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Tv On The Radio - TV on the Radio

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 27 / 3 / 2010

Tv On The Radio - TV on the Radio


In his 'This Metal Sky' column, Jeff Thiessen discusses why he thinks TV On the Radio are the best band in music today

TV on the Radio are the best band in music today and I’m not sure how close the race is anymore. I wish it was a tighter competition. The only thing us overzealous rock critics enjoy more than profusely confessing our reflective worship/hatred for any band that would generally arouse reactions consisting of little more than a shrugging of the shoulders when discussed among a pantheon of normal people is the debate of such hyperbole with other likeminded obsessives. See to us, our irrational reverence seems completely proportionate to everything involved with whatever new band we’re planting our flag for or against, damnit, we just need your undivided attention in the pub for no more than sixty-eighty minutes and we’re quite convinced you’ll see things our way. Of course there’s always that annoying concept of ‘healthy discourse’ which amounts in large amounts of completely condescending remarks (“Well you know what, I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised that to someone like you, Black Flag would be considered a benchmark of the eighties punk scene”), to the downright pretentious (“Well, if anything, The Tear Garden was a willing prognosticator in what they’d love to believe was a malaise of modernity in a conjectural, accelerated world, when in actuality, they just listened to some old Amon Dull II rarities, got high, and fought about who should be thanked in the liner notes”), to the just plain insulting ( “You know what man? Fuck you! Fuck you in your stupid ass!”). Many of us would like to believe the first two far outweigh the last example, but the truth is, we’re basically tantamount to any drunken Red Sox/Yankees bar debate ever conducted in the last fifteen years or so. We just think ours is on a higher plane because we’re not dealing in numbers or stats. Our subject matter is ‘subjective’, which means technically, nothing can or can’t be proven and it’s one of those ‘there are no wrong answers’ type world we inhabit. This is what makes certain writers assume completely ridiculous stances, like “the Scorpions 1994 album ‘Face the Heat’ is the best record to ever come out of Germany.” Unfortunately that was something I wrote years ago, and fortunately, nobody tried to prove me wrong, because even though I still loathe to admit it, I certainly might be mistaken with this statement. Of course I was voicing an opinion that wasn’t based on anything tangible, so everyone who read that piece most likely just silently thought of me as a bonehead (the exception of course, being if the Scorpions read it), and went about their day. I say bullshit to all that, bullshit! I want to be held accountable. I am a realist. I’m well aware there is no scoreboard we can point to if we want to settle one of these ‘art’ debates, but there are mitigating factors present for even the most obscurely creative subject discussed between two so-called ‘experts’. I don’t desire to make some abstract, profound argument why TV on the Radio are the single most important driving force in North America we are currently blessed with. I won’t conjure up comparative images of Dr Manhattan when discussing this group, nor will I detail how they got me off drugs and allowed me to see into the true prism of my existence, and I definitely won’t say things like “They saved my world, and if you invite them into your lives, they just may save yours too”. My goal here is simple: I want to convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that not only you have to hear TV on the Radio, but if you do miss out, you’re missing out on the best rock n’ roll in contemporary music today. I won’t get into a whole ‘where is music going?’ debate here, but I have been saying for quite some time that the relevant music of the future will not emerge out of a sprawling, elegantly wasted metropolis. The direction the industry is moving in, has all but ensured whatever gross leverage they unmercifully yielded over the entire music world, is crushed to ashes. The digitalization of everything music-related has us bound to see a truly awesome rising out of hubs like El Paso, or Des Moines, or really any communal land mass that doesn’t see the concept of Americana as one dripping with irony, complete with an asterisks indicating it’s really seen as an amoral wasteland gleefully floundering about in wave after wave of pasteurized decadence masquerading as post-modernized rebellion. Having said that, TV on the Radio is still here. They’re from New York, and for my money, there is no better band in the world. I am only starting to see now why so many people completely lose their cool and impartiality when it comes to their adoration of this group and, even though they have been pretty much universally acclaimed from every critic and their brother, that still doesn’t seem to be enough. Well, not for me anyways. There are several things you have got to understand about TV on the Radio. First of all, they’re a bit challenging upon initial listens. I really don’t want to overstate this, because as far as arrangements go, they can be fairly unconventional and off-the-wall at many times, but it’s never a grinding type of challenging, a la avant garde crap like late nineties Autechre which insist on accomplishing nothing except providing an entire body of music free of any discernible melody for the duration of the long-awaited new studio LP. Instead, TVOTR can be disorienting at first, to wrap one’s head around the vast array of influences they incorporate can be a sort of intimidating at first. It’s just pretty clear everyone in the group is most likely significantly smarter than most of us and it shows in the music. But really, although they are implicitly intelligent enough to incorporate a wide array of influences ranging from post-punk, to psychedelia, to industrial, to funk, and everything progressive in between, they’re also wise enough to not shove these down our throats. It’s clear they have a very high understanding of what they’re incorporating, but it never becomes a tired concept like “Ok, now it’s time to show how familiar we are with Prince’s catalogue, and because our running time is getting pretty low, let’s incorporate that with the angular guitar bridge we’re saluting Robert Quine with.” Unlike a guy like Quentin Tarantino, who seems to be on a never-ending quest to make sure all of us know just how much he knows, TV on the Radio’s identity lies not in some senseless, encyclopaedic bravado that caters to no one except that inner voice all perennially insecure people feed by over-indulging in whatever identity they happen to have crafted for themselves. Instead, TVOTR is the most mutant of all mutant groups, a stupefying, living, breathing reminder of what can be accomplished when five brilliant and open-minded folks decide to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. Getting back to those big city rock bands, we’re sadly put in positions that leave us no choice but to fragment and splinter everything we hear, and perhaps that’s TVOTR’s strongest accomplishment. If true individualism is going out of style in rock n’ roll, and I don’t necessarily believe this....but if it is, then we’re left with a carefully crafted indifference to any new band that walks across our stage, and perhaps even more sadly, that will be matched only by our growing unwillingness to look inside ourselves to figure out why the hell this nurtured ennui isn’t some isolated outlook. Instead it’s a revolting wave washing over any room at any given time, and nobody’s wiping their eyes. TV on the Radio survives in the harsh face of stardom, not because they have designed a product many people go absolutely bat shit over. It’s because they are a product many people go absolutely bat shit over. At their core, they’re an uneasy group of guys. There is more of what killed Jeffrey Pierce in them, than whatever essence it was that got Jaz Coleman laid for the very first time. The world TVOTR inhabits is one that might not be a direct replica of the one we spend our waking minutes in, but it’s a parallel world that our fingertips are inches away from. Kids everywhere complain about their rotting affection towards the human condition, but the guys in TVOTR play that sort of thing, lividly. Like Radiohead on ‘OK Computer’, or to a lesser extent Gorillaz on ‘Demon Days’, and unlike Rage Against the Machine, TV on the Radio understand an accurate rendering of a contemporary political climate seen through wide-eyed naiveté, reaches the masses far more swiftly and effectively than mechanical diatribes involving whatever flavour of the month cop-killer hangin on death row, happens to be ‘unjustly’ incarcerated at that particular time. Perhaps more than anything, although they are acutely aware of the world they are living in, they’re far more interested in survival; in finding happiness in a place that generally holds far more circumscribed pains, than ecstasies. On ‘Dear Science’, their newest album and zenith in their discography, they’re still full of a gelatinous attention to detail that doesn’t allow them to really ever escape the confused shame that gripped them from the outset of their ‘Young Liars’ EP which was released five years prior. There are tangible elements I could point to, if that’s something you desire. Their last two studio albums have consistently made the top five out of any rock mag’s year end list, and the one before that, made a lot of those same top ten’s. They haven’t released a single bum album, and after combing through their music while writing this, the only fairly forgettable track among their four main albums was found on ‘Dear Science’ (‘Stork and Owl’ just never gains the momentum it so nobly strives for). All of these accomplishments are made all the more impressive, when considering every single one of these albums takes enormous risks from basically start to finish. But who really cares about all that? That’s certainly no scoreboard. When it’s all said and done, here is why you should care about TV on the Radio, and why they remain the best working band in current music. Many years ago, John Lennon admitted that flower power didn’t work, but then went on to say “So what? Let’s start over!” If that is indeed the case, if we’re starting from square one, then I can think of no better starting point than TV on the Radio. As wonderfully complex and innovative nearly every nook and crevice of their music continues to be, even while every single rock writer in the world tries their damndest to paint them into a post-9/11, ‘urban paranoia’ corner, the real strength of TVOTR lies in the same place all truly seminal bands have their strongest feature: in the heart. I wouldn’t be writing these things and proudly standing behind such a group if they were just a sonic boom burning endless grooves to their deaths. Instead, there are countless moments throughout their entire body of work that doesn’t deny solipsism is alive and well, but never surrenders to it and constantly battles any notion or suggestion such a fight is not worth fighting for. I’m starting to see recently that more than anything, life is about new beginnings, stripping away the hardened skeletal scab that all of us have encrusted over our soul, or essence, or whatever shorthand term you want to use to describe whatever that is we all see when we look in the mirror and see that something in our eye we cannot describe. The looming beacon inside that infinite rift growing visibly smaller with each passing day we do not push the boundaries of whatever preconceived limitations we’ve set up for ourselves over all the wasted years in the name of linearity. It’s true in a large sense of the term we don’t really hold any cards in the grand scheme of things, but the truly enlightened are not those who obsess over the forces that do decide who holds what; it’s the ones who figure out that time is not only our enemy, but also our friend. By constantly acknowledging the ultimate brevity of life, that forces us to live in such a way that ensures we’re still hyper-conscious of the pieces around us we cannot change. But more importantly it allows us to view the pieces we can change, and that’s ultimately what the music of TV on the Radio survives, and dies with. It’s this lifeline TV on the Radio gives us, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s okay to throw paint at a canvas, and if nobody else sees the beauty in it, fuck them, because you’re the one with dirty hands and nothing can change that. The sooner we accept that at some point in our life, death or something that feels like death will come a ripping through, the sooner we’ll be able to truly hold dear those around us who make us question everything we thought we knew, and it’s only them who can help us see survival isn’t achieved through complacency. It’s attained by walking hand in hand to places you never thought possible. We’re all going to wake up one day feeling old and, when that time comes for me, I just hope my gaze in the mirror reflects a light that has never gone out, only gotten stronger. But if that’s not the case, at least I’ll have TV on the Radio to remind me everything I have lost and everything I stand to gain. And if that doesn’t work, I still have ‘Face the Heat’ to fall back on!

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Tv On The Radio - TV on the Radio

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