Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes

TV on the Radio, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Over the course of more than a decade and five albums into their career, there is still no band like TV on the Radio.  They are sui generis, a singular entity that defies easy characterization but continually produces gorgeous and engaging music. As great as their studio output is, it gives but a glimpse of the true power of the band, and that’s its live show.  Last Thursday’s show at the Crystal Ballroom was a thrilling experience that capped off not only a wonderful year of concerts, but proves that more than ever we need to be thankful for the band’s existence.

Inside, they don't take as much care in lining up the names for the concert calendar

Inside, they don’t take as much care in lining up the names for the concert calendar

On record, TV on the Radio exerts an air of precision and carefulness; even when the songs are filled with hisses and layers of ambient haze, there is still the notion that this “noise” is meticulously constructed, with the particular vocal styles of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone also contributing to this perception.  However, their live show moves away from their more artfully produced side and instead brings out their dormant punk rock tendencies.  This was established in a dramatic fashion at the very beginning of the show, as waves of haze and noise filled the air like an aural fog machine before Tunde ripped through and delivered a thrilling rendition of one of their earliest songs, “Young Liars”.  Though I have my doubts that most of the audience had an previous familiarity with the song, by the end of the first chorus it didn’t matter, and they provided an enthusiastic response.

Tunde was moving around the stage and wringing the emotion out of every note, often with the aid of his unique physical mannerisms that in the hands of a less capable performer would look ridiculous but were clearly genuine expressions on his part.  Dave Sitek spent most of the set furiously strumming his guitar, and though it was nearly impossible to pick out his singular contributions it was clear that he was making an important contribution to the general atmosphere of each song; he stood in direct contrast to Kyp Malone on the other side of the stage, whose stillness amid the chaos portrayed an almost zen-like quality to his guitar-playing and vocal parts.  In their live performance, the brilliance of the composition of the bass and drum parts become much more apparent, and Jaleel Bunton and Japhet Landis helped not only to keep everything grounded but offered thrilling personal touches of their own.  While Landis seemed to struggle slightly with a couple of the turnarounds in “Lazerray”, he more than made up for it with his handling of the tricky rhythms of “Province”.

TV on the Radio performing "Golden Age"

TV on the Radio performing “Golden Age”

The set focused mainly on the new album Seeds, with the band performing most of the album, including a stretch of four songs in a row that indicate the band’s confidence in the material.  Considering we here at RIJR think it’s one of the top albums of the year, we were fine with this decision.  The band sprinkled only a little bit from the rest of their catalog throughout, with Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain getting a handful of songs each.  For the most part, the intention was to keep the energy up, and so fast-paced rockers like “Dancing Choose” and “Golden Age” dominated the setlist in favor of the band’s slower songs (though a re-working of “Blues From Down Here” showed the versatility of their more balladesque material).  As expected, “Wolf Like Me” was a thrilling highlight, with the crowd absolutely losing its mind during the band’s ferocious performance.

The band seemed to genuinely enjoy their visit to Portland, and the crowd was glad to benefit from the extra shot of energy that comes with the final stop at the end of a tour.  But there were other things that were understandably on the band’s mind, as Kyp and Tunde both took time between songs to express frustration with the recent current events and promote positive social awareness in the audience.  This included a memorable segment that involved crowd participation about “light” and “dark” and Tunde running through and high-fiving the audience.  All of this led up to the final song, the moment that I had been hoping all night to hear once again, and that was their electric performance of their early hit “Staring at the Sun”.  It is one of the highlights of desperate youth, blood thirsty babes, but it takes on a whole new dimension when performed live that few bands in history can match.  It was a sensational conclusion to not only a brilliant show, but to the year in general.  Thanks to that performance, I’m going to have to reshuffle my list of top concerts of the year, but that’s a great problem to have.

Review: TV on the Radio – Seeds

It’s almost absurd that I have waited this long to formally write up a review of Seeds considering how often I have listened to it since it was released last month.  This can be explained by the tension between how difficult it has been for me to attempt to intellectualize my love this album and how easy it has been just to cue it up on my iPod or keep it playing in my car stereo.  So while I struggle where to objectively rank it within the TV on the Radio discography, I will at least declare how goddamn fun and beautiful and brilliant this album is.

TV on the Radio kick off Seeds seemingly mid-song with “Quartz”, a seemingly sly acknowledgement that while this has been the longest gap between records in their career so far, they have still been busy in the meantime, upheaval within the group and all (and taking it a step further from their similar gambit from Nine Types of Light, which began with “Second Song”).  From there, the band slides easily into a joyous and ebullient first half, with the one-two punch of the sweet “Careful You” and the jubilant “Could You”.  The latter is possibly the most irrepressible song in the band’s deep catalog, with its catchy melody line and brash backing horns (as well as an early lead guitar line that mimics those horns beautifully in a nifty bit of foreshadowing).  “Happy Idiot” follows, and though not the highlight of the album, it’s easy to see why it was chosen for the lead single–it has a great hook, nice groove, and a driving beat that fits comfortably within a radio playlist but is still able to distinguish itself with some subtly intriguing touches (such as the “hey-hey-hey”-like sound effects leading into the chorus).  Looking at the song from the context of the album as a whole, it also serves as a fulcrum between the different halves of the record, as one can sense some of the tinges of sadness that dominate the second side.

Seeds lulls a bit in the middle with the trio of “Test Pilot”, “Love Stained”, and “Ride”, though this is intentional.  “Test Pilot” is a touching ballad that rests in a downbeat groove, with “Love Stained” tweaks the formula by riding an illusory double-time hi-hat/half-beat groove combo, creating an undercurrent of tension and serves as one of several instances of a push-and-pull dynamic that is found throughout the record.  “Ride” is seemingly set up as the centerpiece of the album, with its two distinct halves–the first part is a slow gorgeous instrumental ballad that recalls a major chord version of Nine Inch Nails’s “The Frail” mixed with the lushness of the band’s own “Family Tree”, before switching gears into a second part that’s a bouncy and buoyant pop rock song, driven by an insistent Krautrock-like motorik drumbeat that brings to mind early-era Secret Machines that sets up the rest of the album.

With their buzzsaw guitars, “Winter” and “Lazerray” find TV on the Radio rocking out harder than ever.  The former uses a half-time beat in a similar fashion to “Love Stained”, creating the illusion as if the band is fighting through an invisible force attempting to drag them down, while the latter finds the band just flat-out letting loose in the most punk-rock fashion they’ve done since “Wolf Like Me”.  The album closes out with the bittersweet “Trouble” and the hopeful title track, and it’s then that the album’s true theme pushes through, that of rebirth in the face of loss.  After the death of bassist Gerard Smith, it wasn’t set in stone that the band would return, but it’s clear that TV on the Radio are working through the loss of a beloved friend.  The overall result is a record that hits all possible emotions, but in a way that is consistently engaging and repeatable.

As for the original conundrum, I’m still not sure it matches the creative brilliance of their debut desperate youth, blood thirsty babes or Dear Science, it’s still more consistent than Return to Cookie Mountain and Nine Types of Light, though there is no single song that is the equal of “Wolf Like Me” or “Killer Crane”.  I find it surprising that while the reviews of the album are still quite good, critics are ranking Seeds significantly below their previous work.  Despite this, my prediction is that as people play the album more and more, its charms will become more apparent and its reputation will grow.