Anyone can tell you that it sucks to reach your peak on your first try. In any field, in any profession, in any art form, early success can sometimes portend future greatness, but more often it raises expectations to an impossibly high level that no one can again hope to reach. Perhaps in no other medium is this seen more than in the music industry, where a band's first album is sometimes its best and its only brush with immortality. It happens to the greats, too; some would argue, for example, that neither the Velvet Underground nor R.E.M. ever topped their debut records. Hell, most people call Ten Pearl Jam's best album, and that was back before Bill Clinton was in the White House.
Sadly, Brooklyn trio TV on the Radio may be saddled with a similar fate. The three aforementioned bands all went on to successful careers after their triumphant first full-length albums. TV on the Radio were asked simply to trump five songs, the contents of its Young Liars EP, released in July of last year. Easy, right? Well, as anyone who has listened to this disc can tell you, they are five incredible songs, surpassing the output of most seasoned bands a few albums into their recording careers, in terms of originality and cohesiveness. Young Liars set the bar pretty damn high. But, the logic went, given more time and space and money, we should expect TV on the Radio to put out Young Liars II: Out For More come March 9, the release date for the new LP.
What made Young Liars so good, and TV on the Radio so intriguing, was its ingenious mix of seemingly disparate styles, pristine production, and the lyrics and voice of frontman Tunde Adebimpe. With amazing soulfulness for a rock 'n' roll vocalist, Adebimpe waxed poetic over the musical landscape shaped principally by David Andrew Sitek, with help from some friends from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Drum machines collided with guitar fuzz and flutes danced over vocal harmonies as each song reached the ears as something at once excitingly new and familiar. The "secret" fifth track, a flawless a capella reinterpretation of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves," was just icing on the proverbial cake.
The rush of excitement that coursed through Young Liars is what's missing from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. The fact that it has nine tracks, a low number for a full-length album, helps to quantify the stillborn feel of the album. The essential TV on the Radio sounds remains, and even thrives at times, on Desperate Youth. However, the best ideas seem to have been already used on the EP. While Young Liars drew each musical ambition out to its full fruition with nary a second wasted, many of the songs on the LP never seem to evolve beyond the embryonic stage.
The addition of instrumentalist and vocalist Kyp Malone appears to detract from the original sound of TV on the Radio. This can be heard primarily in contrast to the vocals of Tunde Adebimpe on the EP. Adebimpe's rich, dynamic baritone was either solo or tracked against itself on Young Liars, often doubling the force of his lyrical inventiveness. Gems such as "Lonely is all we are/Lovely so far/But my heart's still a marble/In an empty jelly jar," from the song "Young Liars," could be heard clear as a bell. On the full-length, Malone's voice does not always harmonize well with Adebimpe's and, as a result, the clever lyrics get muddled in the dense mix.
But it isn't just a matter of lyrical clarity. Once the songs get started on Desperate Youth, they take a while to actually get somewhere, if they actually get anywhere at all. Sitek starts the album off beautifully, with a little brass ensemble getting mauled by a thundering bass loop at the beginning of "The Wrong Way." More is added to the mix, but the song never achieves the lift-off promised by those opening bars. Sitek does more with "King Eternal," which gets a good kick in the ass toward the very end, but by then it's almost too little too late.
The songs that fare best are those that don't need a sudden build in momentum. While most of the songs on Young Liars gradually build to a thrilling crescendo, the band generally does not seem interested in doing this again; if this is an attempt at "maturity" or "sophistication," I'm not sure if it's working. Both "Dreams" and "Don't Love You" chug along nicely from beginning to end, never needing an extra push to knock them off their comfortably somber groove. Both songs are pretty, and work for what they are, but are just not that interesting to listen to.
The most thrilling moment of the album comes at the end, as a grand finale, but in atypical TV on the Radio fashion. "Wear You Out" begins simply enough with just some staccato drum and a pretty guitar lick. Around the four-minute mark it suddenly launches into an instrumental break down, with Adebimpe and Malone bellowing "Let me wear you out!," which is musically not unlike the anthemic ending of "Hey Jude." It's great to hear all the TV on the Radio elements come together at once, with drums, flute, brass, and loops all poking their head through the musical malaise. But TV on the Radio is at its best when they strive for efficiency, packing everything into the tightest space possible, and not falling into jam band laziness. Nothing against jam bands, but the end of the album gives me the uneasy feeling of being at an Umphrey's McGee show or something.
Given the tone of this review, it is perhaps no surprise that I find the standout track of the album to be "Staring at the Sun," the only song from Young Liars to be included on the LP. This song gets it all right, while the LP's remaining songs only hint at what TV on the Radio can do. Of course, I have yet to see the band live, and based on what I've heard, they are a different beast altogether on stage. However, until that day comes, I can only judge them on their recorded output, and hope that they can someday match the promise of Young Liars. Hey, even the Strokes' second album wasn't all that great.