Wednesday, November 14, 2007

[028] Return To Cookie Mountain

Album: Return To Cookie Mountain
Artist: TV On The Radio
Release Date: March 2006 [internet] July 2006 [UK], September 2006 [US]
Label: 4AD [UK], Interscope [US]
Producer: David A. Sitek

"It's a broken poem, started up yesterday
And it came true now, mind was on holiday
It's an open road, will we soon see the end
It's an open book, a story to tell the band
Broken plates on dirty highways
Pave the way for alien grace"
- from "A Method"

About once a year, I go into a record store, or a store that sells music, and I have what basically amounts to a panic attack. I start to feel dizzy or overheated, my breaths shorten, and I break into a cold sweat. When my eyes start to lose focus, that’s when I really know it’s time to leave, and I usually go outside and sit on the cold concrete curb for ten minutes. I’ve concluded this happens because I love music too much. More specifically, I started to realize, as I browse the music section, that I own pretty much every CD I would pay (at least) $10 for, and I freak out knowing I’ve run out of options. Recently, my need to spend money on plastic discs (when I could easily just download anything, ever) has merged with my general malaise over the lack of bands managing to be both explorers in new areas of music, and being good at it, putting out albums I actually want to listen to. At this point, there are very few artists that I will slap down my hard earned cash for every time, and not be fearful that I’ll be disappointed – this is the same reason why Spoon recently overtook Queens of the Stone Age as my personal favorite band, because the last couple QOTSA albums haven’t been up to snuff, while Spoon hasn’t let me down yet. I had high hopes for Pretty Girls Make Graves, but they stalled, then broke up. Radiohead are the best band on the planet, but they also don’t wow me as much anymore; same goes for The White Stripes and Outkast and Björk. And there’s dozens of artists who are excellent, but they have their niche, and they hang out in their comfort zone, like, say, Bright Eyes or El-P or The Hives. This brings us to TV on the Radio, the Brooklyn art collective who I first noticed with their 2003 Young Liars EP, a 5-song example of perfection that I would’ve put on this list before I decided to stick with full-length LPs. The last time I had a panic attack I was by the music magazines in Border’s, ranting to my friend Kyle, kind of grinding my teeth on the fact that I was disappointed in the new Go! Team album, which I had set my hopes way too high for, and about how I thought it was time for some Post-Everything music. I started frantically spewing demands that bands start combining all genres, starting an age of post-Hip-Hop, post-Blues, post-Jazz, post-Punk, post-Post-Punk, post-Rock, post-Post-Rock, etc etc, because at this point everything had pretty much run its course. It hit me later that I had described TV on the Radio. They are the only band that blends everything into one unified sound, and that sound is the sound of tomorrow, next week, and ten years from now.

These guys are so good, they play to your musical impulse reactions; the smile you get across your face when a Temptations or Beatles song comes on a jukebox or the radio, the headbanging instinct that comes with the best hard rock, the way you swoon to a gentle ballad, that tingling sensation you get when guitar feedback reaches your eardrums’ pain threshold. They tap into the way music makes you think, the way music makes you move, the way music makes you feel, hitting all the right buttons in the process. The voices of Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist Kyp Malone are creatures you’ve only imagined; Adebimpe has often been compared to Peter Gabriel, but if that’s so, then he is Gabriel raised on Doo Wop, Phil Spector’s girl groups, Gospel, and 60’s Soul. Malone is the kind of singer that scares most people because of the alien quality of his voice; you see him open his mouth, but the sounds that come out, from an angelic falsetto to guttural grunts, don’t seem quite human. When the two sing in harmony, they sound as if they’re one, spooky entity contacting you from the beyond. They form an unerring unit with D.A. Sitek, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith, who make enough commotion to wake the dead. They propose that the route from the claustrophobic Art-Rock of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy to the decaying industrial of Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral travels through the stark drama of Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, the humid rush of My Bloody Valentine, and the cut-and-paste rhythms of Eric B., Massive Attack, and The RZA. This is immediately apparent on “I Was A Lover”, which juxtaposes the chop-socky beats of Enter The Wu-Tang with the gates of noise on MBV’s Loveless. Sitek is mostly responsible for the noise, having done it all solo when he started TVOTR as a duo with singer Adebimpe. Sitek has a very unique ear for atmosphere, one that he applies to outside productions as well (see: Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell); his style can range from the torrential downpour of sound on “Playhouses” to the late-night lullaby chimes of “Tonight”. The former also highlights the stuttering octopus attack of drummer Jaleel Bunton, who has elevated the band’s sound ten-fold. On their full-length debut, 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, TVOTR seemed in search of grounding, and Bunton was exactly what they needed. By filling the band’s sound with his tribal polyrhythms, he allows the core duo of Adebimpe, Malone & Sitek to simplify their songwriting, knowing he’ll color in the spaces; his swirling gallop on “Hours” and “Province” (which features special guest Bowie on backing vocals) makes the deceptively simple Pop ballads more intricate and satisfying, standing up to Sitek and Malone’s wall of guitars and careening pianos. His war drums on “Wash The Day” sound like the coming apocalypse, recasting Gabriel’s prog history against the African drum hollows, garnished with sitar, flutes, sleigh bells, all closing the album on a properly epic note.

With the cacophony that they make, some might miss the details of the vocalists; TV on the Radio is a singer’s band, no doubt about it. In the majority of cases, the vocal melodies anchor the songs, a testament to the singers’ interest in Gospel and Doo Wop and Soul, and even World musics. The percussive sway of “A Method” provides a base for the a cappella barbershop wonders they presented on the past two albums; Adebimpe sings the central lyric as Malone orbits him in the mix. It’s followed by the crumbling building thump of “Let The Devil In”, laced with the Gospel hydra of Adebimpe, Malone, and Celebration’s Katrina Ford, echoing Bowie’s 70’s howl. Lyrically, they’re no slouches either, presenting a poetic examination of the new millennial sins and dangers, the tragic outcomes perpetrated by man’s nature. They wisely don’t beat you over the head with any message at all – “Wolf Like Me” is about werewolves, after all – but there are things strewn about that you could take hold of if you were so inclined. The first line on the album is “I was a lover before this war”, so you can go from there, connecting dots from plastic priest to lenses up skirts, from greenhouses and landfills to diamond-encrusted guns and backseat car-bombs. The vocals, lyrics and music all reach their peak on the Rock & Roll classicism of “Dirtywhirl”, one of the great Soul ballads of recent memory. Combining a seasick tempo, a melody that wouldn’t seem out of place on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and flourishes that subtly point towards New Orleans Funk, the lyric spins an erotic yarn of a mesmerizing female that could easily be a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina.

TVOTR’s Return To Cookie Mountain was the best album of 2006 because it touched all the bases, and did it with skill and passion; it was number one by such a large margin, that by May, it was hard to imagine anything coming even near its league. When it leaked onto the internet in March, it was obvious, and it took on all challengers until December 31 when it was official. Earth had not heard an album this good in years. As the pure adrenaline of “Wolf Like Me” crawled out of the file-sharing primordial ooze and into the subconscious of every hipster from Brooklyn to Tokyo, the question was whispered – Is this the best album since…when?? In an incredible cover story on the band in the April ’06 issue of Filter Magazine, the answer was suggested by writer Chris Martins; Return To Cookie Mountain “might just be the best reason we've had for hope - as far as interesting, arty, progressive, well-executed, and mind-fuckingly good music goes - since OK Computer was lodged deep in the throat of the beast”...which was nine years earlier. That’s a long time, and a lot of classic albums had traveled through our ears. But it’s true. This is the best album of the last decade, hands down. And because TV on the Radio are the future, it’s an album for every music fan to take heart in, because it’s what we had hoped would come for so long. As long as they keep making records, I think I'll...I think we'll be alright.

01. "I Was A Lover"
02. "Hours"
03. "Province"
04. "Playhouses"
05. "Wolf Like Me"
06. "A Method"
07. "Let The Devil In"
08. "Dirtywhirl"
09. "Blues From Down Here"
10. "Tonight"
11. "Wash The Day"
26. "Randomness" [interlude]**
27. "Snakes & Martyrs"**
28. "Hours [El-P remix]"**
29. "Things You Can Do"**
**US bonus tracks

When the album was leaked onto the internet, it had a slightly different running order, with the primary difference being an extended "Wolf Like Me" as the opener. If you want to check out how it would sound, play the tracks as such: 5, 1, 3, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, 6, 9, 11.

"Wolf Like Me" [live on Letterman, 09.06]

"I Was A Lover" [video??]

"A Method" [w/ Subtle; live in Indianapolis, 03.07]

"Dirtywhirl" [live in Seattle, 05.06]

- BONUS: "Wolf Like Me" [video]
- BONUS: "Wolf Like Me" [w/ Katrina Ford; live in Seattle, 05.06]
- BONUS: "Wolf Like Me" [live on Jimmy Kimmel, 03.07]
- BONUS: "Province" [video]
- BONUS: "Province" [live in Brooklyn, 06.06]
- BONUS: "Let The Devil In" [w/ Subtle; live in Indianapolis, 03.07]
- BONUS: "Blues From Down Here" [live in NYC, 10.06]
- BONUS: "Tonight" [audio/fan video]

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