It hardly seems like more than ten years since TV on the Radio made its big splash in 2004. Back then the Brooklyn based fivesome composed of mostly black members was still an oddly in alternative music – a decade after Living Color and The Veldt reached their peaks.
Tunde Adebimpe, one of two lead vocalist, soulful voice combined the band’s alt rock influences with shades of Prince and maybe even a bit of Adrian Blue. The band’s second album but first official album, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was easily one of the year’s most interesting albums.
When the voices of David Sitek (the albums producer) and Kyp Malone (the other lead vocalist) were added, a odd blending of harmonized doo wop melodies with funk and crunching guitars would sometimes be the result. The layered complexities of Desperate Youth,… made it was one of the most challenging, yet accessible records of the early Ohs. What made it so accessible? For starters Adebimpe’s singling style recalled bits of R&B with prog rock. That occasional doo wop element made for a surprising contrast to Adebimpe’s voice on the a capella song “Ambulance”, just one of many surprising tracks on this album.
The harmonies were supported by sharp melodies and driving rhythms – a musical trinity missing from a lot of alt rock during the ‘lost decade’. The first single “Staring at the Sun”expertly brought all these elements together and became a surprise out of nowhere hit on college radio and later the alternative rock singles charts.
It can be difficult to describe TV on the Radio’s sound without describing bits and pieces of a host of other bands including Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Prince and at least a half-dozen other noise makers. What makes TV on the Radio unique amongst their influences is once again how the energy of punk, dance and other pop styles were packaged with driving rhythms, melody and harmony.
TV On the Radio was not unlike Bad Brains in its raw energy or Living Color with deconstructed song structures. Like any rock band with something to say, TV On the Radio addressed many of the common issues and some that were unique to black males in America in particular on ‘Wrong Way”.
The heavy subject matter continued with “Bomb Yourself”, a response presumably to the still fresh events of 911. Where the subject matter is not heavy, the music could be. The title song with its looped bass distortion is at once the most funky and guitar busting rock track on the album. This was the kind of energy that made TV On the Radio so special and arguably could only come from a band with their unique perspective on metal, punk and funk.
The odd diversity that was TV on the Radio could have been seen as the band’s greatest strength and weakness. If you ask the average black music buying kid who TV on the Radio was, and you’d likely get blank stares – even as would be black DJs were expanding their musical pallets in search of new sources of sampling. This is the unfortunately sad cultural trap that bands like Fishbone, Bad Brains and TV On the Radio had (have) to endure.
Despite critical acclaim and the technological advances that made their music more accessible to a larger audience, old-fashioned biases still existed where marketing was concerned. In Europe it was not so much an issue, but I still wonder how differently things would have been if Sitek (the band’s only white member) was the band’s public face.
Over time some of those built-in biases would go away. TV on the Radio’s critical and commercial profile continues to rise into the present day. At this writing the band’s fifth album was just released to favorable reviews.
The funny title alone should be enough to peak your interest if you have not treated yourself to this unusual, yet interesting album. For anyone new to TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is as good a place to start as any to sample one of the most interesting bands of the last ten or so years.