to appeal to outsiders. They build tremendous hooks that any Top 40 drone would be incapable of missing. And the mix of fuzzy hum-singing and piping skyward vocals by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone works perfectly—the hum is never dull and the skyward never whines.

Those who might have cantankerously bemoaned the more meandering passages of Cookie Mountain will have nothing to complain about here: the songs are tighter and more refined. And more stubborn Cookie Mountain die-hards may try to resist the impossibly dense and textured pop songs of Science (not to mention the fact that it’s not as “album-y”), but its tuneful and compelling beauty will wear down anyone. As far as essential album releases, TV on the Radio is now three-for-three. And each one, while having different strengths and encompassing moods, have undeniably been spawned from the same feverish creativity this group has in spades. This is a glorious album that meets every expectation, all the while being very different than what I expected.

"Dear Science" is on sale September 23, 2008 from DGC/Interscope.

Matt Medlock


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