CD Review of Return To Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio

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Return To Cookie Mountain
starstarstarstarno star Label: 4AD/Interscope
Released: 2006
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TV on the Radio have such a unique sound that it’s damn near impossible to identify. For lack of a better term most people classify them as indie-rock, but even the indie-est of indie-rockers would probably have a hard time finding a band that sounds even remotely like them. Their sound is so one-of-a-kind that its nearly impossible to even track down their influences – if they claimed that polka king Frankie Yankovic and Australian dance diva Kylie Minogue inspired their 2004 hit “Staring At The Sun,” I’d be forced to believe them. In addition to being talented producers and musicians Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Stiek of TV on the Radio are also visual artists, so I also wouldn’t be surprised if their biggest musical influences weren’t musicians at all, but other artists such as surrealist painter Salvador Dali or graffiti pioneer Basquiat.

Regardless of what influenced their music, its power and beauty cannot be denied. Their 2004 debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the year. Because of this, their follow-up Return to Cookie Mountain (a title that may have been inspired by a stage in a Super Mario Bros. game) has been eagerly anticipated by indie-rock geeks worldwide – even if the band itself is no longer ‘indie’ (they signed on with Interscope).

While TV on the Radio’s signing to a major label may have come as a shock to their fiercely independent following, they should be happy to know that their eclectic and diverse sound has survived the move intact, if only becoming slightly more polished and tighter along the way.

TV on the Radio gained some exposure between albums with the internet-only release “Dry Drunk Emperor,” a response to the government’s failing to aide the victims of Katrina that was practically a call for a violent revolution against the president. Their anti-Bush views surface immediately on Return to Cookie Mountain, with the first line of the first track (“I Was a Lover”) stating, “I was a lover, before this war.” And while the song is a bit more obtuse and symbolic than the direct and brutal “Dry Drunk Emperor” was, you get the point they’re trying to make, with lines like “Running on empty, bourbon and God / It’s been a while since we knew the way,” seemingly attacking the president and questioning the country’s direction as a whole.

The songs on Return to Cookie Mountain can be quiet, introspective soliloquies on the state of the nation and the war one second, and explosive anthems the next. The rich layers upon layers of samples, horns and backup vocals on “Wolf Like Me” explode into a walloping crescendo before slowing down to a near-stop, only to re-awaken and slam your eardrums once more. “Province” does just the opposite, beginning with quiet piano melodies and steady drum beats before exploding into a sample-filled Phil Spector-like wall of sound. “Province” also features guest vocals by David Bowie, which TV on the Radio bravely does not focus on, instead pulling his melodic singing into the mix.

For many, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes’ standout track was the band’s 21st century take on classic doo-wop “Ambulance,” which was built completely around vocal samples. TV on the Radio revisits this sound with “A Method” with even better results. Adding instruments, chaotic beats and more backing vocals to the mix, its an acid-trip through classic Motown and soul, twisting the conventions of the genre on its ear and creating something entirely original and amazing.

TV on the Radio has definitely managed to avoid a sophomore slump with Return to Cookie Mountain. Just as challenging and original as their stunning debut, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to top it.

~James B. Eldred