TV ON THE RADIO
Nine Types of Light
Maybe TV on the Radio are just done being the truly great guitar band of the aughts. (Fuck you, Jack White. Still.) They had a good run of a few albums, but on their latest, Nine Types of Light, guitars sound like keyboards, keyboards make like guitars, and everybody seems tired. Producer, guitarist, and bandmacher Dave Sitek, whose signature sound has turned him into something like the Edge for 80s babies, drops that sound’s drive and thins out its warm wall of noise. Instead he goes buck wild with a vast array of synths, and the album barely busts 100 beats per minute—it’s dominated by languid ballads, another departure from the band’s usual mode.
There’s still plenty of reverb-erb-erb to go around on Nine Types, but it’s dialed back considerably, leaving Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s voices barer than before despite Sitek’s busy mixes—a reminder that TVOTR has always been as much a vocal group as rock band. You can hear Malone’s lisp, and with his acrid falsetto no longer so thickly buffered by studio magic, he sounds like a lost Bee Gee stepbro at the top of his register. If you weren’t sold on the vocals before, this won’t be the album to convert you.
It’s possible TVOTR didn’t so much run out of steam on Nine Types of Light as decide to move on. Maybe they’re just done being the band we knew—fair enough, given that they’ve spent the past seven years or so watching all of Brooklyn and the hip beyond ape their womby sound. That might explain why they aren’t playing to their strengths on most of the album. Gone is their motivational rock sound—lots of Nine Types comes on like an extended steppers set for indie kids, slow, tender, and sentimental. This approach works its magic best on “Will Do,” where Adebimpe pitches all kinds of woo to someone who isn’t interested in his “lovesick lullabye”; it’s like a Talk Talk song slicked up with baby-oil sensuality. The arrangement is as clunky as the rest of the album—Sitek still tends to clutter the midrange, adding layers that get tangled up with the vocals—but with its energy and hooks, it transcends the monotonous muddle in a way the other songs rarely do.
A prime example of what doesn’t work is “Killer Crane.” A Zeppelinoid mystical ballad, it mentions “rainbows” (which becomes something like a ten-syllable word), “cold wind,” and a “proclamation.” It features a single-note piano line and an acoustic guitar. And droning synths. And organ. And electric guitar. And synth flute. And bass. And a banjo that sounds like a koto. And strings. And a chorus. And just as a banjo that sounds like a banjo climaxes into a cello solo, the song expires—it’s not that it’s over, but rather that its majesty has drowned in a river of orchestral bullshit. Much of the album’s wow potential never gets realized, suffocated by the plodding sameyness of the songs or crowded out by the new infatuation with synths.
Things pick up slightly (but only slightly) toward the end of Nine Types. On “Repetition,” the eighth of its ten tracks, Adebimpe channels the Dream Warriors’ “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style.” And on the closer, “Caffeinated Consciousness,” the band shudders through a truculent blues in a hard 4/4 while he does his best Jagger, bratty and shouting on the chorus. It’s fun, but the thrust these two songs summon arrives too late.
(Post Present Medium)
What a different world punk rock could’ve been. “We wanted Henry to be our drummer, but he wants to sing,” teenage Sharon Cheslow wrote in her diary on May 13, 1980. Cheslow and her pal Cheryl Celso were forming what would become Chalk Circle, the first—and for several years, incredibly, the
only—all-girl punk band in Washington, D.C. Their friend Henry? He was about to discover Black Flag, a band he’d go on to front as Henry Rollins, becoming the apogee of macho in American hardcore. It’s hard not to wonder if history would’ve taken a different shape, not just for Chalk Circle but for girls in punk, had Rollins done even a few rehearsals behind the kit with that fledgling D.C. band. Maybe Chalk Circle would’ve played more than four shows before breaking up in early 1983. For sure their first record wouldn’t have taken 28 more years to see the light of day.
Reflection compiles Chalk Circle’s complete recordings, which are either unreleased or beyond rare: a single that Dischord declined to release, some songs that appeared on local tape compilations, a demo. In many ways Chalk Circle were like the other bands they came up with—a bunch of high school misfits hanging around Georgetown, watching Bad Brains practice, going to their friends’ hardcore shows at night. The difference was they were girls, and in that scene girls playing punk could expect a reception somewhere between awkward and awful. During a D.C. punk panel at SXSW last month, Minor Threat’s Lyle Preslar remembered that his bandmate Brian Baker was fond of saying, “Punk rock was invented so that ugly women would have something to do on Saturday night.”
Given that dismissive attitude and the fact that these women played postpunk, not hardcore—which the likes of Minor Threat, the Untouchables, and Government Issue were codifying as the D.C. sound—it’s not terribly surprising that Chalk Circle ended up absent from histories of the scene. You could see pictures of them in the photo book Banned in DC, which Cheslow helped compile—playing one of their few shows, dancing front and center at an early Bad Brains gig—but there were no records to dig up. Given the often ephemeral nature of punk bands, it was easy to assume they’d broken up before anybody could document what they’d done.
The genuinely surprising thing about Reflection is just how good Chalk Circle were. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been a band that truly mattered. They were brave, artful, and strange, with Cheslow and front woman Mary Green (who replaced Celso in 1981) trading vocals and shouting in unison over sputtering, angular unriffing and swampy bass. The lyrics—which address identity politics, feminist ideas, and friendship between women—are sharp, poetic, and earnest, and despite the seriousness of the songs you can tell the band’s having fun. The 12 tracks on the comp are split between seven made in 1982 with de facto Dischord house producer Don Zientara and five recorded live. Listening to “The Slap,” “Subversive Pleasure,” and the antilove love song “Easy Escapes,” it’s hard not to feel like punk rock got robbed of something cool and feminine in its early years.
Rehashing and documenting the birth of punk and hardcore has become a burgeoning little industry this past half decade or so, with coffee-table books, oral histories of long-dead scenes, and a constant stream of documentaries that invariably feature Rollins and Keith Morris and all the other major dudes sharing the same old nostalgic version of how it went down. Every one of those accounts is missing its girls—just outside their margins hover the ghosts of arty goth-punk trios and feminist work that went undocumented. And not one of those boring documentaries tells the story of how Cheslow, after the demise of Chalk Circle, talked long and seriously with her good friend Ian MacKaye about the way hardcore had become so macho and exclusive that there was no place for women. This burst MacKaye’s bubble of male privilege, which helped beget D.C. punk’s major transformation of the 80s, the Revolution Summer of 1985—which in turn gave us Fugazi and emo (in its precommercial form). Reflection is a small but powerful blow to the version of punk history written by the winners. May there be many more.