Tuesday, August 08, 2006

CD: Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain

One of the signs of selling out—a cardinal sin in the postpunk world—to which critics point is overproduction, a condition wherein songs sit in the studio, subjected to so many treatments and revisions, that the artists’ original intent is lost, and the music can’t be reproduced live.

But suggesting that recorded music should behave like live music is like saying that film should limit itself to the conventions of theatre. There are some albums that have been overbaked in the studio, and some bands for whom the studio masked a deficiency of musicianship; but there are also seminal producers, like Martin Hannett and Brian Eno, who have managed to define the sounds of important bands like Joy Division and Talking Heads without marring the essential musical character of the bands themselves. In recent years, electronic acts have found ways of taking the toys and tools of the studio itself, in whole, part, or proxy, and “jam” onstage. Freed from the strictures of exact reproduction, musicians can test the elasticity of musical ideas. The studio becomes an instrument, not simply the gloss used to make up for a musician’s inability to play one.

And so we have TV on the Radio, and their splendid new CD, Return to Cookie Mountain. Any attempt to describe their sound will be misleading and reductive; so many influences abound that trying to trace them will make the band sound weirder than it is. Their music is suffused with elements as arch a musique concrete, as assaultive as shoegazer (the fourth track, “Playhouses”, hums and churns like classic My Bloody Valentine). They’re often compared to Peter Gabriel, particularly in his early capacity as leader of Genesis (when they were cool). It’s strangely appropriate that David Bowie lends backing vocals to “Province”, a funky, paranoid glam exercise. “Let the Devil In” begins with an insinuating melody whispering over pounding drums that reek of rough, messy sex, until the vocals transform into a battering ram of overdubbed gospel harmonies unleashed with brute, industrial force.

Return to Cookie Mountain is, indeed, MOUNTAINOUS, as lush and intricate a feat of production as I’ve heard. Founding member and multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek handles production duties, so songwriting and production choices emerge from a common point of origin; it’s hard to imagine these deceptively simple compositions arising from any other medium. Key vocalist Tunde Adebimpe shares the spotlight with numerous other vocalists, but his Peter-Gabriel-meets-Reggie-Watts growl, a chilling mix of elemental and transcendental, still carries the melody.

TV on the Radio toy with prog, pop, funk, hip-hop, and postpunk. But what they’re really about is the sheer pleasure, the unbound delirium of sound. Any thoughtful music lover will find treasures on this disc. Return to Cookie Mountain could be a tough gamble; its pop ambitions may turn off fans of experimental music, and they may still be too smart, too difficult, for the mainstream. Here’s hoping the gamble pays off.

--thelyamhound - 498 words