TV On The Radio sounded like the future. In the early 2000s, there was room for a lot of music in New York. A post-9/11 city went through upheavals, and a new scene flourished. Sometimes we think of eras more clearly delineated than they were — the early ’00s owned by the downtown Manhattan cool of the Strokes and Interpol, the second half of the decade belonging to Brooklynites like LCD Soundsystem and the National. Of course, things bleed over more than that. At the dawn of the decade, Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek hung around with the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars, adopting the then-cheap neighborhood of Williamsburg as their home base while they chased a sound that was more alien and provocative than any of their peers.
Having formed in 2001, the duo of Adebimpe and Sitek self-released a collection of four-track recordings called OK Calculator in 2002, an obvious nod to Radiohead’s then-still-recent masterpiece. While that could only barely presage the critical adoration and “America’s Radiohead” comparisons that would later follow TVOTR, it did hint at what was to come musically. Compared to the bands running around New York in the very early ’00s — the peak of the garage-rock revival — TVOTR were practically avant-garde. A year later, they came into clearer focus. The Young Liars EP, which arrived 20 years ago this Saturday, marked the true beginning of TV On The Radio, establishing them as experimentalists in a scene sometimes defined as retro-fetishist.
From the start, TV On The Radio were impossible to pigeonhole. Young Liars was a bleak collection of songs — obliterated guitars, hissing electronics, sputtering beats, Adebimpe’s vocals powerful and clear yet often haunting. You could call them post-rock, but the vague expansiveness of that moniker never felt satisfactory for the collision happening in their music. This is an EP that took the guitars of Liars’ Aaron Hemphill and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and abstracted them into disembodied haze, and then ended with Adebimpe transforming the Pixies’ “Mr. Greives” into a ghostly a cappella doo-wop spiritual.
As for the originals, TVOTR came out swinging with several songs that remain fan favorites two decades later. Young Liars clattered to life with “Satellite,” before the discomfiting beauty of “Staring At The Sun.” “Blind” provided the sprawling centerpiece, but it was the title track that would grow into something truly epic over the years. In its embryonic EP form, “Young Liars” is already a low-key stunner. Similar to “Staring At The Sun,” it represented the alchemic results of combining Adebimpe’s resonant vocals and sharp melodic sensibility with Sitek’s bombed-out soundscapes. Over the years, the TV On The Radio would cultivate the drama only glimpsed in the recording, as “Young Liars” became a live staple that would stretch close to 10 minutes as the band coaxed it into a towering, cathartic performance.
Young Liars was enough to stir up a frenzy of hype around TV On The Radio. The band was immediately and feverishly embraced by indie fans and journalists. The duo seemed like they existed off to the side somewhere, digging around in the shadows of New York’s early ’00s scene. But they were suddenly emerging as one of the city’s most adventurous and perplexing groups.
The EP was so strong, in fact, that TV On The Radio temporarily shot themselves in the foot. A year later, they returned with their full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. The band was already changing — they had added a second vocalist named Kyp Malone, and he and Adebimpe had quickly figured out creative ways to play off one another. Yet while Desperate Youth was not an overall misfire, it failed to live up to the promise of Young Liars. It traveled much of the same sonic territory — nocturnal as any other New York band of the time, but rather than a slick evocation of the city’s night life, it made life on its streets sound bleary and terrifying. Even with a few new standouts, “Staring At The Sun” reappeared and was the best track on the album. The ideas were interesting, but the songwriting didn’t hold up in the same way.
Any potential dip in TVOTR’s fortunes (or the quality of their output) would be temporary. They re-emerged again in 2006 with Return To Cookie Mountain, an album that didn’t sound like anyone else. This was music for volcanic landscapes and armageddons; this was an album that boasted a David Bowie guest vocal. Now a quintet with a more visceral sound than ever, TV On The Radio had truly arrived. All the runaway accolades of Young Liars came back even stronger, with TVOTR anointed as far-seeing rock saviors. The reverence surrounding them would peak with Cookie Mountain’s successor, 2008’s Dear Science. There, TVOTR straddled the Bush and Obama years with an album still laden with doom, but following synthetic grooves that danced, for the moment, towards a more hopeful future.