When TV On the Radio guitarist and producer extraordinaire Dave Sitek decided to release an album to, in his word 'get a bunch of pop music out of my system', he decided his own singing wasn’t quite up to the task, so given his impressive connections he just flicked through his talent-filled Rolodex to give voice to his Maximum Balloon project.
Sitek himself produces a pretty consistent musical backing throughout the record, actually working within a relatively limited scope in terms of instrumentation: guitar, bass, synths, drum machines with the odd horn part thrown in. Basically the same sonic palette as TVOTR themselves, but texturally free of the more abrasive aspects of their sound, whilst also shying away from the weighty subject matter that sees critics treat each TVOTR album like a state-of-the-nation address. Guitars scratch out a classic Chic funk sound and the synths glisten or buzz in the style you would expect of a modern pop record, the whole sound bristling with a sexuality befitting its seductive rhythms.
The album opener sees Theophilus London plead “I want you to groove me baby over a punchy bass beat which thrusts purposely, while the trebly hi-hats are almost lustily breathless in themselves between the muted guitar and lively keyboard riffs. Lead single ‘Tiger’ works to similar effect. Without resorting to imagery of thrusting pelvises for every song, the beat and filthy synth belches really do engender a (t)humping motion, which Dragons of Zynth rapper Aku prowls his way around ( literally meowing at one point), before the song culminates in a slick disco face-off of guitar and parping horns. Model Daisy Lowe certainly saw the potential when she asked to use the song for the purposes of writhing around in her underwear for Esquire (ahem, this way gentlemen).
The record isn’t overly libidinous however, thanks to the ever-changing gender of the singers throughout. ‘If You Return’ throbs with intent whilst simultaneously providing a soft bed of sound for Yukumi Nagano, of Swedish electro-poppers Little Dragon, to coo sensually. It’s tracks such as this that demonstrate how liberated Sitek is by the notion of the record being a one off. Untrammelled by any concern for recreating the tracks in the live arena he has free rein to layer different sounds, predominantly synth sounds, as intricately and/or densely as he likes. Part of the thrill of tracks such as glistening disco-pulsed ‘Young Love’ is just how much he can pack into the song, yet Sitek knows when to strip a song back, letting the Moroder-esque disco foundation stretch out euphorically as Ford’s voice soars majestically on the outro.
When the more abrasive textures for which Sitek is better known do appear it’s quite appropriate that they do so in the company of Tunde Adebimpe. A metronomic beat is disrupted by messy cymbal splashes, the angular guitar hooks are gnarled and nasty, whilst synths bleep and buzz ominous melodies. Adebimpe sticks to the carnal theme however, “I’ll be your messenger, your minister, your morbid curiosity, in the hands of the night you’re a plaything“. While Adebimpe’s contribution sounds debased, fellow bandmate Kyp Malone’s appearance on ’Shakedown’ is merely debauched, although irresistibly so, recalling Prince with his breathy falsetto over fidgety funk and smouldering lounge effects all at a woozy tempo.
If it all sounds rather preoccupied with the pleasures of the body at the expense of the soul then that’s because it is really. The point of the record isn’t to tackles the same weighty political/social/personal matter that his full-time band do, but all the same the record could do with a dose of pathos. ’Lessons’ attempts a more sombre tone, but the melody lacks an interest which the over-processed beat can’t compensate for, while the glitch-ridden ethereal strains of closer ’Pink Bricks’ suffers from the same problem, despite soothing vocals by the impossibly named Ambrosia Parsley. Somehow a beautifully sedate vocal from Karen O manages to imbue ‘Communion’ with a greater feeling than should really be possible given that she spends most of the song pleading “Gimme that beat”.
Of the big name vocal contributions only David Byrne disappoints. Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with ’Wrestling Apartments’ per se, but it is musically so indebted to post-Remain In Light Talking Heads that it just feels like Byrne is basking in his own influence, although it’s sort of fun all the same. Ultimately that’s a disclaimer that could apply to the record as a whole; although it’s never groundbreaking, it‘s a dizzyingly good pop record, and while the contributions from TVOTR members bode well for their next album, Maximum Balloon really about a great producer/songwriter exhibiting his considerable talents free from the pressure and expectation of his day job.
8Neil Ashman's Score