TV on the Radio: New Health Rock

[28 October 2004]

By Tim O'Neil

The last few years have seen an explosion of hip young modern rock acts, many of whom possess more than a modicum of talent and most of whom have been summarily ignored by the public at large. All the acts championed by Spin and Blender these days seem to find success in an inverse proportion to their hype. So, the Hives have accomplished the strange feat of conquering the music industry without actually selling very many records. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs may have had one of last year’s best-reviewed debuts, but it still sold worse than whatever third-generation screamo supergroup MTV-2 was flogging last week. The Strokes were hailed by the American cognoscenti as the absolute best rock band to come along since Nirvana waded out of the swamps of primordial Seattle—and yet, Is This It? barely squeaked past gold. What gives?

Its not that these groups were particularly bad. Sure, the Strokes were definitely overhyped, but after you got past that fact, their first two albums were both pretty good. The Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Vines are all pretty good bands, but if that’s the case why did their releases fizzle on the shelves, or in the case of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, require an almost Herculean effort on the part of the record company to even muster gold?

I think it might have something to do with the fact that these bands were sold well before their shelf date. In the old days, promising alternative bands had lots of time to hone their craft and slowly ramp up to greater success by using independent labels and college radio as tools to gain market traction. Back in the ‘80s, it was rare to see groups like the Strokes making the leap from white-label demo to major label release without a few years spent slogging through the trenches and paying their dues. R.E.M. became a major label success in the late ‘80s almost in spite of themselves, and only after they had exhausted every conceivable possibility that tiny IRS records held for them. They had done the hard work of building up a large fanbase, critical buzz, incredible word-of-mouth and a touring discipline that would hold them in good stead. You can say the same thing, with varying degrees of success, about the Replacements, the Butthole Surfers, the Flaming Lips, Green Day and dozens more equally esteemed bands.

The Strokes, however, paid no dues. They may be able to play some catchy tunes (I loved Room on Fire, even if I think I’m maybe one of three people who did), but they absolutely reek of insincerity. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are far more of an authentic phenomenon, but still, for the life of me Fever to Tell plays like an album that should have been released on Kill Rock Stars, Touch & Go or Matador, not Interscope. If it had been a Matador release, that gold plaque would have been an unbelievable success, not a modest disappointment. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a rock star, but you should acknowledge the fact that it rarely happens overnight. Furthermore, if you are one of those rare and privileged few whom fame catapults into instantaneous superstardom, you should know that you will be resented and derided for your luck.

Groups like TV on the Radio don’t come around very often. The buzz has been comparatively quiet compared to other recent critical darlings, but the group’s fans are all the more intensely devoted. These guys are the real deal. They don’t sound like anyone else right now. They’re not really aping any particular sound or plugged into any particular movement. Much like all the best alternative groups of the past two decades, they seem on first examination to be almost sui generis. They’re weird enough to be safely below the radar of the average rock fan for the time being, which is a good thing, because as good as they are, they are still a long way from being as good as they will be. By the time they’re ready for their moment in the sun, it will probably be all the brighter for their initial reticence.

New Health Rock is only three songs long. One of these three tracks (“The Wrong Way”) was previously released on their debut LP Desparate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, and another is a cover (of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Modern Romance”). But even though there’s not even thirteen minutes of music on this EP, it is still one of the year’s most exciting releases.

The problem with Desparate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes—and to a lesser extent the more coherent but far more tantalizing Young Liars EP—was the fact that the group simply had too many ideas for their own good. The power of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, the group’s dual vocalists, lies in the way their voices sound irreducibly unique. Sure, there’s a little bit of Peter Gabriel there, and maybe some George Clinton as well (if you can imagine such a match up), but they’ve also got lilting, delicate harmonies and densely layered melodies, the type of which you rarely ever hear in pop music. Their lyrics can be abstruse and labored, but they can also be striking and powerful. Their two early releases played around with droning industrial rhythms with odd minor-key elements like saxophones and synthesizers sprinkled on top of the arrangements. David Andrew Sitek’s programming could be meandering in places, and it could be sharply focused in others. I’m not going to say that Desparate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is a perfect album, because for much of its running time it alternates between indulgent and tentative. But when it clicks, it clicks unbelievably hard, and for proof of this fact you need look no further than the impressive “Staring at the Sun” (included, in slightly altered form, on both Desparate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and the Young Liars EP).

“New Health Rock” is simply amazing, the kind of mighty rock anthem that gets lodged in your brain for the rest of your natural life. All of the flab that may have cluttered their earlier releases has been shed in exchange for pure speed. They’ve got a real drummer now, Jaleel Bunton, and while the rhythms are still impressively complicated, there’s an urgency here that just wasn’t present before. The layered melodic elements are still there as well, but there’s no room for any indulgent diversions: they’ve come to get down, and they intend to do so to the best of their abilities. They even manage to throw in a Big Tymers reference, by urging the listener to “drop it like it’s hot”.

They’re yelling and they’re screaming and they’ve got weird synthesizers in the background and the drummer sounds like he swallowed an 808—10,000 things are happening all at once and it pulses with the force of a runaway subway train. It comes along and grabs you and doesn’t let go. Like the very best rock songs, its got an irresistible and inexorable logic that makes everything else disappear for the duration of the playing time. It’s the kind of pop song that only a truly great band can produce, and the fact that TV on the Radio have produced it marks them as one of the era’s truly great bands.

“Modern Romance” is not perhaps the first Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song I would have picked for them to cover, but it is fittingly appropriate. On Fever to Tell it’s a heartbreakingly sad finale to a rousing rock LP, here, it seems almost like a lark, with strange processed rhythms and odd doo-wop vocal textures. It’s weirdly beautiful, but whereas the original was almost desperately unhappy, this version is almost whimsically melancholy. It’s the difference between total disintegration and bittersweet regret.

TV on the Radio are touring right now, and expect to enter the studio sometime in the spring to record the follow up to Desparate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Although it hasn’t even been seven months since that first album was released, I am infinitely grateful that they have decided to grace us with this stopgap single. It bodes well for the future, because it means that in the space of merely half a year they’ve improved immeasurably on an already strong template. If they continue at this rate, I am ready to predict that by 2010, TV on the Radio will be the greatest band in the history of mankind. Of course that’s flatly impossible, but you never know.

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