Artist: TV on the Radio
Album: Young Liars
Label: Touch and Go
Review date: Sep. 10, 2003
An Argument for Genesis
It could take anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 full listens to decide whether or not TV on the Radio are actually serious. Are they a strange genre-bending joke? A thematic tribute to Genesis-era synth-prog? A Touch & Go-sponsored social experiment? They could be any of these things, and sometimes it’s fun to think that any one is actually the case. But when it becomes clear that TV on the Radio are for real (they are!), the answer (what was the question?) is, as science has repeatedly suggested, very simple: At their most elemental, TV on the Radio are a pop band – A great one.
On their debut Young Liars, they have leapt to redefine semi-synthetic pop music by wearing their influences on their sleeves, but also twisting “indie rock” so tightly that its “essentials” are rung right down the drain. Theirs is a keyboard/electrotone-based pop (heavy on the low end) for whom drum sounds and beats are incidental. Singer Babatunde Adebimpe’s soulful lead vocals (and near infinite backup vocals) are mixed high, and are thick with overdubs and non-dehumanizing effects. The structures and tunes (not to mention the label) would easily lend themselves to classic guitar-based structure, but guitars are barely present on this recording. Instead, layer upon layer of tones and ethereal low-end creep on in throughout the course of every song, all of which are relatively long for such approachable tunes. But Young Liars' four (+1) songs fly by far too quickly.
The defining track is, appropriately, the one for which the EP is named. “Young Liars” lives and dies by the thickness of Adebimpe’s voice and the brilliant catchiness of his melodies – melodies that may take days to get stuck in your head, but once there will remain indefinitely. And it’s on “Young Liars” that the Genesis/Peter Gabriel elements of the band are most apparent both in the timbre of the vocals and the general epic-ness of the entire production. However, where Gabriel relied on the appearance of passion, TV on the Radio dig a bit deeper. A metronomic beat serves more as a placeholder than a spine-tingler, and mysteriously alienating lines like “Fucking for fear of not wanting to fear at all” make for a thoroughly rewarding listen every single time.
A hidden track at the end of the disc, a cover of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” is an apparent fan-favorite, but at the same time is also a lapse in the seamlessness of the album’s overall mood. Recorded using only the most haunting vocal effects and multipliers, the fucked-up a capella cover is a barbershop-quartet-from-hell version of a song that certainly does not inherently lend itself to such a treatment. It speaks volumes for TV on the Radio’s potential as studio-innovators, but sits rather awkwardly among so few other tracks. It’s certainly not a spoiler; it would be tough, if not impossible to undo the cleverness of the ideas presented on the TV on the Radio originals. At worst Young Liars is a fantastic fluke by a rookie band, and at best it’s a teaser for a potentially monumental full-length career.
By Sam Hunt