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TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

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Artist: TV on the Radio

Album: Return to Cookie Mountain

Label: Interscope

Review date: Sep. 15, 2006

Over the past year, we all got accustomed to seeing TV on the Radio adorning the covers of nearly every music magazine on the racks, and even a number of non-music covers. Their ubiquity might have worn thin if it weren't that, for once, the flavor of the day actually had flavor. Which is to say that, unexpectedly, the media had latched onto a group that deserved the accolades and attention. Even if one didn't like the music, TVOTR were clearly forging their own path, and had discovered a sound to which nobody else could lay claim.

Such attention, coupled with a move to major label Interscope, leaves TVOTR open for a backlash from the indie fans who embraced them initially. It will be interesting, from a media and social studies perspective, to watch what happens, because anyone who gives a careful listen to Return to Cookie Mountain will find ample reason to continue to laud the group. It's perhaps not as consistent an album as Desperate Youth, but that's due to the group's clear intent to explore. There's a wider range of styles and sounds here, from dramatic shoegazer epics to the closest they've ever gotten to straight-ahead rock. Not everything gels solidly, and there are some awkward moments, but no real stumbles. And it's hard not to congratulate the band for stretching out rather than holding back in fear of failure.

The album leads with a couple of the strongest songs, though on first listen "I Was a Lover" seems too slight, despite its warped rhythms and electronic buzzings. More careful listening was required for the song to make itself felt, at which point it turned out to be more akin to Cannibal Ox-style hip-hop than one might think. Kyp Malone's vocals are for the most part chanted rather than sung, and the abstract rhythms crunch and chug along, underpinning unexpected blasts of sound and mutant horns. As with nearly all of TVOTR's songs, it lives or dies based on the combination of David Sitek's grimy production and the vocal interplay of singers Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe. While it might not quite possess the faded beauty of their previous album's best songs, it's nonetheless a potent opener.

The album's best follows, the gorgeously layered, propulsive "Hours," which opens with perfectly played drums from Jaleel Bunton and a ghostly vocal doo-wop. Adebimpe's singing is here abetted by Kazu Makino as they sing, in a beautiful melancholy, words of sad encouragement: "Oh walk around / Know you are beautiful, aimless and alive / broken and divine."

From there on out, the album becomes slightly bumpier. "Province" moves from relatively humdrum verses to a thickly-layered, dramatic chorus (featuring a tastefully blended vocal cameo from David Bowie), nicely decorated with delicate piano clinks. "Wolf Like Me" is notable for being an actual hard rocker, with head-nodding drums and shoegazer guitar; it breaks in the middle into a slow, dreamy interlude.

"Playhouses," "Let the Devil In," and "Tonight" represent the less successful moments on the album. The former's aggressive, fast drum-and-bass rhythm doesn't mesh well with the vocals, and the result feels forced and clunky. "Let the Devil In" bounces along to an enjoyable beat, but the song lacks the subtlety of the band's best. "Tonight" is a slow and soulful song that never quite gets off the ground, instead fading into a torpid few minutes that could have been left off.

The album's 11 proper tracks finish with one of the finest, "Wash the Day," dense and murky in the best way. Sitek's production perfectly balances dirt and beauty, the layers revealing details and rewarding careful listening as the sounds shift around each other. The magic here comes more often than not from Gerard Smith's electric sitar, which gives the song a special texture overall.

Three songs are tacked on as "extras", separated from the album's "real" songs by a number of very short, somewhat annoying, blank tracks. The bonus songs include an El-P remix of "Hours" "Snakes and Martyrs," a slow bluesy number, and "Things You Can Do," a sedate piece notable for its horn section. Tacking on these songs doesn't really add anything to the album – so it was wise to separate them – but they're nonetheless nice to have.

TV On The Radio continue to stretch boundaries and follow their own peculiar vision, and they still sound like nobody else. Return to Cookie Mountain is unlikely to have the impact of Desperate Youth, but with the marketing push of Interscope behind them, there's a larger audience out there who may have their eyes and ears opened. Here's hoping they appreciate the opportunity.

By Mason Jones

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