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By Dennis Cook
"It's definitely layer upon layer upon layer. I think it's a process of arriving at what's the essence," muses David Sitek, one of the feverishly inventive talents behind TV On The Radio, one of the few truly original groups to emerge in recent years. Put on their brilliant sophomore album, Return To Cookie Mountain, and you find a radiant funhouse where everything sounds juicily organic despite the machine age pulse.
"You'll have a song and a bass line, and then you'll attempt that bass line on piano and listen to them simultaneously," continues Sitek. "Then you'll try it on the Fender Rhodes, and one of them will speak louder. Then you use the original bass part as a reverb track or something. I work in that way. Not all albums, not all songs, can work this way, but my favorite stuff has always been shit you listen to on headphones and try and pick apart what made each noise."
TV on the Radio by Neil Gavin
Case in point, opener "I Was A Lover," which I had to play four times before I could move on to the rest of the album. Punishing, speaker-busting bass hits usher in an elegant swooning rush, new millennial yearning behind every word, every sighing flourish. Then, at the 2:30 mark, a tinkling, woozy piano breaks through the haze, and their voices climb to falsetto heaven. All the while, wind and memories snap at our heels as we march steadily towards the chocolate chip foothills in the distance, chanting:
Ennui unbridled, let's talk to kill the time
How many styles did you cycle through before you were mine?
And it's been a while since we went wild and that's all fine
But we're sleepwalking through this trial
And it's really a crime it's really a crime it's really a crime
It's really criminal
Not Like The Other Kids
The usual technique in describing a band in print is to reference their forebears, linking and qualifying the disparate elements that surface in their make-up (i.e. Black Sabbath meets a fuzzy Duran Duran or a lithium-subdued Devo jamming with David Sylvian while Rome burns). TV On The Radio resists this kind of easy dissection. Their music is so fully formed that it's hard to believe they released their first EP only three years ago. There aren't clear lines in their evolution. Sure, one might catch a whiff of Pere Ubu's mutant dub or Ultravox's wounded, technological romanticism, but so heady is this concoction that all antecedents wither within seconds. What do they sound like? They sound like TV On The Radio, an observation that delights Sitek, "I'm so happy about that it's ridiculous! If you really break it down, how can you be another Public Image Ltd.? You get to the point where enough is enough with the imitation."
TV on the Radio by Ludis Mergins
In the era of inexpensive digital home studio gear, it surprises us both that there's not more original music coming out today. Sitek comments, "You'd think a million records would be blowing our minds right now. Could you imagine if Jimi Hendrix or Syd Barrett had Pro-Tools? I think a lot of people just want to succeed. They just pick other bands that have succeeded – right now it happens to be bands from the mid-80s – and follow the trajectory that's worked before. Mainly they just don't want to have a [normal] job."
This trend towards homogenization hits established mainstream acts, too, who increasingly all sound the same so their singles will be programmed next to whatever flavor of the month is charting.
"The trajectory is kind of the same," says Sitek. "The more people that make boat payments off the artist, the more pressure is put on them from outside the band. Then all of the sudden a producer who's worked with this other [popular] band comes to mind and no one wants to lose their boat. It's just crazy."