erasing clouds

TV On the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes

reviewed by john wenzel

TV on the Radio are a murky bunch, both sonically and thematically. Take Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, the follow-up to their Young Liars EP. On their first full-length, this Brooklyn trio stumbles half-blind through darkly melodic lands that offer little more than blurry horizons and misanthropic visions of contemporary American culture. It's a ragged, vaguely experimental path offering no clear signposts.

A reference point might be '90s goth-electronica, if Nine Inch Nails and its legion of Depeche Mode-influenced rip-offs were fronted by intellectual gospel singers instead of pasty, sexually frustrated suburbanites. TV on the Radio's fuzzy loops and smartly-layered harmonies feel so deliberately mid-fi that one can't help but admire the strangely idiosyncratic production. And yet nothing on Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes as galvanizing as the whole of their EP, and having seen the band's jaw-dropping live show, the songs lack a vitality and energy that's missed in the insular environment of the home studio. I can just imagine mediocre numbers like "Don't Love You" (the Velvet Underground if they hailed from L.A.) and "Bomb Yourself" (unambiguous in its disgust with America's violent pop culture) exploding onstage with a live drummer and bassist.

A rerecorded version of "Staring at the Sun" and the a capella "Ambulance" are especially effective arguments for singer/songwriter/tape looper Tunde Adebimpe's incredible pipes, which would be easy to pigeonhole as gospel-influenced if not mitigated by gurgling synths and abrasive electric guitars. Adebimpe's difficult sense of longing, resignation and pain are perfectly communicated in his singing. Indeed, his dynamic delivery is the most stirring aspect of the band's recordings.

As an whole TV on the Radio have a lot going for them; unlike most indie/experimental bands they're two-thirds African-American, and their songs tackle complex issues of race, politics and media without flinching. They're from New York's current epicenter of hip (Williamsburg), they've got friends in high places (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, tons of hyperbole-spewing record critics) and oh yeah, they can actually sing.

Guitarist/instrumentalist Kyp Malone's a capella turn on "Ambulance" is mercilessly precise, and the interplay between he and Adebimpe is note-for-note perfect. So it's not surprising the band is hot at the moment. They deserve it. They've managed to create a sinister album without resorting to cheesy, mock-evil lyrics, and they're sonically unique without being inaccessible.

Despite that, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is an album I'd rather encourage and admire than actually listen to. It's got a lot of great elements, but in the cloudy water in which they float, not all of them really react to each other.

Touch & Go:

Issue 21, March 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds