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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

TV on the Radio Goes (Relatively) Pop

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Things aren't always what they seem, particularly in the movie-magic land of Los Angeles. After recording their first four albums in Brooklyn, TV on the Radio tracked their fifth, Nine Types of Light, at the new home studio of band multi-instrumentalist/producer Dave Sitek, not far from Rodeo Drive. While singer/guitarist Kyp Malone can't necessarily pinpoint the exact effect the glitzy L.A. environment had on the album, it certainly made a lasting impression.

“I remember seeing this really young girl whose face looked all beat up,” recalls Malone from his Brooklyn apartment. “My heart dropped, seeing her sitting there with her mother and her little lap dog. I was thinking about how terrible the world is and how much of a secret it is in this culture how much violence there is against women. Then I realized she was just recovering from a nose job.”

Those kind of ambiguities left their mark on Nine Types of Light, perhaps finding their best expression on the song “You.” It's propelled by a spindly but persistent melody, echo-laden snares and thick, fuzzy bass, and it comes off as a love song. Or perhaps it's just a come-on. “You're the only one I ever loved,” sings the band's other vocalist, Tunde Adebimpe, who wrote the song. “Though the feelings were half where we lied.” Earnest, post-breakup mea culpa, or a flowery lie like lighter fluid on fading embers? Even Malone can't say for sure.

“When I first heard the line 'You're the only one I ever loved,' I almost spat in my coffee,” Malone says. “I guess that could be true, but it doesn't sound true to me. Because I could never say that to anyone. I would be lying. I kind of ribbed Tunde for a while, but then every time I played it for any woman I know, they would swoon, especially over that line. I was really taken aback by that. It made me think about the fact that there are a multiple of truths happening at any given situation.”

The new album is their crispest, cleanest and most direct effort to date, part of a continuing evolution since their third disc, 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain. While you can still hear traces of their old arty, prog-rock instincts on tracks like the album-closing “Caffeinated Consciousness,” at some point Malone grew sick of trying to sing over loud, busy rock tunes. He's been moving in this new direction for a few years, impelled by a desire to pack the sonic detail more neatly into a tighter space so the songs aren't so wild.

Signing to the major label Interscope may have also changed his process.

“A chorus or keeping something under four minutes—none of that ever even occurred to me as anything to care about or think about before being on a label that was trying to put us on the radio,” he says. “Market forces never came into my mind, and now they're kind of insidiously there. That police is inside me and has been internalized. There have definitely been times in my life when a 12-minute improvisation on wax did not seem at all self-indulgent—it seemed like that was how much time was needed for the thing to come out. I want to get back to somewhere in between that and where I am now, somewhere where I'm not looking at songs too pop-traditionally.”

The album comes after members explored a variety of individual endeavors during the band's touring break following their previous album, Dear Science. In 2009, Malone released a self-titled solo album as Rain Machine, and last year Sitek released his self-titled solo debut under the moniker Maximum Balloon. Then earlier this year, Malone and Adebimpe worked on an album with South Saharan underground musicians Tinariwen.

“The more we play with other bands, it expands our palette,” Malone explains. “Increasing music experiences in that way, it does have a synergistic effect. You challenge yourself and you rise to that occasion and potentially learn in the process, bringing whatever you learn forward to the group.”

TV on the Radio plays the Pabst Theater with Seluah on Thursday, Sept. 1, at 7:30 p.m.