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TV on the Radio was initially swept into the general hype for the revitalized New York rock scene, but the band quickly scaled to its forefront. Punctuated by a devastating a capella cover of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves," the strength of its 2003 Young Liars EP helped fuel a critical hunger for 2004's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, out on indie godfather label Touch & Go. The din continued unabated, and before the group knew it, it was in negotiations with Interscope for the follow-up, Return to Cookie Mountain, now slated for release in June.
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TVOTR guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Kyp Malone admits that moving so swiftly into the major-label leagues was "frustrating" in one regard. "Maybe it's just my trip, [but] I feel like I'm in a situation where I have to apologize about it to people I don't know," he says. "[We] have emotional ties to the people and philosophy of Touch & Go, but [leaving is] what we need to do. [Interscope] is definitely high-profile, a wider audience to be met, [and] Interscope has a vehicle to get into different worlds."
The group is soaring in a much bigger universe, sharing a label with Eminem, Gwen Stefani, and New York peers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with David Bowie naming it his favorite new band in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. It's a long way from when loftmates Tunde Adebimpe and David Sitek first began four-track experiments together back in 2002. As the duo ventured out into making noise at a local dive bar, the Stinger, Malone came aboard and they began recording in earnest. Once the touring picked up, bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton were worked into the fold, turning TV on the Radio into a five-piece.
Return to Cookie Mountain benefits from the expanded lineup. The industrial haze of Desperate Youth lingers on songs like "Tonight," but Sitek's guitar chords detonate through the layers. Songs like "Wolves Like Me" show TV on the Radio at its most serrated and diametrically rocking. The rhythms are far more supple this go-round, with pianos and sax coruscating across the sonic field, and the vocal harmonies ring out emboldened. "We approached [recording] with more confidence," Malone explains, adding that more time in the studio helped incubate the material. "We just knew that we couldn't care about the outside world or anyone else's demands."
This isn't to say that the band turned a blind eye to what transpired beyond the recording console. The botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina touched numerous entertainers as Kanye West came down hard on President Bush, TVOTR proffered "Dry Drunk Emperor," a free mp3 at the Touch & Go Web site. Over a thundering boom-bap that turns into militant toms and a clean guitar line that suddenly goes mucky and overdriven, the group vocal cajoles, "Did you believe the lie they told you? That Christ would lead the way?" Though seething with outrage, the group struck a delicate balance between political statement and pop song. "It's a danger to get that topical and specific," Malone says, but cites a correlation to "The Bullet or Ballot" speech given by Malcolm X in 1964. "[Malcolm X] doesn't name the president, he doesn't name the administration, he doesn't name the war that was going on, [yet] he talks about the war, he talks about the president; it could've been written in 2004."
For some it's a discouraging climate to be concerned with making rock music, yet TVOTR retains optimism amid such turbulent current affairs. Malone sums up Cookie Mountain as "a reminder to ourselves that it's still worth giving a fuck and trying to do good even if it seems doomed. There's still room to try and make things better." It's all part of a continuum of comment and dissent: Malone adds, "As soon as there was an abusive tyrant anywhere in the world, there was someone writing poetry or drawing cartoons or taking the piss. It needs to happen more."
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