TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
by Dan Weiss
I wanted so bad for TV on the Radio to be what everyone insisted they were. A racially diverse quintet with convictive 9/11-wake politics prone to Pixies and They Might Be Giants covers when they’re not rewriting the (Mac)book for Radiohead’s thinking-man’s-stadium-rock? They even have the word “radio” in their name! What’s not to throw your byline behind?
Unlike flippables on the peerline of say, Deerhunter or Menomena, TVOTR were never an “indie” phenomenon, contained to a few thrilled writers in well-rated Alexa positions. They skipped right past Stereogum to an “A” grade in Entertainment Weekly, a deal with Interscope after only one album (this ain’t Vampire Weekend; I don’t know anyone who’d heard CD-R debut OK Calculator before they were famous) and finally topping the critics’ poll with, arguably, the more activated consensus. I wish Dylan would’ve taken their asses like he did to the far more beloved Strokes and Radiohead in years before, but it was not to be. Say what you will, Pazz & Jop, no album received more unanimous acclaim in 2006 than Return to Cookie Mountain. I remember because I was really, really mad. Mad that the relatively lazy, conservative winner (Dylan’s less-enthuisastically-received-than-some-elder-statesmen-would-have-you-think Modern Times) was brisker and more dynamic than the youthful, “futuristic” underdog.
Maybe the Bush years have drained the consensus’ expectations, but not mine. What I heard were bad singers of the uncompelling variety moaning and hooting through poorly arranged “soundscapes” with a lot of trudge as lacking in complexity as they were in tempo. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was a turgid antithesis to rock and roll that won only slightly less acclaim in 2004 than Return did in 2006. The most exciting thing about it was that vigorous album title. Would I love to love an album named that? Well, fuck yes, I mean, it sounds hella more corrosive than Pink Flag or Wild Gift. But my hopes dashed once I heard it. To the ether marched the promising “The Wrong Way,” an awful Jack White impersonation juxtaposed against jazzy horn charts and brick-viscous distorto-bass. “Staring at the Sun” and “Dreams” followed with embarrassingly generic melodies and cheap drum machines inefficiently shading a limited album that could barely keep itself from wetting to mush. To this day, that album sounds like a slug in a salt mine, too weak to dig itself out.
I shook it off, because nothing that unsure of its footing stays long in the genre. The Dears still make albums I presume, and I’m free to never remember their release dates again. TVOTR was a comfortable cast-aside for a minute before Return to Cookie Mountain grievously doubled their acclaim in the eyes of people lacking for “punk” or “exhilarating” music ever since garage and dancepunk went to the 15-minute bins. When your media center stubbornly stays dialed to Devendra Banhart, these things happen, I guess.
What outraged me wasn’t that Cookie Mountain was another overrated album by another oversold band, but that these supposed thought-crimefighters were selling the same tricks twice. One of the album’s three songs I actually like, “Playhouses,” sounds exactly like Babes’ “King Eternal,” except it subtracts the slightly prettier buildup for funkier drum work. Because it’s the same song, the harmonies still choke me up when they sing the same pitch near the coda, and I won’t cavil about improved percussion. But it’s the same song.
“I Was a Lover” isn’t so literal, but fires the same weapons as “The Wrong Way.” Again, the group gets their juiciest sound effects out of the way first, for a truly ugly, clashing opener, this time rendered with actual tension so that the tuneless horn squawks and intentionally choppy sampling sound like two magnets being hopelessly pushed together. It’s the only song here to grow on me in the following year, probably because the acrid soundplay is actually interesting.
The third and final song I can stand is “Wolf Like Me,” almost as annoyingly facile a melody as “Staring at the Sun,” with the added baggage of providing TVOTR fans their occasional “rock” song, to ensure the “exciting” banner stays in their reviews. It’s a stupid song about a werewolf; nothing so cheerfully boneheaded could evade my willing earshot for long, though I cringe to note it’s also the group’s most sexual song, easily.
And then there’s…the rest which bleeds together. Circular “chants” that go nowhere (“A Method”), a godawful attempt to groove that only proves how horrible Tunde Adebimpe’s singing voice really is (“Blues From Down Here”—dig the patience-trying first 30 seconds), and, oh God, I knew it was coming to this…“Province,” the least tolerable thing these weary souls have yet put to tape. If I have to tolerate Adebimpe’s awful falsetto “hooooo…hoooeeeeeehooooo” lines again, I’m personally bludgeoning him with the dull end of one of his band’s own drum loops. Pray that they hold out their DIY ethos long enough that this song’s intro doesn’t surface in ubiquitous TV commercials until after I die.
Lastly, TVOTR don’t strike me as very likable people. Sure, they hate Bush, so does Ron Paul, and if I give their embarrassing Web-only blip “Dry Drunk Emperor” credit, I have to give it to Incubus, who also compared him to Christ in equally tactless measure. But their most explicit public rants have less to do with politics than biting the hand that overfeeds them. Note to David Sitek: Tripping balls on a MySpace blog about your album leaking is so 2005, dude. Welcome to major labels.
Even more offensive is the statement of disapproval they gave the Village Voice for printing a drawing of Bob Dylan running over Kyp Malone, a caricature of their silver medal victory pointed up as a show of racism—by a paper with a notorious history of racism, right? Oops—when they’re actually the first black artists to not win the poll since Wilco in 2002. The Voice ended up apologizing for the misconceived depiction, which is fair, but somehow I doubt they would’ve complained of a vice versa drawing of Dylan getting run over had they won. Right, I’m only supposed to evaluate the music, but the music is so vague on feeling and sentiment that these rare shows of expression can be the dividing line on second chances. I don’t really want to know their aesthetic if it’s as miserable and toothless as they are. At least Britney Spears’ pathos is a captivating study.
If 2006 really needed a politically-correct rock savior, Be Your Own Pet’s nay-selling debut goes cheap on Amazon and gets far better use of the same American Fatigue TVOTR supposedly made something of simply by ignoring it, proving their teenage potency by rocking out on two-wheelers and going for ice cream. When Jemina Pearl discards her boyfriend in the swamp, it’s far more gratifying than any target TVOTR supposedly dispatches somewhere in their underproduced fog.
Dan Weiss is an editorial intern at CMJ and the editor-at-large of What Was It Anyway. He enjoys questionable lifestyle choices in Brooklyn and has written for Village Voice, Stylus, Cleveland Scene, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Lost at Sea.
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