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TV On The Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Jonathan Easley   
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    9.5
release year:    2006
label:    Interscope Records
reviewed by:    Jonathan Easley

Amid an indie scene awash in book smarts, nobody would dispute the merits of poetic literacy in rock and roll. But sometimes you just gotta flex your cool. TV on the Radio first utilized the interplay between these two dichotomies on their first full-length release, 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. That album dropped crutch, cast and ambulance metaphors about codependency (sung a cappella) next to lines about covering your balls to protect against a kung fu swing. The band’s sophomore album Return to Cookie Mountain takes this integration one step further, incorporating the idea into the actual sound. Return to Cookie Mountain has a bookish confidence, a badass streak and, perhaps most surprisingly, a shy sexiness. One moment you’re contemplating the consciousness of dying bees at the demand of a manic choir, the next you’re on the needle end of a wolfed-out psyche-shot, breaking boxes, gutting fish and burning minds to wicked-driving fuzz-toned guitars on the best single of the year, “Wolf Like Me.” It’s the kind of cool that makes you believe you can fly.

The former Brooklyn trio is now a Brooklyn quintet, although it’s not as big a change as one might think. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s milky, mechanical Peter Gabriel vocal sound is still the distinguishing centerpiece, Kyp Malone is still hitting the high notes (usually layered beneath Adebimpe) and David Sitek is still filling the room with enough sound to obviate the guitar-based rock concept -- in the liner notes he’s sometimes credited with “music,” sometimes with “magic.” Not that there aren’t deep wounds from furious guitar cuts here; the main difference is the addition of warm-blooded drummers. It’s a move that, when coupled with the band’s free jazz and orchestral leanings, thickens Sitek’s synth, loop and sample work to the point of solid.

After a lazy Coltrane intro, opener “I Was a Lover” swells into a furious metropolis. It’s like standing curbside downtown as a bus blows by, running on “empty, bourbon and God” and trailing a streak of coy seduction: “We don’t make eye contact when we have run-ins in town/Just nervous stares toward the ground …/And we liked to party …/Ennui unbridled.” The double-stacked vocals on the first half of the album obscure a lot of the wordplay, but you’ll still pick up on original combos like “hollow-point hell” and “future youth” that hint far more depth than there is time to discover. The latter half of the album is a bit more vocal-oriented; the band’s insights surface when the sound is not as complicated, as when Adebimpe’s redemptive realism whispers through an orchard and whistles hollow through a clarinet on “Tonight”: “The time you’ve been afforded/May go unsung, unrewarded.”

Buried in this (everything here is buried) is an eye for rock’s influential history. David Bowie contributes backing vocals to “Province,” and while you can’t really make his sound, the spaceman chorus, keys and piano coat the track in a light stardust. And while TVOTR are at their best with throbbing beats, the measured steps on eight-minute closer “Wash the Day” channels Revolver closer “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s complete with backwards guitar sounds and the George Harrison special (the sitar, electric here). All the pieces are stuffed into this track before it’s floated downstream. Ultimately, Return to Cookie Mountain is too complex for the simple, free associations one can typically attach to a rock album that’s aware of its influences even while flipping them on their axes.

Sound
Return to Cookie Mountain was produced by multi-instrumentalist and original band member David Sitek. Seeing as how busy TV on the Radio’s sound was before they topped it off with a straight-up orchestra, he does a masterful job of organizing all the different components into metabolizing harmonies that form one congruent room-sound. In less competent hands this album had the potential to be a bloated mess. Tunde Adembimpe’s vocals are unmatched in unique directness, remaining levelheaded amidst the swirling chaos. When layered with Kyp Malone’s ladder-climbing dance, TVOTR have two legit front men working as additional instruments in their progressive funk sound. The large cast of contributors gives Return to Cookie Mountain a collective feel: Bowie and Katrina Ford supply vocal support (she also sang on Blood Thirsty Babes, and righteously closes out “Wolf Like Me”), and Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith are now full-time members taking care of the rotating basic instrument work (drums, piano, bass, organ, guitar), with the strings, horns, woods and winds provided by a rotating consortium of musicians.







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