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Furious at the incurious

>> Thought is hot, as far as TV on the Radio are concerned

MAKING WAVES: TV on the Radio
by RUPERT BOTTENBERG

They have a strong link with the great body of American poetry, especially Beat poetry,” says David Bowie about Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, a band who’ve seen a meteoric rise in attention since their second full album, Return to Cookie Mountain, was released last fall. Like Arcade Fire, whose tune “Wake Up” was once graced by the Thin White Duke live, TVOTR’s already propulsive popularity was cemented by Bowie’s vocal contribution to “Province.”

Yes, TVOTR’s lyrics do bear the same emotionally evocative abstraction that once characterized beatnik verse, and they’re delivered in a densely layered derivation of doo-wop that attracts superlatives like “transcendental.” Add to that intricate electronics, complex grooves, shimmering sheets of guitar noise, even a thick hip hop remix of “Hours” care of El-P and an Afro-beat closer in “Things You Can Do,” and you’ve got a glorious sound that defies easy categorization. Or does it? To paraphrase some of Mr. Bowie’s older chums, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, but TVOTR like it.

Kyp Malone, the band’s big-haired, bearded bassist, guitarist and singer, has gone on record, bravely defending the band as pretentious and proud of it. “If it’s pretentious and it falls short of what it’s striving for, then I’m sorry. But without pretension, no one would do anything creative,” he told San Francisco’s Mesh Magazine.

“I’ve had arguments with people since then,” Malone informs me over a tour-bus cell phone, “who told me that the whole definition of pretentiousness is that you don’t succeed. But I don’t know, I don’t even care. I guess I’d rather strive for something. Doing something that’s totally middle of the road right now, in music or in anything, is… I’d really rather do nothing than just be in another Gang of Four rip-off band.

“I also think the bar has been set so low recently that what we’re doing… it’s not like we’re doing difficult songs. Even if you don’t get the lyrics to our songs, they’re still three-chord, four-chord songs. It’s like, if you use words in your lyrics that have more than three syllables, if you have polyrhythms, you’ve written a pretentious song.”

The pretension charge does smack of what’s often described these days as anti-intellectualism. “That’s how we got into the situation we’re in,” sighs Malone, “in foreign policy and everything.”

He’s referring less to a general sensibility than to one particularly noted anti-intellectual, a certain lame-duck American president for whom being correct never stood in the way of being right. Out of respect for Bush’s “incurious” character, the lyrics to TVOTR’s explicitly political post-Katrina protest tune “Dry Drunk Emperor” are uncharacteristically clear and to the point. Oh, and George, the tune is a free download (get your own at www.tgrec.com/bands/album.php?id=367), so it won’t add to that trillion-dollar deficit.

“I felt like it was kind of heavy-handed while I was writing it,” recalls Malone, “but we felt that the issue we were addressing was so obscene that it called for that kind of directness. There’s a lot you can do in trying to reach the sublime in writing, trying to make something accessible and universally applicable, so that people can project their own ideas onto whatever you’re writing, and make it their own. But when you’re trying to talk about a war, and the lives of thousands and thousands of people, and the lies too—it’s hard to try to talk quietly about that.”

With Subtle at Théâtre Olympia on
Saturday, March 3, 9 p.m., $22