Though we've got about five months to go, I think it's safe to say that TV On The Radio's EP, Young Liars, had the most astonishing and original music I've heard this decade from a new band. Their sound seemed so fully formed and owed no obvious debts to any bands to the point where the EP felt like it came out of nowhere. Of course, we know now that they had a semi-official album under their belts, OK Calculator, but that is an insular, lo-fi, skeletal work. Young Liars, though, had enough ideas and excellent music, a variety of sounds and yet a united flow, that it satisfied like an album does. By contrast, the band's 'true' debut full length, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, never had the same cache with me.
It took Return To Cookie Mountain to bring me back in, and last year's even better Dear Science proved that TV On The Radio were in this for the long haul. Yet Desperate Youth remained, in my mind anyway, a slight misstep. But why did I feel this way?? It had been enough time since I last heard it that I couldn't remember why other than a lingering sense that it was too long and not very consistent. Well, inspired by conversations at work about the band, I've dug back into the album, re-discovering it in the process.
The two words that come to mind when listening to this album again are thick and dense. David Sitek's production and electronic work were never again as oppressive and heavy as they are on Desperate Youth, which is an odd thing to find myself saying because I associate these qualities more with Return To Cookie Mountain. Regardless, there are many huge drum loops and electronic skronks and swirls running through this album like the red lightning on the cover. Meanwhile, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe first began their brilliant vocal work together here (not counting the short New Health Rock EP), most notably on 'Ambulance', which is the next logical step past their doo wop cover of 'Mr. Grieves' from Young Liars. The potential problem for listeners is that, despite being only 9 tracks and 47 minutes long, Desperate Youth feels much longer. TV On The Radio's gift for marrying hook filled songwriting with their fascinating, unique sound hadn't quite fully bloomed here, so too often songs feel as if they go on for two or three minutes past their natural endings.
Oddly, then, I find myself loving this album now. It's my least favorite release by them, but Desperate Youth is an intriguing album stuffed with excellent sounds and ideas. Young Liars was a great introduction, but this was the first time we saw the band's full breadth on display, the mixture of indie rock, electronic music, hip hop, and doo wop/soul style vocals proving very fruitful and endlessly enjoyable. The album opens with similar force to the debut EP, some horns spurting a few notes before a jackhammer drum loop starts and we're off. From there Desperate Youth visits shoegazer style guitars on 'Dreams', psychedelic 60s style organs on 'Don't Love You', and offers the brilliant line "So cover your balls/cuz we swing kung fu" on 'King Eternal.' There's a real sense of enthusiasm and discovery on this album; often, there's nothing like a band taking the studio for a spin for their first full length. If TV On The Radio didn't produce their greatest work in the process, they still produced great work.
Ultimately, I will cop to the fact that this album isn't as good as their next two albums. This is mostly as a result of the heavy production/atmosphere and lack of flow due to its often slow-to-medium tempos, but no song on here strikes me as anything less than good. Assuming you love TV On The Radio, this album will be a feast of music. For everyone else, I think it's simply too dense and ponderous of a place to start.