It's taken five years, but the rest of the world might finally be catching up to TV on the Radio (TVOTR). The Brooklyn band's first two LPs, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) and Return to Cookie Mountain (2006), despite each containing one of their year's top pop pleasures (paranoid anthem "Staring at the Sun" and the white-hot "Wolf Like Me," respectively), were less like albums than dense labyrinths of sound, each track a hall of mirrors reflecting bygone styles with a decidedly postmodern lens. Barbershop doo-wop got down to a breakbeat, a cappella fell for accompanying synths, and horns and strings swirled into a buzzing screen of homogenous, white-noise static. TV on the radio, indeed.
With Dear Science, released in September on Interscope Records, the quintet hasn't so much come back down to earth as given everyone else permission to blast off. Witness "Golden Age," the album's definitive statement. Handclaps crackle and guitars pine nervously; an electronic orchestra pulses while bass lines drop like pistons. Above the fray, Kyp Malone's falsetto vocals float, flutter and fly away: "The age of miracles/ The age of sound/ There's a golden age/ Comin' "round, comin' "round, comin' "round."
Malone, who shares mic duties with frontman Tunde Adebimpe, joined TVOTR in 2003 after hearing an early CD-R by Adebimpe and producer/multi-instrumentalist David Andrew Sitek. "I met them when Dave still didn't have Pro Tools," he says. "I had listened to (debut EP) OK Calculator and had seen them live and liked them as people, but wasn't really here or there until I heard the roughs for the Young Liars EP. I was booking shows for a band I was in, and I invited them to play. And then they invited me to play. I kept doing it."
His first original songs for the group came on Desperate Youth, not coincidentally TVOTR's creative and critical breakthrough. Malone's contributions helped clarify its vision from the scattershot electronica of OK Calculator, but the singer/guitarist deflects the majority of the band's credit to its founder. "Tunde's easily one of my favorite living songwriters," he says. "I feel really fortunate to count among close personal friends the people whose work I respect the most. And a lot of them are in this band."
Sitek handles the bulk of the programming and production, and his work with TVOTR has spawned a fruitful side-career as a record producer. Recent projects include the full-length debut by Dragons of Zynth, works by fellow Brooklynites the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars, and Scarlett Johannson's Anywhere I Lay My Head, a reimagining of Tom Waits that was recorded at the Dockside Studio in Maurice, La., and released to mixed reviews in May.
'I've heard a lot of strong opinions about that," Malone says. "But when I hear it, I know what he was doing, or what he was referencing, what he was creating. All the musicians, and Scarlett, and the writing of Tom Waits I don't know. I think it's something he should be super proud of."
Malone believes that Sitek's growth as a producer has now led to a signature style. "I hear Dave on the records that he produces, oftentimes, but I don't hear TV on the Radio," he offers. "I feel like I could listen to something on [a] record and I could point to an aspect, a Sitek earmark. But everyone in the band's got a lot of ideas, so a lot of those ideas get through."
That notion is confirmed on Dear Science, which features increased songwriting contributions from bassist Gerard Smith and drummer Jaleel Bunton. The latter co-wrote "Crying," the album's second track and a probable second single, with Malone.
'There were ideas that Jaleel was working on, and as soon as I heard the bass line, I could hear the song almost entirely, the basis of the song," Malone says. "I cut it up with him, sang a scratch vocal, and gave it back to him. And he put keys on it, and Dave put stuff on it, and we just kept passing it back and forth."
The bright dance/funk vibe of "Crying" is a spoonful of sugar for the song's severe lyrics: "Laugh in the face of death under masthead," Malone sings over skittering guitar scratch. "Hold your breath through late-breaking disasters/ Next to news of the trite." It's a favorite bait-and-switch for TV on the Radio, for whom the line between the personal and the political gets blurrier with every persuasive album.
'There's always, every day, an opportunity for accepting a new way and a different road than the road we're on," Malone says. "The road that we're on, it's clearly headed to destruction. And I'm talking like the f***ing apocalyptic Christian I was raised to be. Everything around us is calling for change not just cosmetic change, but real change. The icecaps are melting. We're poisoning ourselves and the planet with our entire way of life. We're gonna run out of oil. All this on-the-brink sh** happening all over the place. I want to be optimistic, and I'm trying to be optimistic that there is an opportunity in a pretty dark time and getting darker to change course."
He pauses. "Maybe I'll write a song about it."