TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes

TV on the Radio
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes

I’ll be the first one to admit it – I have, on more than one occasion, bought into the hype. Just give me a couple raving, slobbering, frothing-at-the-mouth reviews, enough background chatter, a bushel of glossy magazine pics, a delightfully elliptical band name, and an afro or two and I’ll start clawing at my back pocket for my wallet. Last year, when the buzz for TV on the Radio’s debut EP, Young Liars, threatened to reach an eardrum-shattering din, I was first in line to surrender my individuality and immediately bought the record without having heard any of it. Despite hype’s tendency to implode in the faces of those suckered onto it like self-effacing barnacles, Young Liars was one of those rare times when it was deserving…nay, justified. Young Liars was a revelation, and TV on the Radio proved itself to be a completely different-sounding band that was simultaneously soulful, poetic, honest, and blistering. “Blind” especially was a transcendental experience, equal parts straightforward and oblique, with memorable lyrics like, “I seen a girl with a guy / Her hair like yours from what I remember / It’s been so long since last December.”
Thus, the odds were stacked against TOTR this time. The band was expected to produce a full-length follow up to a peerless, almost perfectly crafted debut, and not only build on the EP’s blend of soul, art-rock, and barbershop doo-wop, but also blast all our vainglorious indie asses with something all together unexpected. Thankfully, TOTR opted to not go the way of fellow-Brooklyners and sometime collaborators the Liars and release an album that was as polarizing as it was “difficult” (in that arty, uncompromisingly snotty kind of way). No, TOTR took its looping equipment, a couple guitars, a spare, almost militant beat, a lot of fuzz, and Tunde Adebimpe’s ethereal vocals, and proved Public Enemy wrong by daring you to believe the hype.
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes may not have torched my ass in all the ways I was hoping, but it did singe my rectum and that’s good enough for me. Opening with “The Wrong Way,” a meditation on racial relations, could be seen as a giant buzz-kill, but TOTR knows how to make even social commentary a shoulder-swaying, head-nodding, joint-passing experience. Keyboardist/sound manipulator/guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek manages to conjure a musical playground within which Adebimpe’s vocals can frolic. Adding some mean-old-man saxophone to an enveloping wall-of-sound similarly used in Young Liars, “The Wrong Way” offers a soothing balm of soul coupled with a growling face slap of bass, letting you know the grass ain’t always greener (“Hey, desperate youth! / Oh bloodthirsty babes!/ Oh your guns are pointed the wrong way!”).
“Staring at the Sun,” the only holdover from the EP, benefits from the addition of trembling surf guitar from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner, which may cause some detractors to scoff and huff, but hopefully the majority will be too tickled by the way Adebimpe says “cemetery” (so that it sounds like “cem-EH-tar-RAY”) to notice. Much acclaim was sounded when TOTR chose to do a barbershop rendition of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” on the EP, and the band gives us another dose of the doo-wop with “Ambulance,” a spare, beat boxing a cappella track that contains some of the album’s best lyrical uppercuts – “I will be your accident if you will be my ambulance / I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast.” Other Adebimpe bombs that should tickle your gizzard: “All men condemned by men to die / Damned by blind bitch in hallowed halls,” and “Cover your balls/ Cause we swing kung fu,” both from “King Eternal.” Damn, that’s nice.
While TOTR’s music may seem a bit grave or heavy handed at times, ultimately these boys are all about the love (or the loss of/death of/betrayal of, but regardless, it’s still love). Even the duel between Kyp Malone’s sparse, haunting guitars and Sitek’s omnipotent church organs in “Don’t Love You” seems to suggest a sonic amore, perhaps more spiritual than physical. Well, maybe that’s a bad example, but in “Dreams,” Adebimpe wails, “Broke trust in two / Now no one’s looking out for you / Why keep it cruel / Why waste so much to play the fool,” which can be roundaboutly interpreted as a call to, quite simply, keep it real.
I saw TOTR live recently in all the band’s sweaty, bristling, eyes-rolling-up-into-your-head glory, and I saw the faces of the crowd (literally one of the most ethnically diverse indie-rock shows I’ve ever been to) glued to the musicians in wondered attention, their heads nodding, some with eyes closed, fists in the air, others mouthing along to lyrics they knew, and it struck me – TV on the Radio has been around for a little less than a year now, and already the band is being treated as saviors, messiahs, harbingers…all rolled into one. That means something. Could it be about the love?