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TV On The Radio

+ {Rain Machine} + {Maximum Balloon}

A hive of post-punk/indietronica activity since The STROKES, The LIARS, INTERPOL, The RAPTURE and RADIO 4 burst on to the New York scene in the early part of the millennium, Brooklyn’s post-9/11 experimental TV ON THE RADIO were far from the customary time-honoured band to find its way to near the front of the queue. Taking their impetus and spirit from WAR, FUNKADELIC, LCD SOUNDSYSTEM, PUBLIC IMAGE LTD and PERE UBU (possibly all rolled into one), singer Tunde Adebimpe and multi-instrumentalist/producer David Andrew Sitek, decided to lay down tracks in Tunde’s ad-hoc loft. Augmented by Sitek’s brother Jason on drums/percussion, a demo album (OK CALCULATOR (2002) {*5}) was recorded and distributed among their circle of friends; copies of which finally reached proper outlets who would take an interest in their angsty-soul reverberations. Hooking up with Touch & Go Records and augmented by LOVE LIFE’s Katrina Ford and LIARS’ guitarist Aaron Hemphill (not forgetting YEAH YEAH YEAHS’ drummer and guitarist Brian Chase and Nick Zinner), TV ON THE RADIO were now implanted on vinyl with the release of the `Young Liars’ EP in 2003. Boasting five tracks including an “Untitled” hidden track re-vamp of PIXIES’ `Mister Grieves’, plus `Satellite’, `Blind’, the title track and the original of `Staring At The Sun’, the collective were touted as NY’s next big thing. Ironically, David repayed the complement to aforesaid session colleagues and went to work as producer on YEAH YEAH YEAHS’ `Fever To Tell’ (2003) and LIARS’ `They Were Young, So We Drowned’ (2004); coincidentally, they were also to cover YYY’s `Modern Romance’.
Subsequently roping in vocalist/guitarist Kyp Malone and saxophonist/flautist Martin Perna (as Jason’s replacement), a support slot to The FALL unveiled fresh songs that surfaced on the band’s adventurous debut album, DESPERATE YOUTH, BLOOD THIRSTY BABES (2004) {*8}. Encompassing jazz, gospel, doo-wop, hip-hop and an artillery of neo-no wave/punk vibes from the ashes of psychedelic souls of their forefathers, the group’s bleak, anxious, anti-war politics were splattered everywhere on `Bomb Yourself’, `Dreams’, `Don’t Love You’, `The Wrong Way’ and the aforementioned `Staring At The Sun’. A barrel of boogaloo or an apocalyptic a cappella, `Ambulance’ was their marmite moment in time. TV ON THE RADIO had twiddled the dials and, for the most part, came up trumps with a melodious myriad of sounds.
Realising that only a move upwards to a major label would reap them rewards, the band – with the added impetus of multi-instrumentalist Gerard Smith and drummer/percussionist Jaleel Bunton – inked a deal at Interscope Records (Ivo’s 4 a.d. in the UK). Paying off in spades, sophomore set RETURN TO COOKIE MOUNTAIN (2006) {*7} forged a loyal support after it just failed to reach the Top 40. Whether the prestigious presence of a certain Thin White Duke on `Province’ made the difference was conjecture, but in the stuttering, hypnotic hue and cry of `I Was A Lover’, `Hours’ and `Let The Devil In’, there was little let-up for listeners driven to the brink of a psychedelic/trip-hop breakdown. Building the beats and deconstructing them brick by brick, TV ON THE RADIO could be accused of too-many-cookies-spoil-the-breadth, but at least for the rebellious and revolutionary `Wolf Like Me’ and the shambling `A Method’, a more discerning ear could see a chink of light.
Trimmed to a tidier 5-piece with little need for organic sax (meaning Perna was out), 2008’s DEAR SCIENCE, {*8} was the turn of events needed to bolster their commanding CV; the intentional comma transpires as open-ended. Not curt of a few star turns to convince pundits of their newfound celeb status, Tunde, Kyp, David, Jaleel and Gerard engaged the not-too-inconsiderable talents of Katrina Ford (now of CELEBRATION) on `Lover’s Day’, and Brooklyn’s brassy Afrobeatniks ANTIBALAS on other stock and trade. Two places short of a Top 10 chart position and three shy of a Top 30 spot in Britain, their scientific revelations approached a more accessible immediacy; romance and dance almost – that’s almost! – juxtaposing the need to implode into anti-war chants. Still embroiled under a heavy skyfall of nocturnal aftermath, one could snuggle up to `Family Tree’ and groove to the beats of `DLZ’, `Red Dress’ and `Dancing Choose’, while the sonic movements of opener `Halfway Home’ steered home any parts still left to shake.
Opting for a break to regenerate their beat-en batteries, Tunde was happy just to guest on a few records, while Kyp Malone – who’d also teamed up with Aaron Aites’ IRAN on their `Dissolver’ set – moonlighted on the Anti- Records-endorsed RAIN MACHINE {*6} project (also in 2009). A different kettle of fried fish, a solo Malone tried hard to expand his horizons, even going as far as to namecheck the murdered Sean Bell by off-duty cops, on the politically-charged, gospel-sprinkled `Smiling Black Faces’. Sensitivities aside, there were excursions to other fields, mainly for the Eastern mantra-meets-bluegrass cues `Driftwood Heart’ and `Winter Song’.
On the other end of the spectrum, the indie/dance-orientated MAXIMUM BALLOON {*6} – the eponymous set from Sitek’s all-star-casting side-project – was unveiled in 2010. A workhorse producer with a plethora of scalps to his name, here, he twiddled the dials, while guest singers took their bows one by one. Ripping out leafs from the pages of PRINCE, NILE RODGERS and others of mirror-ball motif, Sitek roped in alt-rapper THEOPHILUS LONDON for the opener `Groove Me’, while the TVOTR momentum was kept intact on `Absence Of Light’ (with Tunde) and `Shakedown’ (with Kyp). As New York buddies Karen O (YEAH YEAH YEAHS), Katrina Ford and DAVID BYRNE turned up the heat on `Communion’, `Young Love’ and `Apartment Wrestling’ respectively, there was room for Ambrosia Parsley, Holly Miranda, Little Dragon and Aku Orraca-Tetteh.
Returning to their day jobs at TV ON THE RADIO, 2011’s mellower NINE TYPES OF LIGHT {*6} mirrored the success of their previous set – now what’s the odds that it too would reach US #12 and UK No.33!? Anyway, the enterprising, mildly eloquent set of 11 cuts made for an easier listen. Sitek’s life-changing move to the sunnier climes of Los Angeles to join JANE’S ADDICTION was unsettling for fans worrying of a break-up or breakdown, but working miles – or smiles – apart would probably have its positives in the long run. The expansive American psyche catered for from the Sunset Strip to Central Park, the satirical shutters were closed on dour dirges `You’ and `Will Do’. `Second Song’ being the set’s first track, and the ARCADE FIRE-like `Caffeinated Consciousness’ concluded the hazy-day dramas, but the best of TVOTR might’ve just been behind them.
And then the tragic news of Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer on April 20, 2011 (aged only 36); who would’ve thought that someone so young and talented could’ve been removed from the world of music. Without the man they completed one dedicated EP, `World Café Live’ (released that September from a May 27 recording for NPR).
Three long years to get back on track, and now on the roster of a revived Harvest Records, TVOTR restored normality on 5th official album, SEEDS (2014) {*7}. Sowing the er… seeds of love and war into one big melting pot of soulful psych or sonic R&B (delete as appropriate), the respective voices of Tunde or Kyp refrained from complex reveries to concentrate on back-to-basics tunes. The classic and anthemic `Happy Idiot’ (very EDITORS) should’ve pushed the album further than its lowly #22 spot, but in their tribute to the untimely loss of Gerard, a sadness had prevailed, leaving listeners to pick up the shards on the solemn `Test Pilot’ and the Gallic-addled `Could You’, while the uplifting `Quartz’ (pleading “How much do I love you?”) and the punk-y `Lazerray’, displayed a group reeling in transition. Tunde has since featured of LEFTFIELD’s comeback set, `Alternative Light Source’, guesting on the track `Bad Radio’.
© MC Strong/MCS Oct2015

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