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“Wolf Like Me:” TV On The Radio, Live at Rough Trade

Most music is identifiable by genre. Rock, jazz, classical, country—these labels all serve a practical purpose for both the artist and the listener. Genre labels help artists market their music to an audience that would best appreciate it, enable listeners to classify music they already know for the purposes of guiding them toward other artists they may find intriguing and allow them to recommend artists to friends. It would thus seem to be ideal that we be able to classify any given band with a known genre, or at least a combination of genres.

TV On The Radio, a band originally from Brooklyn and currently Los Angeles, recently released their fifth full-length album, Seeds. Seeds is a tour de force of mysterious, thrilling indie rock. Some have labeled this newest effort as “less experimental” or “more straightforward” than their previous works. If Seeds is your first exposure to TV On The Radio, you might wonder how this is even possible. Certainly, Seeds is not some breezy musical equivalent of a margarita. Guitars give way to horns which give way to glitchy, murky electronics.

But if one dares to explore its back-catalog, s/he will discover the sheer unpredictability and magnificent weirdness that is TV On The Radio’s earlier output. Albums like Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science are downright unapproachable in comparison to the relatively more linear quality of the recent Seeds. Masterpieces of shadowy subconscious, they are not listening material for the faint of heart. TV On The Radio’s work has been described as avant-garde and “art-damaged,” a colorfully vague phrase employed by music journalists and one whose meaning I concede to not entirely comprehending.

Performing at the Williamsburg record store Rough Trade NYC, the band seemed to feel at ease in its old stomping grounds. Guitarist Kyp Malone cracked a number of self-deprecating jokes about hipster-ism and having written all of his songs in the J.Crew down the block. They were in their element, and their quirky appearance reflected their quirky music.

The band barreled straight into their set of mostly new material with the frantic rampage of “Lazerray.” The most breakneck, powerhouse rocker the band has produced in a while, it was a fitting start to a memorably energetic show. Even five albums in, the band has not lost its flair for producing interesting, peculiar art that transcends traditional genre boundaries. “Howlin’ forever, oh oh,” singer Tunde Adebimpe wailed in the band’s most well-known song, “Wolf Like Me,” as he flailed his arms in furious ecstasy. The crowd immediately shed their inhibitions upon hearing the fan-favorite; the whole room quaked to the rush of pulsing electric guitars. Adebimpe dramatically wiped all of the sweat off his face before launching into the next song.

So what genre is TV On The Radio, anyway? Listening to TV On The Radio, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the music is rock, R&B, doo-wop, soul, jazz, punk, funk, electronica, or some bizarre hybrid of them all (it’s the latter). “Does this band even inhabit the same planet that I do?” is a recurring thought I’ve had while my ears and brain are attempting to process its music. Indeed, the band manages shockingly well to develop a sound that reflects its countless disparate influences but simultaneously sounds like it was composed on Mars. As per its name, TV On The Radio is the sound of a technological phenomenon impossibly hard to convey. It is what rock would sound like if flattened with a sonic mallet, run through a blender of musical mutation, and launched to germinate on a foreign planet.

Its albums are certainly not easily digested in one go-round and often require multiple listens to truly appreciate their creative depth; “growers,” so to speak. It is worth noting that the concept of a “grower” is, in and of itself, a bit of a paradox. If my ears do not like something on the first try, why should I force myself to keep listening on the off-chance that I appreciate it only after five or ten plays? Obviously there is a musical threshold at which, despite critical acclaim and our own expectations or hopes, we simply put down an album and say “this one’s not for me.”

On the other hand, music isn’t always about a quick fix of happiness. Music can serve many purposes. Music can be about reaching deep into your own consciousness, about introspection and reaching mental zen (or perhaps mental cacophony). It can be about exploring feelings and ideas which are difficult to define with simple speech, but really open up in a more creative medium.

The chorus of Seeds’ highlight, “Trouble,” has singer Adebimpe insisting that “Everything’s gonna be okay…oh, I keep telling myself. Don’t worry be happy… oh, you keep telling yourself.” The first half of each line has Adebimpe sounding almost naively exuberant in his vocal delivery, but the second half tempers his feelings with the hesitance of reality. Whether or not everything really is going to be okay, he repeats this mantra—a two-pronged exclamation of jubilance and doubt—with enough vigor that one cannot help but be inspired by just how much he really wants to believe it.

TV On The Radio’s music is difficult. It is admittedly not for everyone. But the real joy of TV On The Radio’s music lies in its layers. Uncovering its depth; discovering the dances of melody hiding beneath an atmospheric otherworld; experiencing that moment when you finally wrap your head around the sudden mood jerks and musical schizophrenia of Return to Cookie Mountain; feeling the inevitable tingling of the spine when the enigmatic chimes kick on “Seeds,” the tastefully-crafted epilogue of Seeds. TV On The Radio’s music guides the listener on an intellectual and emotional expedition through the apocalyptic, existential travails of life, through the ups and downs of love and its moments of transcendent bliss. It is about the fleeting joys, but also about the wear of the journey. TV On The Radio’s music is intelligently crafted, packed with inspiration and profundity for those who seek it. Here’s to hoping that the band continues “howlin’ forever.”