Chris Donaghey
Reviews Editor
September 28, 2006
Buy it at Insound!
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TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain

Barbershop has been an area of music into which few have delved far. In fact, there are those who would just as soon dismiss the whole genre as just being a step above Saturday night karaoke at the local beef ‘n’ brew. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, the full-length “debut” (save the obscure OK Calculator) from Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, was compared by a surprising amount of critics to a hodgepodge of barbershop and anything from “space rock” to “art-house drone pop.” Kitsch couture was in high demand, though, as the diverse trio ensnared countless listeners with their finger snaps and layered soulful harmonizing. Doo-wop and quintets of retro fetishists with matching outfits could finally find their comfort zones in the avant-garde music scene.

Of course, nowadays, bands who intend on separating themselves from the mainstream consciousness cannot often ride one idiosyncrasy to continued success, regardless of surrounding artistic ingenuity. For their follow-up, velvet-voiced frontman Tunde Adebimpe and crew could be a one trick pony and maintain at least a certain level of intrigue from a particular audience or they could metamorphose into something more radical; in other words, be lumped in with the BeSharps or the Beatles. The band added a member and the lineup could have taken a major hit for a true adjustment period, so nobody could tell what to foresee. Nevertheless, as Return to Cookie Mountain evidences, a little change can go a long way.

Where Desperate Youth relied upon ethereal electronics, Cookie Mountain pounds primal live drums and instrumentation. After the looped jazz convulsions (better than it sounds) of opener “I Was A Lover,” the affair turns almost primal in disposition, as if the music itself felt the burning desire to unfold in its most righteous form. Adebimpe’s vocals, usually ones which burst like geysers of soul over and beyond the actual harmonies, sound more restrained on this effort in an attempt to complement the production work rather than overpower it. One listen to the feral overdrive of lead single “Wolf Like Me” makes his sacrifice sound like a blessing.

Another side effect of TV on the Radio’s unified vision is that the lyrics themselves are allowed to breathe. After being previously held in check by the focus placed on other elements of the band (multi-ethnic band, rapturous vocal rises, etc.), the lyrical tenor of the group bubbles right at the surface with this outing with poetry both immediate and profound. Simultaneously “Werewolves of London” revisited and a poignant character study, “Wolf Like Me” uses pulsing drums, gargantuan guitar, and effervescent noise (courtesy of resident soundsmith David Sitek) to bring forth the dark, aggressive, and unnervingly beautiful side in each of us. “Dirty Little Whirl” finds the band at odds with a force – Love? Hate? Something far more devious than both? – that ‘pins’ them ‘under the heat of [their] swirl’ while the vocals themselves swirl sternly in parallel. Eloquent elegance can now be found in both their musical and emotional dissonance.

Of course, since this album marks a maturation in sound, there are plenty of other examples of a broadening of TV on the Radio’s horizons. “Blues From Down Here” calculatedly whips shallow waters into a quiet frenzy with snappy drums and captivating vocal lines, crafting a catchy song that is simultaneously typical and atypical from this band. The song ends with “It’s not the last you’ve heard from me” and somehow, inexplicably, it is known that those sentiments are nothing short of prescient. As the tribal aggression of “Let the Devil In” bursts and fades and the wonderful coupling with David Bowie (“Province”) drifts in and out of the listener’s ears, the impact of their new organic sound and visceral chemistry cannot be denied.

The album ends its proper course (save bonus tracks) with “Wash the Day Away.” The near-apocalyptic postmodern poetry comes to an apex with ‘We did believe in magic we did believe/We let our souls act as canaries/Our hearts gilded cages be.’ With shimmering production and epic harmony ascensions, it is, without a doubt, a progressive artistic step from their early work, a massive leap toward fulfilling their media-perpetuated buzz. Return to Cookie Mountain makes absolutely no sense as an album title but with the musical rewards the band has reaped, it doesn’t matter if the mountain dwellers decided to sow croissants the next time around. They just need to keep going back to this place and after a couple listens, the rest of us will find it necessary as well.

Release date: September 12, 2006
Label: Interscope/4AD
Rating: 8.9 / 10

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