If there’s one word that seems to pop up a lot when talking about TV On The Radio, it’s ‘Post’; During their 10 year career they’ve been labelled everything from Post-Punk, Post-Indie, Post-Disco, Post-Modern, and during those glorious few months in 2008 that bookended Obama getting elected and actually assuming office, Post-Racial. That’s because they’re a notoriously difficult band to pigeonhole into one particular sound or scene, occupying that rare niche of being talented artists and fierce experimentalists whilst also having an excellent ear for writing pop songs. Probably more than any other band except LCD Soundsystem and maybe Arcade Fire, it’s TV On The Radio who are responsible for defining the sound of Indie of the course of the past ten years, shifting the sound of Alternative music away from the Strokes-dominated Garage Rock sound of the first half of the decade and giving a face to the postmodern, kaleidoscopic weirdness emerging from Brooklyn that would embody the latter half of the Noughties.
There’s so many ideas and disparate influences that make up the band’s sonic palette that it sounds like a mess on paper- after all, how could a mash-up of electronica, art-rock, doo-wop, gospel, post-punk, R&B and hip-hop sound like anything other than a bloated mess? And yet the band manages to weave all this together into not just a coherent package but also a fresh one too, and though there are references to old styles and genres there’s a futurist angle to the whole process as they make it part of their own sound rather than harking back to an older one. It’s this dichotomy that makes them such a quintessentially 21st Century band, and arguably one of the most influential acts of the current era – The entire genre of Chillwave owes its existence and aesthetic to their mash-up of past & present sounds, current Indie darlings such as Tune-Yards and St. Vincent grabbed a ton of the bands signifiers and made them their own, and guitarist Dave Sitek has produced so many bands over the past 5 years that the TV On The Radio sound has permeated into something of an industry standard; the unofficial sound of contemporary New York Cool.
So the group casts a wide net. On top of releasing a string of excellent albums they’re also a touring behemoth, and are due to play Manchester on Feb 27th in support of the latest LP, Seeds. To drill up some hype and to give a criminally underrated band their due, here’s a roundup of their most essential tracks.
Amazing what a bit of context can do to a track isn’t it? This is probably one of the most recognizable TVOTR tracks due to its inclusion in an episode of Breaking Bad, sound tracking one of the most iconic moments in a series full of them. And just like BB, this track is an emotional rollercoaster, a slow build of tension and release that slowly uncoils over three and a half minutes. Whilst the eerie organ sound is key to building the mood, it’s Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals that really make this track, gradually getting louder and angrier as the song gains momentum as if he’s blowing off steam and really giving somebody a piece of his mind, with the counter melody from Kyp Malone providing a great counterpoint that helps sell the emotional catharsis of the track. A perfect blend of music and lyrics that rightfully deserves its place as one of the bands best tracks.
One of the standout tracks from their underrated fourth LP Nine Types Of Light, “Repetition” is a great showcase for the band’s versatility and their ability to completely change gears whilst holding onto their signature sound. “Repetition” is another slow burner, utilizing many of the same tricks that DLZ does- starting slowly, gradually building momentum whilst adding more interlocking textures and melodies that bubble up before exploding in a giant emotional release at the songs climax. But whereas DLZ used this template to create a cold, lonely atmosphere, “Repetition” is just pure joy, throwing the listener all over the place with constant little peaks and troughs that are a blast to listen to. The huge crashing chords that hit during the bridge are a classic wind-up, pausing the action just long enough to land a sucker-punch when the songs’ manic climax kicks in during the final minute.
Much like an acoustic performance, a ballad is a good litmus test of a band’s abilities- a convenient way to see how much raw talent an artist possesses when you strip away distortion and studio trickery and are left with nothing but the strength of the songwriting and the skill of the performer. Providence is a wonderfully sweet track from the band’s sophomore LP and breakthrough record Return To Cookie Mountain, and acts as a great showcase for the immense vocal talents of both Adebimpe and Malone. Vocals are traditionally an area where most rock bands fall flat, especially in Indie Rock where many singers adopt an overcompensating snarl or indifferent whine to mask their lack of ability, so it’s a breath of fresh air to have not one but two talented singers that both know how to employ the voice as an instrument rather than simply a lyric-delivery device. In an impressive coup, the band managed to snag none other than David Bowie himself to round out a gorgeous three-part harmony, putting a wonderful capper on one of the band’s most slept-on singles.
“Staring At The Sun”
A transitional track if ever there was one, “Staring At The Sun” was the band’s debut single and feels like a bridge between two eras of New York Music. Released in 2004, this song features a lot of elements found in the then in-vogue (though on its way out) Dance-Punk scene- a throbbing bassline, disco-esque hi-hats ripped straight from a DFA remix and a scratchy guitar line courtesy of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner. Unlike the manic of other Dance-Punk heavyweights such as say, The Rapture though, this track buries its more danceable elements deep in the mix; instead putting the focus on Adebimpe’s crooning vocal performance as if to acknowledge their contemporaries but put that scene behind them. Like most debut singles it’s a little rough around the edges and not as polished as their later work, but does a good job of framing them within the existing continuum of New York music.
“Wolf Like Me”
The closest thing the band has to a bona-fide hit, “Wolf Like Me” is likely to be most listeners’ point of entry to TV On The Radio, with the track appearing on countless film trailers, adverts and video games over the years, making it unmistakably their signature hit. And with good reason too- from the moment that the shimmering discordant noises and thumping drum beat is joined by a wall of fuzzy, pummelling bass you know you’re in for a hell of a ride. Chugging along at a breakneck pace, this is much more direct than most TVOTR songs, keeping the same dynamic range for most of the song and building up the tempo with a subtly frantic guitar part that stays low in the mix but manages to build up tension without ever calling attention to the fact that it’s doing so. The only respite comes a brief interlude late in the song; the kind of bridge that exists only to allow the band a few moments to catch their breath and give the listener a few cool phrases to bellow along to before the unrelenting onslaught that is the last minute and a half of the track. Time and time again TV On The Radio have proved themselves to be masters of building and releasing tension and there’s no finer example of that than here, as the track forces you to react with the kind of intensity that can’t help but get under your skin. A true classic of the 00’s.
TV On The Radio will play The Albert Hall in Manchester on February 17th.
Words by Tom Sanders (@SANDERRRSSS).