Failing From Grace

Flying flawed like an eagle when art-reach exceeds grasp

My mother, a recovering English professor, once told me she far preferred students who fell flat on their faces trying to articulate a lofty idea to those who kept feet planted firmly on dull old terra firma in pursuit of an unadventurous one—the moral being that it's better to overreach and fail than play it safe and succeed.

The scene that spawned Brooklyn's TV on the Radio has seen the group face-down more than once. In their early days, the band's attempts to fuse widely diverging elements (common references include Pere Ubu, Peter Gabriel, Beta Band, Bulgarian Voices, and doo-wop) could be alternately innovative or unlistenable at their hit-or-miss gigs. TVOTR's sound works best when its primary ingredients—skittering rhythms, a rickety sub-bass throb, squalling guitars, random samples, Tunde Adebimpe's oddly deep and nasal vocals—mesh into something as flawed as it is gorgeous; when their wobbly drones and off-kilter, off-key harmonizing vaguely recall the twittering, warped grace of Brian Eno's early solo albums.

For the most part, the group's debut full-length, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, brings those elements into tighter focus without losing the flaws. Much more realized than last year's Young Liars EP, it's also a bit more conventional—even though "Ambulance" consists entirely of a dozen-odd overdubbed vocals and the sound of water running. Yet a couple of dreadful songs still find TVOTR tripping over their own ambition: "Don't Love You" and "Bomb Yourself" aim for intensity and just end up dirge-like.

Last month's set at Warsaw, part of a Williamsburg-scene pep rally (also featuring Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), found the band moving on, already, from an album that wasn't even out yet. Although plenty of gizmos littered the stage floor, "the suitcase," which contained their sampler, was gone (apparently bashed by airline staff en route from a gig in Iceland), and TVOTR sounded almost like a garden-variety indie-rock band—not a good move. While the reason for this is probably logistic (owing to difficulty in reproducing the album's sounds), the disc's electronic whirrs and throbs were replaced with boring old power chords, and the guitar-bass-drums format neutered the band's oddnesses. "You can't hate on them! They're a black rock band playing prog!" one friend said—an interesting comment from someone who'd just expounded upon the artistic futility of Liars' middle finger of a new album (not to mention the fact that TVOTR guitarist David Sitek looks kinda like Rivers Cuomo). Such tokenism misses the point. TVOTR's live set was just too normal compared to their discs, and the group's mutt of sound can more likely achieve its strikingly ugly beauty by failing gloriously than succeeding badly.

 
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