Dave Sitek, the guitarist and sonic draftsman for art rockers TV on the Radio, scaled back his murky production on the band’s 2008 masterwork Dear Science — shedding some of the prophetic pessimism found in the ambient textures of the group’s previous efforts, and instead pushed the band to embrace a bit of joyful groove. While their previous two studio albums buried the subtle flourishes of rhythm and soul underneath jarring tones, Dear Science, wholly languished between surly dissonance and choppy funk.
On Maximum Balloon, Sitek’s self-titled debut solo project, he goes a step further by almost wholly ignoring TVOTR’s tendencies for angst-filled grand gestures and instead finds himself indulging in the rhythmic vigor of nu-disco, dance-pop and computerized funk-soul. The ten-song dance party features a mostly NYC vocal guest list, including the likes of Sitek’s musical forefather David Bryne and pal Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And while Sitek’s paternal hand is ever-present throughout the album, the project is ultimately an equal opportunity affair, with each track switching back and forth from male to female performers, adding equilibrium to the flow of the project.
“Groove Me” kicks off the celebration-record ethos running throughout the project. Pushed along by what sounds to be a Duracell battery commercial sample and a vocal performance by Brooklyn-based rapper Theophilus London, the track is unapologetically radio-friendly bounce – clearly not your typical TVOTR terrain.
The album’s two standouts feature solo performances from his bandmates Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, proving Sitek is still at his best when working with his day-job comrades. On “Absence of Light,” Adebimpe maintains the head-bobbing vibe while casting a shadow over what is otherwise a bright album, bellowing out cryptic lyrics like “animals are your bred of distinction” over disjointed synths and jangly guitars. Malone, on the other hand, dials in the falsetto-funk of Earth, Wind & Fire on “Shakedown,” yelping that his woman causes “a man to break down” over a percolating bass line and blaxploitation-style horns.
Karen O continues the nostalgia on the Mary Jane Girls homage “Communion,” while the album’s lead single “Tiger,” which features an appearance by Aku of Dragons of Zynth, mashes together electro synth motifs with Mothership Connection funk.
On the magnificent “Apartment Wrestling,” Byrne channels his Talking Heads roots, waxing out a quirky ode to masturbation over polyrhythmic guitars and punchy horns, morphing the record into what could be a lost cut from the Speaking in Tongues sessions.
Maximum Balloon, obviously, is not your typical TVOTR tour de force. But it doesn’t aspire to be. What it simply seeks is to make your ass shake. But if there is a correlation besides the newfound infatuation with soul, it’s in the continuation of the theme last posited by the band. Like Dear Science’s closer “Lover’s Day”—with its rhythmic march and declaration that “yes, here of course there are miracles/Under your sighs and moans”—Maximum Balloon also suggests Eros wrapped in a groove may be the only method for salvation in an otherwise cruel world.