One of those things that never ceases to amaze me is just how much more of an album I hear when do absolutely nothing else besides listen to the music when I’m playing an album. The ubiquity of (at first) Walkmen, Discmen, and (now) iPods has completely transformed the way we listen to music. Rather than setting a vinyl down onto your record player and laying down and really concentrating on an album, we listen to music as we eat, exercise, study, and commute. We rarely take the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy our music. Even I, a self-proclaimed music aficionado, often use music as the soundtrack to my blogging and general internet browsing far more often than I take the time to just listen. Outside of the albums I review for this blog (which get two or three playthroughs of pure listening and note taking), the only times music has my full attention is the release of a big new album by an anticipated artist like The Suburbs or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The difference between what I hear from a sonically ambitious album when I’m listening and taking notes and then just listening is vast, and it really reminds me that more people should recognize that music demands your full attention just like a movie or a book. While it’s great that we can enjoy it as background noise to our daily routine, everyone should take the opportunity to truly soak in the music they hear every day, and you might walk away with an increased respect for what you’re hearing.
Before I’m accused of going on some irrelevant tangent not related to the piece of art I’m about to review, don’t grow concerned. It will all make sense shortly. I just finished listening to Brooklyn art rockers TV on the Radio’s fourth studio album, Nine Types of Light. While this album is significantly cleaner sounding than their breakthrough LP, Return to Cookie Mountain, (and by cleaner, I simply mean less reliant on omnipresent walls of noise and ambience) or the even more accessible follow-up, Dear Science, a close listen reveals such an intimate and intentional attention to every sonic detail that even when the music fails to impress (which happens far too often in the first half of the album), you walk away knowing these bohemian New Yorkers are master craftsmen. TV on the Radio have nurtured a reputation as one of the most respected indie rock outfits of the last decade, and while Nine Types of Light isn’t quite the music tour-de-force of their previous albums, it still shows moments of inspiration as well as some undeniably catchy and propulsive tracks. The album sounds like it was crafted by the old pros this band has become and it’s only (and glaring fault) is a front half loaded with not necessarily boring but unremarkable songs that lack the trademark energy and force that makes TV on the Radio the band so many indie rockers adore.
Crafting a sound that is equal parts anthemic arena rock (ala U2 or Coldplay), electro-funk, punk, and truly experimental art rock, TV on the Radio join the ranks of Radiohead and Animal Collective as modern acts who aren’t content with just releasing the same old noise for each new release. Nine Types of Light couldn’t be more different than Return to Cookie Mountain, and while this album’s admirers may say that contributes to most of my disappointment with this album, it seems to me that this album could have used some more careful attention to pruning away the bloat and excess. “Keep Your Heart” showcased Tunde Adebimpe’s stellar voice (which ranges from a growling baritone to a Bee Gee’s falsetto) and musical arrangements that remind the listener of Disintegration-era The Cure. However, it also lasts a minute and a half longer than you’d want and the lyrics fail to do enough to draw attention away from the indulgent sonic nature of the track. On the very next track, “You,” the group channels early (read as good) Coldplay while sounding more uplifting and high-spirited than their normal angst and passion which translates to a song that is boring because they can’t do Coldplay as well as Chris Martin and they still aren’t as skilled as the background effects as they need to be to make an entire song as ambient as this. “Killer Crane” is a six minute long track that could have been three and features essentially the exact same structure (with a mild change-up with a banjo-esque sound at times) throughout its interminable length that nearly makes you fall asleep.
What’s sad about those three disappointing songs is that they are the only weak songs on the album. The rest of the album is either an orgiastic delight of punk/funk/rock influences or at least songs that you can still enjoy even if they don’t have you doing the “awkward hipster rock dance” like the album’s best tracks. The album opener, “Second Song,” (0h irony) is pure Achtung Baby, and while I know it’s cool to hate on U2, TV on the Radio channel all of the energy and presence that fills up the arenas of arena rock. “Will Do” is able to combine the ambience and sound effects that the band unsuccesfully integrated into the weaker songs while still incorporating fun xylophone bits, looped drum beats, and some of the strongest lyrics of the whole album. My favorite track of the album is “No Future Shock,” a punk dance track proudly displaying its Elvis Costello or Earth, Wind, and Fire heritage. While it may not have the instant classic appeal of “Red Dress,” or “Wolf Like Me,” “No Future Shock” is the sound this album should have been shooting for the whole time and it will have you tapping your toes and banging your head. Other stand-out tracks include the New Wave send-up of “New Cannonball Run”, the hardest rocking track “Repetition,” and the power-pop of “Caffeinated Consciousness”.
Once again, TV on the Radio stakes their claim as one of the most ambitious and multi-faceted groups in the indie scene today. Return to Cookie Mountain and the classic Dear Science set an exceptionally high bar for these Boho New Yorkers and that has as much to do with any disappointment with this album as its faults on its own. We held The King of Limbs to such outrageous standards (and were thus disappointed) because it’s Radiohead and we want better. We know they can do better. TV on the Radio can do better than this. It’s still a good album, and the best tracks will be getting a lot of play in the near future on an individual basis. They just push their ambitious sound a couple inches further than they can actually handle and it ends up dragging the whole product down. For fans of indie rock, you should really listen to the bands’ other two big LP’s before you take the time to devour Nine Types of Light. Otherwise, there’s a chance that you may wonder what all of the buzz is about this awesome group. Listen to Dear Science, and you’ll know.
Final Score: B