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Taking Measure Of 'Dear Science'


With just three albums, the quintet TV On The Radio has established itself as one of rock's most experimental yet accessible bands, mixing provocative lyrics with everything from punk rock to hip hop. Rock critic Ken Tucker says TV On The Radio's new record, "Dear Science," is an eclectic, purposeful album

(Soundbite of song "Halfway Home")

TV ON THE RADIO: (Singing) The lazy way they turn your head into a rest stop for the dead, and end it all in gold and blue and gray.

KEN TUCKER: The most interesting pop music being made right now is mongrel stuff, collage works, compositions capacious enough to take in elements of not nearly prevailing trends but the whole of pop and rock history. It is at this sort of musical patchwork that TV On The Radio excels. They are expert craftsmen in the sense that they can take a funk guitar rift, a soul music falsetto, and a disco drum rhythm and turn it into a call to cultural arms. I have just described this song called "Crying."

(Soundbite of song "Crying")

TV ON THE RADIO: (Singing) Laugh in the face of death under masthead. Hold your breath through late breaking disasters. Next to news of the trite. Codes and the feelings that meant to be noble like coke in the nose of the nobles. Keeps it alight. And the wrath and the riots and the races on fire, And the music for tanks with no red lights in sight. Got you crying, crying, oh crying. Oh crying, oh my my…

TUCKER: "Crying" is all the more impressive for the tension it creates between its music and its lyric. The jaunty dance funk ramming up against what even the band itself calls a heavy scenario of riots, righteous wrath, and, quote, "the races on fire." That last phrase about race carries some weight in this context. Four of the five members of TV On The Radio are African American, with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe, like Barack Obama, an American of African parentage.

The rock critic press term for non-R&B music made by blacks is post-racial. But TV On The Radio is more complex and smarter than that fast old label. They've seen of strife both specific and general, opening up America's problems with black suffering and oppression to either triumph over it, well against it, or as is the right of any good artist, to ignore it as the mood suits them.

(Soundbite of song "Golden Age")

TV ON THE RADIO: (Singing) Heart beat sounding ricocheting in their cage. Thought I'd lose my balance with the grounds bounce and sway. And all this violence. And all this goes away. And the vibes that rise like fireflies illuminate our play. Some like being pulled up from night's party. Said clap your hands if you think your soul is free. And the silence was astounding. Except some, oh Lord!! Mercy Me's. And oh you can't stop what's coming up. You're never gonna stop gonna live it up. And oh it's gonna drop gonna fill your cup. And oh it's gonna drop gonna fill your cup! The age of miracles. The age of sound. Well, there's a Golden Age coming round, coming round, coming round.

TUCKER: On that song, "Golden Age," TV On The Radio mixes David Bowie in his '70s disco mode with the approach to syncopated rhythm that Prince has perfected and come up with a song who's refrain is, there's a golden age coming around. Is the band being nostalgic, sarcastic, idealistic? There's an open-endedness to the band's lyrics that isn't really annoying, although here and there, their vagueness is coy so much as it is intriguing.

(Soundbite of song "Family Tree")

TV ON THE RADIO: (Singing) Now I'm no mad man, but that's insanity, Feast before famine and more before family goes, And shows up with more bowls and more cups, And the riot for the last hot meal erupts, Corrupts his hard drive through the leanest months, Shells out the hard cash for the sickest stunts, On aftershave, on gasoline. He flips the page and turns the scene. In my mind, I'm drowning butterflies broken dreams and alibis, That's fine. I've seen my palette blown to monochrome, Hollow heart clicks hollow tone. It's time.

TUCKER: Well, there's eclecticism for you. That song begins with a spoken section that's not rap but more of Broadway musical, a gloss on Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man." It then slides into a slippery funk groove with a jolly pop sing-song chorus. It's this kind of bursting inventiveness that keeps you off balance listening to TV on the Radio in a state of constant ear-opening surprise.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Dear Science" by TV On The Radio. You can download podcast of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.