TV On The Radio Deliver Sharp Social Commentary In A Minimalist Package

Brooklyn, New York, band mixes biting lyrics with fuzzy guitars and sparse electronics.

Denzel Washington naked in the shower — it's a sight that could give anyone massive palpitations. So when Tunde Adebimpe shouts, "A Denzel shower scene? That's hot!" he's certainly not alone in his sentiments.

He's just been informed of the scene in "The Manchurian Candidate" in which "Satellite," a song by his band, TV on the Radio, appears. It's a pivotal moment: Washington's character, the perturbed Major Bennett Marco, takes a shower and discovers a mysterious bump beneath his skin. He takes a blade and cuts into his shoulder, uncovering a tiny implant.

During that scene, the film's plot — a story of a corrupt government and the abuse of power — really picks up steam. It's a story that's all too familiar to Adebimpe.

"I grew up in Nigeria, and it was sort of a given that things were going to be messed up politically. I experienced a military coup," Adebimpe said. "But today, in America, I don't trust anybody anymore. I don't believe anybody. You'd have to be a 1940s cartoon character not to mistrust today's government."

Adebimpe has always been this sort of mistrusting outsider. He frequently rails against George W. Bush ("I don't know how anyone could re-elect him with a clear conscience") and the U.S. government in general ("It's all a huge, huge mess"). In fact, ever since TV on the Radio first formed in 2001, he's been pretty contrary. He was laboring as a stop-motion animator (working on the first season of "Celebrity Deathmatch") when he met multi-instrumentalist David Andrew Sitek and the two began collaborating — first as artists and then as musicians.

"We'd paint together in Brooklyn, and then I started bringing my four-track [tape recorder] over to his loft," Adebimpe said. "I was doing all a cappella stuff — just my voice and beat boxing. And then Dave made electronic soundscapes to complement it."

The odd combination of Adebimpe's breathy a cappellas and Sitek's droning electronics produced something that sounded completely different: some sort of minimalist doo-wop. In early 2003, the duo stitched together an EP's worth of the stuff, Young Liars, and promptly returned to their day jobs.

"We were completely and totally broke, so we had to go make some money," Adebimpe said. "We had no idea where we fit in with other bands — or if we even fit in at all — so we just wanted to finish [the EP] and put it out ourselves. We were going to leave copies in cafés and shoe stores."

But Chicago indie label Touch and Go thought Liars was way more than shoe-store worthy, and they released it, much to the surprise of Adebimpe.

"I was working at some job, and Dave called me and said 'Touch and Go wants to put out the EP!' " Adebimpe said. "I thought he was joking. I was like 'Dave, that's not funny, calling me at work and telling me that!' "

Even more surprising was the praise critics soon began heaping on the record. Adjectives like "electrifying," "mesmerizing" and "magnificent" were thrown about with unusual aplomb. And suddenly, TV on the Radio were very much on the spot to deliver a follow-up.

Less than a year later, they delivered. Their full-length debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, expands on the atmospheric weirdness of Liars, and new (and super-fro'ed) guitarist Kyp Malone adds a heavy dose of fuzz to the mix. But what's most striking is the even heavier dose of social commentary on the album. On "Bomb Yourself," TVOR offer a "what goes around, comes around" take on U.S actions in Iraq, and with "The Wrong Way," they take a stab at today's bling-happy rappers, chastising them for being "Hungry for those diamonds/ Served on little severed bloody brown hands."

"You juxtapose the image of someone wearing a dinner plate caked in diamonds around their neck with the image of an African child whose hands have been cut off getting those diamonds," Adebimpe said. "It's easy to see the deep self-loathing in it all. No one comes into this world hating themselves. They're taught to do it. What we're trying to do is make people realize that, and undo it."