Monday, November 30, 2009

#31. 'Show you what all the howling's for'

TV on the Radio "Wolf Like Me"

Sometimes there's nothing more frustrating than an artist who doesn't seem to realize exactly where their strengths lie. There's plenty of examples of this, bands who come across as utterly unremarkable until they hit upon that one particular sound that makes everything fall into place, then quickly retreat back to what they were doing before, artists who seem convinced that ballads are a good idea when they don't have the necessary emotional drive to really pull them off. It's much less prevalent in less popular forms of music, but even there there seem to be enough examples of bands whose talent only seems to come through on a certain type of song, usually one they don't attempt often enough.

Perhaps, TV on the Radio aren't the best example of this phenomenon, I mean, I did put Return to Cookie Mountain on the albums side of this equation after all, but they do seem to shy away from the type of song that initially put them on my 'band to watch radar.' I never got too excited about them until I heard "The Wrong Way," the first time they infused their sound with some sort of tangible energy as opposed to the more languidly paced stuff from Young Liars, but instead of keeping that sort of thing going they seemed to only return to it fleetingly. On one hand that was a good decision since it means that the more energetic version of their sound wasn't about to get played out, but on the other hand that sort of modification of their usual sound suits them so well that it's hard to not actively wish for more of it. It's not an extreme case where the only time they've got anything going for them is when they crank up the energy, they've always got Tunde Adebimpe's expressive vocals and Dave Sitek's production to spice up the less kinetic material and it's not like much of it is outright bad, but the energetic numbers are still where the band really shines.

If you want the best example of why the energetic sound suits the band better, you really don't need to look any further than "Wolf Like Me." Really, you just need to hear the first 30 seconds where drummer Jaleel Bunton pounds out a nice aggressive groove while Sitek and Kyp Malone ramp up the buzzing guitars into a properly cinematic yet lo-fi introduction. When the main riff actually starts the song's already sucked you in ad you are powerless to deny it. All told it's not a very complex or interesting riff, just a simple chord progression at its heart, but as a backdrop for Adebimpe and Malone's vocal sparring it works damn near perfectly. Especially when things get damn near thrashing during the chorus - this aspect is even more apparent on the various live versions out there, specifically the one they performed on Letterman right around the time Cookie Mountain was released - the energy of the performance transports the song to a whole different level than it was at before. Even during the middle section where things slow to a crawl the knowledge taht things are gonna pick up right where they left off gives it a palpable sense of tension that even the best of their less energetic moments can't match.

Of course there's Adebimpe's vocals at the fore here, and as usual they're fantastic, but more interesting is the increased presence of co-vocalist Kyp Malone. Malone's not in the same league as Adebimpe, but his harmonies and counter-vocals certainly do a lot to spice up the song. It's especially apparent during the middle section where Malone supplies the ethereal backing coos while Adebimpe drawls out his lycan come-ons; the best part of that section is the contrast between the two vocal lines as opposed to simply resting on Adebimpe's even more forceful than usual vocals. During the verses it's more definitely Adebimpe's show, and he's on fire for the whole song. It's a passionate, energetic and forceful vocal performance at all points, never letting up its intensity even for a moment but never coming off as too much either. It helps that his voice is such a pure one, even at full intensity it never sounds forced or affected which is tough to pull off at the levels of mania he achieves here.

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