TV on the Radio's utter distinctiveness has driven critics to scrounge for adjectives. The vocal harmonies of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe have been compared to everything from the Beach Boys and Peter Gabriel to gospel music. But lead singer Adebimpe denies having any religious aspirations beyond “the meditation” that takes place “when you're spending a lot of time on something.” And he says no particular band has inspired the group, just “humming around all the songs in your head.”
Endlessly on the road in the service of gaining recognition, Adebimpe and his bandmates have plenty of time for hummed reveries. “It's really kind of exhausting,” says Adebimpe on a cell phone from somewhere in New England. Last night, the five musicians played a concert in Montreal with tour mates Beep Beep and the Faint at Cabaret La Tulip. Today, their van is rumbling toward Boston. “Remarkably enough, it's still fun,” he adds.
Adebimpe estimates that TV on the Radio has played some 300 shows since leaving Brooklyn last November in support of last year's brilliant EP, Young Liars. And, as he rues in a singsong voice, they've had to “play the same songs night after night.”
The acclaim continues to build for TV on the Radio's Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, which Adebimpe recorded with fellow vocalist Malone and producer/multi-instrumentalist David Andrew Sitek (who also produces fellow Brooklyn bands Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Last month, the album was selected to be one of 10 finalists for this year's Shortlist Music Prize, an annual award given out to the best album released between July and June that has sold fewer than 500,000 copies. In recent months, bassist Gerard A. Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton have joined the trio.
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is certainly an extraordinary record. Deeply visceral, it bustles with passion, from Malone's poetic deliberation on mortality, “King Eternal,” to the uncensored lust of “Wear You Out.” These emotions are articulated through broken verse and vocals that are deep, burnished, and guttural.
On “Dreams,” Adebimpe sings, “I know your heart can't grieve/ what your eyes won't see/ but you were my favorite moment/ of our dead century.” Then, more obliquely, he sings, “Oh warfarin' terrapin/ unconfined undesigned/ undersigned bantering.” His method of revelation is to distort words into static until they become a singular, undeniable current. It is an electrifying experience that is tempered by the ennui and melancholy in his voice; you can hear him straining for some sort of release, and the panoply of feelings he sheds before achieving it.
“One of the nicest compliments about it is that people say it takes them through a wide range of emotions,” says Adebimpe. Still, this isn't necessarily achieved by a wide variety of sonic styles. Sitek's trademark sound is the loud rumbling of a rhythm guitar and bass, a classic rock motif that reminds one less of the motorcycle rumbling at the start of the Shangri-La's “Leader of the Pack” than a burning, painfully ulcerous heart. The “range of emotions” Adebimpe speaks of is primarily achieved by the inflections in his and Malone's voices, which undulate like oil drills mining for home truths.
“When you're writing about your emotions towards a certain event, listing what you're feeling is not as accurate as describing what you're feeling,” he says. Then, trying to be more specific, he adds, “It doesn't feel right to me when you're just kind of laying it down like, 'This happened and this happened and this happened on this day and da-da-da-da-da.' That's interesting, but what did you feel like when it happened?
“With the exception of two songs, I feel like every song on the album was inspired by a very genuine bad day, or good day, or just, like, a very legitimate emotion,” he continues. For him, music is a form of expression, a conduit between things locked inside one's mind and thoughts articulated on paper or, in this case, on disc.
In other words, TV on the Radio is not a group of party-hearty fashion rockers romping over a 4/4 beat (Killers' Hot Fuss, anyone?), though the members' press photos — which usually capture the bespectacled Adebimpe, Sitek, and Malone (with his distinctively massive blow-out 'fro) staring straight and purposefully into the camera — reveal them to be as stylish as any corporate-backed act. Unlike other New York rockers, they don't copy their favorite '80s post-punk icons; far from a typical indie-rock band, they are not Pavement ad infinitum, doomed to crank out the same jangly pop over and over again.
“If you listen to music, there's residual noise that goes on [in your head],” Adebimpe says. “It's not so conscious. I definitely did not sit down and say, 'How the fuck can I sound like Peter Gabriel?'”
At any rate, all this hubbub and commotion doesn't mean much. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is just another critically acclaimed album, and TV on the Radio is just another band touring around the country, working hard to promote itself. Still, something special is happening, even if it's just the always welcome sight of good music slowly seeping into the mainstream.
Adebimpe puts it best: “What are songs good for? I have no idea,” he laughs. “Songs are good for the same thing that art is good for: It can be a nice respite from an otherwise gray and idiotic world.”