Anyone who so much as glimpsed a magazine rack at the end of the year knows that Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio are one of the most acclaimed bands on the planet right now. Their second full-length, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope), ended up at or very near the top of most major best-of lists, enjoying the kind of critical tongue baths that rock journalists usually reserve for Bob Dylan and other figureheads of Rock’s Golden Age.

It’s not hard to see why music mavens fell so hard for the record. The wild goose chase of trend-spotting and trend-following that critics and bands engage in can be exciting, but it’s also tiring, and TVOTR seemed completely, refreshingly unconcerned with that game, coming out of left field as they did. Critic love doesn’t guarantee ticket sales, of course–just ask any number of past Pazz & Jop darlings. (Fannypack, you out there?) But TVOTR sold out two nights at the Metro, and I’m guessing they could have sold out a third. I’m also guessing that this is only partly due to the quantity and quality of the hype about them and almost entirely because they are an incredible fucking band.

The appeal of TVOTR is hard to pin down. Image-wise, they completely suck. Onstage they look like a graphic-design team on a weekend outing, rocking a half-assed indie-casual style that involves khakis. Except for vocalist/guitarist Kyp Malone–who sports maybe the second most famous Afro in popular music after ?uestlove’s–any member of the band could’ve probably watched the opening act from the club’s main floor without being recognized. And if they don’t really look like the kind of band that can fill a place like the Metro, they definitely don’t sound like one. Their songs are based more on unrefined emotion and abstract atmospherics than melody. They write the occasional brain-sticky tune, but even their most anthemic songs avoid big hooks in favor of a slow buildup.

TVOTR’s stage show has evolved over the past few years, from three guys fucking around with briefcases full of samplers, guitars, and delay pedals into something that looks and sounds more like a normal rock band. Drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist/keyboardist Gerard Smith have joined, allowing Malone and Dave Sitek to focus on their guitars and lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe to emerge from behind his gadgets and look like a real front man. They opened their first night at the Metro with some trippy improvisation, its tinkling prettiness enhanced by the wind chimes dangling from Sitek’s headstock. After Adebimpe began to beatbox, the jam coalesced into something more solid, emerging finally as the song “Dirtywhirl,” one of Cookie Mountain’s more rock-ish tracks.

Sitek and Malone worked complicated banks of effects pedals to produce massive layers of sound, alternating between simple guitar lines and nearly atonal sheets of white noise. Trying to figure out exactly how they made those sounds–and what Sitek planned to do with those wind chimes–was distracting, but Adebimpe still stole the show. His repertoire of stage moves consists of a jittery pogo, a series of wild, drag-queenish arm gestures, and a twitchy shuffle. His voice, meanwhile, is stunning, and he’s learned to wield it confidently in front of a crowd. He’s like an autistic imitation of an old-school soul singer.

The band was a little more introverted. Aside from the occasional rock-star moves–which felt like obligatory rock-star moves–Malone and Sitek rarely displayed any showmanship on the first night, preferring to concentrate on making their noise. A few times, during the intro to “Young Liars,” for instance, Malone actually walked over to Sitek’s side of the stage for a brief powwow. The bassist, meanwhile, stayed hidden behind his workstation of synthesizers, and the drummer, well, he had to face the crowd. It was obvious at times that they were just playing for each other. Which was fine. It still sounded great.

The music is powerful enough to carry itself without any extra flash. “Young Liars”–an elegantly simple organ melody, earth-shaking pile-up of guitar noise, and Adebimpe’s desperate yelp–evokes what you could call TVOTR’s default emotional setting: a profound combination of melancholy, rage, and triumph that perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to be angry and/or fearful in fucked-up postmillennial America. Sitek and Adebimpe started playing together right after 9/11, and that moment of deeply personal apocalypse is etched indelibly into their music.

Night two opened with an unexpected surge of energy. Malone shuffled about the stage; Sitek stood splay-legged and howled backup vocals; Adebimpe did his usual thing, but with a little more oomph. “Young Liars” had been moved to the front of the set, and this time it was much more aggressive, emphasizing the band’s straight-up rock ‘n’ roll tendencies. TVOTR began as an improv group, and they still tend to reinvent their songs from night to night. It’s something of a necessity, since their records are generally too complicated to simply re-create onstage without the addition of another five members or so.

The show’s initial momentum eventually fell victim to TVOTR’s greatest, and maybe only, weakness: the down-tempo meditative jam. Taken one at a time, these ballads come off as slow-burning but intense stormers. Back-to-back in a set, they can try an audience’s patience. But they do make the fast songs seem way more exciting. When the band broke into a rock version of “Satellite,” the crowd exploded.

The way TVOTR combines multitudes of styles and genres makes them something of a Rorschach test. In a way, every interpretation is true. Yes, they’re a rock band. Yes, they’re a dance band. Yes, they’re a hip-hop band. Likewise, it’s easy to see whatever you want in their live shows–even reflections of their critical glory.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.