When I read the ample press generated by TV on the Radio's debut EP, Young Liars, and the Williamsburg-based band's reportedly stunning opening performances for the Fall last year, I'm puzzled by the frequent comparisons drawn between TVOTR's frontman Tunde Adebimpe and Peter Gabriel. These are part of generally glowing interviews and reviews, so I presume the writers are talking about Genesis-era Gabriel, when he was merely one bizarre piece in the strange prog-rock brew that produced such masterpieces as "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" and when his presence in the band was as much about his writing and him bouncing around on stage in a boil costume as it was about his singing. I say this because Gabriel's voice, flat and sexlessly throaty, was about as terrible then as it is now. To compare it to Adebimpe's, one of the most discussed in indie rock after just one EP, would be unfair.
Which is not to say that I necessarily came out of Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, TOTR's highly anticipated first full-length, buzzing over the vocal stylings I found there. Personally, the intertwining vocal strands of a multi-tracked Adebimpe's soulful growl and please-let-go-of-my-balls yelp/wail are very limited over the course of a full album. The backing music -- a mix of fuzzy guitars, looping drums, synthesizers, all embellished at times by horns and electronic flourishes -- is only occasionally interesting enough to peek out from behind the strutting vocals, which to my mind are always center stage.
There are times, as in the a capella "Ambulance," where this really works. That song is a simply written doo-wop torch straight from hell's emergency room. Over an undulating set of dum dums, Adebimpe croons a simple, haunting refrain: "I will be your ambulance / If you will be my accident / I will be your screeching crash/ If you will be my crutch and cast."
This pair of couplets goes far in suggesting the lyrical territory covered on Desperate Youth. Adebimpe has described his songwriting style as "melodic complaining," which seems a fair assessment of lyrics that tend toward images of disillusion, disappointment and chaos. Certain images -- the ambulance metaphor, the "storefront cemetery" of "Staring at the Sun" -- stand out, but there also moments where the bleakness dips into self-parody.
I'm a big fan of the morose, but the album's sturm-und-drang lyrics and music, taken together, make the sound feel a bit dank over eight songs. And, let's face it, in this post-Tenacious D era, it's tough to carry off the lines "make your money, spread your seed, in the lap of luxury, but acknowledge me," especially when they're sung over a throbbing bass and jittery guitars worthy of some late-1970s demon rock.
The few suggestions of kitsch, like this one in the writing and in the Russ Meyer-sounding title, leave me wondering exactly where TOTR wants to go. Compared to the Strokes, who, you might have heard, also made a big splash with an EP prelude to a smash full-length, TOTR seems like it's searching for direction despite its consistent-to-a-fault sound throughout the record. While TOTR seems to be wary of an early-career hipster flameout, which would be made all the easier since they hail from Williamsburg and are associated with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, their Desperate Youth fails to transcend the early hype, even as it suggests strong, challenging possibilities down the road.
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