Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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TV on the Radio

  • Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes [Touch and Go, 2004] B
  • Return to Cookie Mountain [Interscope, 2006] A-
  • Live at Amoeba Music [Interscope, 2007] **
  • Dear Science [Interscope, 2008] A
  • Nine Types of Light [Interscope, 2011] A-
  • Seeds [Harvest, 2014] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes [Touch and Go, 2004]
Intelligent, honest, and original ought to be enough. But in fact there are acres, tons, and years of bad art that share these virtues, especially if "original" is interpreted generously, which it better be with the world's hundredth or thousandth guitars-and-loops outfit. Really. Take-him-or-leave-him singer. No great shakes melodically or rhythmically. Approximately as insightful in re the exigencies of male-and-female as 50 years of male chauvinists before them. Always humorless, sometimes sententious. All told, pretty dull--unless you're so desperate that you'll sing hosanna for every piece of intelligent-honest-original that comes down the circuit. B

Return to Cookie Mountain [Interscope, 2006]
Proud foe of prog, poetasters and their debut album, I filed this under overwrought 'til I could bear the clamor of their youthful cohort no longer, and soon I was sucker-punched by its opening salvo, four sour treated-horns-with-sitar notes that remain the best thing on the record, immediately followed by the second-best thing, Tunde Adebimpe's pained falsetto "I was a lover before this war." Together, these are enough to justify the record's ominous tone. Though hardly straightforward, neither music nor lyrics are obscure. Instead, emotional dislocations are contextualized for once--blamed on Bush and/or capitalism, actually, which rather than a cop out is almost an analysis. Never rousing and too often glum, the album is carried by its intelligence, integrity and terrible beauty. Difficult but durable music and point but open-ended verbiage that conveys what a bummer it is to struggle fruitlessly with your own political impotence. A-

Live at Amoeba Music [Interscope, 2007]
Four from Return From Cookie Mountain, every one less mannered and deliberate ("Wolf Like Me," "Blues From Down Here"). **

Dear Science [Interscope, 2008]
Having been sucked struggling into the slough of despond that is Return to Cookie Mountain only to swim out a wholer, if muddier, man, I first took exception to the graceless lyrics they croon and groan on top of their catchy new funk. Transmutation of the negative--seemed too easy, a time-worn rock trick. But listen to the music as much as you'll want to and slowly the verbal opacities dissipate. You'll notice zingers like "Keep your dancing shoes off mine," "scared to death that I'm livin' a life not worth dying for." And eventually, if you pay attention, you'll hear an album that makes sense of the public lives of club-scene warrior-laborers who have kept it real and turned into affluent young professionals anyway. The thing about the indie-rock life is that even its depressives, not just mere realists like these guys, have a pretty good time. That's the point, right? So they retain their realism while celebrating the bright side. On the glorious "Red Dress," they also make clear that they haven't transcended their racial identity, no matter how much indie-rock wants to think so. Transcending race just isn't something that happens in America--at least not yet. A

Nine Types of Light [Interscope, 2011]
The rumor that this is their love album will come as news to the woman who let him go and the woman who thinks they're incompatible and maybe even the woman whose heart he's gonna keep when the world falls apart. Not to mention the mother robbed blind and the fish washed up on the shore and the blues that keeps him on the shelf and the megaquake that's a force of nature and maybe even the killer crane that's not a piece of malfunctioning construction equipment. Because these guys were lovers before this war, a ceaselessly shifting conflict that has dominated their entire artistic life, love has always been part of their coping mechanism. But it'll obviously never be as big for them as music. In this iteration, that music is a trifle gentler and several times encourages dancing on the floor you've been knocked to. But it remains set on complexity, contemplation, and the interactions of art-rock texture, pan-rock rhythm, and African falsetto. Beautiful, especially if you like your beauty grand. And beauty is good. But how about some jokes? Jokes help people get through wars too. A-

Seeds [Harvest, 2014]
Until the triumphant mortality song "Lazerray" and the scared mortality song "Trouble," both right before the end, this album makes no discernible reference to the death of bassist Gerard Smith. It's a love album front to back--those two could be about love too. So if love is your idea of boring, carp away. Big on love myself, I nonetheless wince at the borderline banality of "Could You" and "Test Pilot," when love goes poorly. But when love goes well--on "Quartz," "Ride," the delicate, muscular "Careful You"--they're strong of mind, body, and spirit. And for your information, love songs that last don't come easy--they take guts, commitment too. A-

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