Songs layered with color

TV on the Radio's jazz-tinged music carries a message reflective of the times

October 19, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,pop music critic

They want you to hear the truth as they see it. So it makes perfect sense that producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, the driving forces behind TV on the Radio, are also visual artists.

"Music has an ability to express something that visually you can't," says Sitek, spokesman for the Brooklyn-based art rock band. "But we don't divide ourselves up like that - visual artists here, musical artists there. We're drawing and painting when we're in the studio anyway."

And with a palette of bold sonic shades and textures, TV on the Radio creates artful noises that build into exhilarating, climactic songs. Under shifting electronics and clashing instrumentation, Adebimpe sings left-of-center, politically driven lyrics about life post-9/11. The quintet's major label debut, the acclaimed Return to Cookie Mountain, churns with inventive productions colored by Sitek, Adebimpe and the other group members: bassist Gerard Smith, drummer Jaleel Bunton and guitarist-vocalist Kyp Malone.

TV on the Radio headlines Sonar Lounge tomorrow night.

"We're hugely influenced by jazz, like Pharaoh Sanders and Eric Dolphy, all that stuff," says Sitek, who last week was performing with the band in Montreal. "But we're five individuals with different backgrounds and interests. The music is ruled by a question mark."

The group's democratic and improvisational nature may adhere to the spirit of jazz, but TVOTR's core sound is deeply rooted in punk and art pop. Echoes of the Fall, Peter Gabriel and My Bloody Valentine can be heard in the band's jumble of a-melodic guitars, synths and samples. But the group's sound is all its own. Something about the noise - charged at times with faint strains of gospel, hip-hop, even doo-wop - pulls you in. Disturbing here, beautiful there, the music, like a brilliant abstract painting, is revealing from different perspectives.

The approach may be unconventional, indirect or downright strange, but deep in the dense mix of sounds lies a message.

"We want to make the music, particularly Return to Cookie Mountain, reflective of our times," says Sitek, a native of Columbia. "There are so many disasters now. The times are kind of chaotic, and the music reflects that. We're not about slinging a bunch of slogans at people's heads. We're extremely sensitive to what's going on in the world and hope that sonically we can represent the times now."

As the songs reveal, the band's outlook is often bleak and paranoid. But glimmers of hope manage to shine through, especially on the standout track "Province." It features backing vocals by a TVOTR fan, legendary rocker David Bowie: "Hold your heart courageously/As we walk into this dark place/Stand steadfast erect and see/That love is the province of the brave."

Before Interscope released Cookie Mountain in July, the Brooklyn quintet had put out two well-received independent recordings that boldly introduced its smart and challenging mash-ups: 2003's Young Liars and 2004's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. On the major-label debut, TVOTR doesn't comprise the adventurous, highly creative approach that garnered the band almost immediate praise in indie rock circles. Although the new album can be lyrically awkward and overwrought at times (check this line from "Wash the Day": "We let out souls act as canaries/Our hearts gilded cages be"), its imaginative soundscapes blaze with engaging layers.

"With the fact that so many people are doing immediate music, we don't subscribe to that," says Sitek, 33. "We're not trying to be different. We're a species, and we're writing from a species' point of view. It's not about eliminating anyone from what we're talking about. If you're just writing songs about [having sex] and doing drugs, you're only writing for one section of folks, for 20-year-olds. We're beyond that now. We want to include different colors and complexities in the music."

TV on the Radio wants the listening experience to be a visceral one.

"Everyone's got a cookie mountain," Sitek says. "It's a personal journey, a pursuit of something. The band and I thrive on different interpretations of the music. If it challenges you to think, that's a good thing. I hope it's a long-term discovery."

See TV on the Radio at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting

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