Channel surfers

Pub date September 17, 2008
WriterMosi Reeves
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Tunde Adebimpe sounds like he’s in good spirits. Four years ago, when the lead vocalist of TV on the Radio was in his first brush with fame, he would snap at false critical judgments — from comparisons of his voice to "Games Without Frontiers"-era Peter Gabriel to race-oriented articles focused on the group’s unusual makeup of Adebimpe, guitarist Kyp Malone, and keyboardist/producer David Sitek — two black men and a white man.

Today, though, as he walks out of his apartment into the streets of Brooklyn, Adebimpe speckles his conversation with chuckles. He jokes about the Gabriel comparisons, noting, "He has a better tailor than I do." And he shrugs off TV on the Radio’s galvanizing success. "It’s encouraging, because we don’t make the most conventional stuff," he says. "We’re not rich off making records."

Though it’s not necessarily an Obama-size achievement, Greg Tate from the Black Rock Coalition probably didn’t imagine a mostly black rock band would become the darlings of the gentrified indie-rock establishment a mere 20 years after he protested racism in rock in the 1980s. But after two albums — 2004’s breakthrough Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go) and 2006’s follow-up, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope/4AD) — of brilliant, brashly intellectual and brazenly avant-garde music (three if you count its 2002 self-released debut, OK Calculator), TV on the Radio’s artistic achievement has eclipsed "black rocker" stereotypes.

By now, TV on the Radio’s amalgamations are well-cataloged: a little bit of doo-wop, a lot of Fugazi, and sprinkled with gospel-like choral rhapsodies. Despite or because of its alchemical properties — Adebimpe claims, "We’ve never written an original note in our lives" — a TV on the Radio album sounds wholly different from anything else. Sitek’s heavy-mental production techniques isolate Jaleel Bunton’s drums and Gerard Smith’s bass into echoing timbres. Adebimpe and Malone’s wavering voices tremble as if they were trying to find rays of hope amid the mud and asphalt of everyday troubles. A TV on the Radio recording is full of hardy optimism; it sounds like a triumphant battle for the human soul.

"I think that there has to be something outside of our reality. I genuinely hope and find that it is, because if it’s not … " says Adebimpe, his voice trailing off. Then he adds, "Our reality is pretty good. It’s got its perks. But hopefully there’s more to it. Whether that’s inside of a person or outside of a person, I have no idea. But there’s got to be something that’s less flawed, and sometimes boring and sometimes repetitive, than just us."

Set for release Sept. 23, TV on the Radio’s third full-length, Dear Science (Interscope/4AD), radiates with newfound confidence. Songs like "Red Dress" and "Golden Age," the latter on which Malone sings "Clap your hands / If you think your soul is free," positively bop with funk. Then, on the slightly kooky "Dancing Science," Adebimpe raps in a stutter-step pace about the information age overload. The effect isn’t as laughable as you’d think.

Dear Science‘s playful observations sound like a miracle after the earthwork obduracy of Cookie Mountain (which sold 188,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Universally hailed as a watermark on its release, Cookie Mountain refines Desperate Youth‘s ambient guitar lines and protean libido into granite walls of distortion, drums, and lust. On Desperate Youth‘s "Staring at the Sun," Adebimpe sings, "You’re staring at the sun / You’re standing in the sea / Your body’s over me," squeezing his lover in a viselike grip as if to protect the paramour from a world teetering on collapse. Compare that song with Cookie Mountain‘s "Wolf Like Me," where he doesn’t want to smother you, but devour you. The band attacks with ferocity as Adebimpe seduces his Little Red Riding Hood: "You’ll never know / Unless we go / So let me show you."

For all its enigmatic power, Cookie Mountain quavers with tension. Shocked at its success — "I feel like, after Desperate Youth, we were definitely astonished we were allowed to make another record," Adebimpe says— TV on the Radio initially struggled to devise a follow-up. "We were suddenly questioning ourselves about others’ opinion, which is always death," he observes. "But you always get to a point where you shrug it off and you say, I have no idea what anyone else is going to think. I can only do what I’m going to do…. The last record was intense periods of absolutely no fun followed by two months of the best time recording."

If Cookie Mountain closed a chapter for TV on the Radio’s alabaster soul, then Dear Science signifies a new direction. Adebimpe calls it "brighter and cleaner," shorn of the dense layers of distortion of the past. The music is wide open. The future is wide open.

TV on the Radio play at 7:25 p.m., Sat/20, on the Bridge Stage at Treasure Island Music Festival.

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