[19 October 2009]
Long before joining TV on the Radio in 2003, Kyp Malone was already writing and performing his own songs. So it’s a wonder that it took him this long to release a solo album. Granted, he and his day band have been very busy and productive over the last half decade, but I’ve always assumed Kyp was a pretty restless guy. The eponymous debut of his solo handle, Rain Machine, is definitely a departure from TV on the Radio’s dirty whirl of sound. The overall mood of the album is melancholic, but the pall is peeled back periodically for a quick blast of joy.
Rain Machine opens with the quick and dirty “Give Blood”. It’s the only song on the album that bears any resemblance to TV on the Radio, but it feels more like a rough, ragged demo that never got the full-band treatment. As you might expect from the title, the lyrics are concerned with the sacrifices one makes for his or her art: “And if you think sweat’s the only thing they’re looking for / Better check for leeches”.
With its sinuous guitar lines and sleigh bells, “New Last Name” makes quick work of luring you into its lair. “Driftwood Heart” casts a similar spell with a soft, buzzing organ drone and finger-picked guitar (a mandolin, perhaps?). I’ve always admired Malone’s deft ability to construct a tune that oozes aural pheromones. If you need further proof that he is a modern day master of song-as-tool-of-seduction, please listen to “Lover’s Day” from TV on the Radio’s Dear Science.
Like “Give Blood”, “Hold You Holy” is another salvo of Malone’s kinetic guitar work and the perfect showcase for his frayed, bluesy howl. Now that I mention it, that howl of his really is the star of this album. He seems incapable of uttering a syllable that isn’t dripping with sincerity. Conversely, that magnificent voice can also create the illusion that certain songs are stronger than they actually are.
The aching, itchy guitar on “Smiling Black Faces” builds—a bit too patiently—towards its inevitable climax of Kyp hollering “I can see smiling black faces” in his strangled falsetto. It’s a winding narrative that encompasses, among other subjects, the tragic slaying of Sean Bell, and follows in the vein of Bob Dylan story-songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Hurricane”. “Story-song” is actually a good descriptor for a few more tracks on Rain Machine, although none of them are as successful as “Smiling Black Faces”. “Desperate Bitch”, “Love Won’t Save You”, and “Winter Song” are plodding, indulgent epics that all clock in at least eight minutes in length, and all seem more concerned with narrative than melody. Their replay value is quite low, to say the least.
Rain Machine feels like a greater disappointment when you realize that Malone has had at least a decade to produce enough quality songs to fill an album. I can only assume that the best of his compositions have become TV on the Radio songs, but, considering the caliber of his contributions to the band, I expected more of him on his solo outing. And yet, despite Rain Machine’s failure to really sink any hooks into me, Kyp Malone still remains among the most captivating songwriters and performers working today.