The ’50s through the ’80s were proud times in New York City, as the artists and bands who emerged (or at least arrived before emerging) to fly the New York flag before the world were what natives like to imagine the city at its best to be: superior, original, inventive, pioneering, courageous, influential, blah blah blah. With such exemplars as Dion, Frankie Lymon, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, Television, the Ramones and the first fathers of hip-hop, there was a lot to be proud of, all true to the essence of New Yorkdom. So if a stack of crud came along for the ride (I’m thinkin’ Kiss, for one), well, that’s the way it goes: with so many fish in the sea, some crappies will always wind up in the nets.
The Strokes (fine for a minute, but not good enough to shake the foundations of anything) ushered in a supposed rebirth of five-borough rock in the 21st century. Yet the most celebrated rising-up-rocking types all sound like someone else (mainly the Strokes or Gang of Four), and that doesn’t cut it among us New York hardliners — knockoffs are the province of out-of–towners, we demand more. The latest hot band (and, yes, I have to admit that pervasive buzz on a band is like smell on a raw fish: always a turnoff) is Williamsburg’s TV on the Radio, who have connections to the worthless Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the good sense to resemble somebody different than the other bands claiming to be on the cutting edge. But Suicide really didn’t need to be copied, and the parlor trick of cobbling together the pulsing drone of crummy 30-year-old synthesizers (credit “music” man David Andrew Sitek, a guitarist who in concert prays heavily at the Thurston Moore altar) for a third of an album shouldn’t make anyone stand up and salute. Singer Tunde Adebimpe has an infrequent but much-remarked-upon ability to channel the mid-career inflections of Peter Gabriel; otherwise, his voice is fine but not distinctive. Diverse enough to include an a cappella doo wop arrangement (“Ambulance”), a bald Cure lift (“Staring at the Sun”), a descending soul roll (“Wear You Out”) and a bit of Hendrixy croon (“Bomb Yourself”), Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is diverting, short (47 minutes), atmospheric and contains exactly one truly memorable song, the two-chord “Dreams” which makes its dispirited point (“All your dreams are over now / And all your wings have fallen down”) with repetitive precision. The rest of it feels like fragments stretched to song length; evident self-confidence notwithstanding, it’s not quite the sound of the city.
There are certainly worse templates to audiocopy than Here Come the Warm Jets, with its layers of shifting sonic sand, gently extraneous noises and competing rhythms, but Eno’s 1973 designs are neither modernized nor improved by the wheedly falsetto second voice that runs through much of Return to Cookie Mountain. TVOTR’s second album is actually an improvement over the debut, since at least it sounds like something is going on here, although it also lacks individual tracks that stick out. Sitek’s production largely ignores the songs’ inherent aimlessness and works to its own design, which is to launch a pile of textures, swirl them around for four-plus minutes and then stop. The effect is not especially compelling, as dynamics and melody take a back seat to dial-twiddling and string-frazzling. Leaving the vocals to fend for themselves is actually prudent: there’s no real benefit in discerning lines like “A recent memory of when we shit our bed of roses” or “Much like falcons tumbling from the heights at play / Conjoined, talons engaged.” As music for airports, the album hums along like a tension-age sedative, but if it was meant to be a grand artistic statement by an acclaimed band with a distinctive vision, it’s pretty much static.