Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

TV on the Radio: Rocking Out at Radio City

Brooklyn's post-punk prog band triumphs onstage

Although TV on the Radio are a hometown band for me, I'd never seen them live until they marked the release of Nine Types of Light with an April 13 appearance at Radio City Music Hall. Critically, this was irresponsible. But as a listener I'm glad I waited. For me, Radio City was so revelatory--a great concert, not just a good one--that when I loaded up my CD changer at home, albums I'd been convinced to admire had been turned into music I found easy to love. I'm sure they're damn impressive in a club. But I doubt their fundamental accomplishment can manifest in that small a space. They're made for a democratic show-palace.

It's no revelation to observe that TV on the Radio are prog. This is not a song band. Tunde Adebimpe tops his powerful, expressive baritone with a falsetto worthy of D'Angelo, and their writing has become more melodic with the years. But on material that eschews hooks and standard structures, Adebimpe's voice is more a musical instrument than a dramatic vehicle. TVOTR's show doesn't turn on chorus moments, those reassuring epiphanies when half the house is singing a beloved lyric the singer isn't quite projecting through the amplified din. Rather than climaxing, the music envelops, and rather than showcasing fancy solos the way metal and prog do--I counted two total--it relies on composition and arrangement. Yet TV on the Radio never seem stiff or calculated. It's almost as if they're jamming. They roil. They thunder. They rock out.

Less than intimate with their early book, I couldn't ID either of the first two selections--"Young Liars," the title track of their 2003 debut EP, a roiler, and "The Wrong Way," the lead track of their 2004 debut album, a rocker. Respect and then some to new drummer Jahphet Landis in both modes (Jaleel Bunton has moved into the bass spot of cancer-stricken Gerard Smith). But rockers very much predominated even though all members except supposed musical mastermind Dave Sitek are black. It is racial stereotyping pure and simple to call TVOTR a funk band. Of course funk beats are part of their arsenal--they were part of Toto's arsenal, too. What wasn't in Toto's arsenal, or P-Funk's either, was punk beats, which kept on coming all night--big-bearded harmony vocalist Kyp Malone, a grave Hasidic elder up against Adebimpe's lithe writhing, can strum as unrelentingly as Johnny Ramone. Their funkiest song and also my favorite, "Red Dress," was done so punk--my date said no wave, but that's pushing it--that I found it as hard to place as "Young Liars" until Adebimpe started chanting the title, comprehensibly for once, at the close. In fact, most of the 15 songs, including the five new ones, had been rearranged at least slightly. A lot of the time I didn't know what the hell they were playing. All I could say with certainty was that it sounded tremendous--tiered and a little weird.

What I loved most was their scale and sweep. Like Jimi Hendrix--another black rocker, as it happens, but a master improviser, whereas TVOTR plan every move--they're maximalists in a music that in its avant-garde precincts has always favored minimalists. There wasn't a shred of multicultural feel-goodism in a concert that affirmed the totality of their oeuvre, making room for four early titles--orchestral, but in constant motion, guitar and keyboard layers filigreed with Adebimpe's leads and stabilized by Malone's harmonies, with guest Dave Smith's trombone adding acidity and tonal wobble. Identifying Euro-American from an African-American base, they're almost in Ralph Ellison territory. But to their credit, they'd probably just as soon stick with Hendrix.

MSN Music, April 16, 2011