Under the Influence | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Under the Influence 

TV on the Radio are one of the best bands in the world, but having them all over your record can be a mixed blessing.

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CELEBRATION THE MODERN TRIBE (4AD)

DRAGONS OF ZYNTH CORONATION THIEVES (GIGANTIC)

TV on the Radio have been credited with inspiring a wave of black indie-rock bands—and considering that indie rock has been punishingly white for as long as it's been drawing breath, it's easy to hang that on them—but it's undercutting their power to assume that their influence flows exclusively along racial lines. They're one of the contemporary greats, one of my favorites and probably one of yours too, and echoes of the TVOTR boom and sway can be heard on the albums and MySpace pages of a glut of new acts. Maybe those bands are ambitious, and perceptive enough to realize that ripping off Animal Collective isn't going to get them very far at this late date—or maybe TVOTR guitarist and producer Dave Sitek helped them make their records.

The Modern Tribe, the second full-length from the Baltimore trio Celebration, is clearly the work of a band camped out at the base of Cookie Mountain. Guitarless on the new disc, save for a couple cameos from Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Celebration are fundamentally different from TVOTR in instrumental makeup—it's mostly Sean Antanaitas playing keys (including a guitorgan, a guitar modified to produce analog organ sounds) and bass through Moog foot pedals, Katrina Ford singing, and David Bergander on drums. And while TVOTR plays luxuriant, expansive space rock, Celebration's fire-walking postpunk maintains a tight, terse focus, anxiously tromping locked grooves that are occasionally pocked by a solo or a shriek. But still, when you cue up The Modern Tribe it instantly brings to mind one band, and it's not Celebration. Thanks to Sitek's work as producer, a constellation of TVOTR's signature sounds rules the record: the syrupy midrange muddle of the production (a sweet swamp of which Sitek is currently liege lord), the womby bong-hit reverb, the wind chimes, the horn section borrowed from Antibalas. And to drive the last nail in, every single member of TV on the Radio puts in a guest appearance.

Of course, there aren't any women in TVOTR, which puts Ford—previously Antanaitas's musical partner in Jaks and Love Life—in a good position to assert herself in the face of this pervasive influence. She's long been a bit of an icon in the microscene where cool goth and posthardcore intersect, and over the past decade she's expanded her range record by record, coming into full command of her strange and fabulous voice. On The Modern Tribe she sounds like a cross between a 1,000-year-old junkie and a witch you'd love to fuck. Her voice sweeps between extremes, from wispy and delicate to forceful and harsh, but it's swabbed of all tenderness—even though many of her lyrics are run-of-the-mill romantic barf, she's abandoned the torchy style of her earlier records. Usually when multiple songs on an album talk about "hearts" you can assume you're listening to music made by and for teenagers, but here there's at least one such tune—"Tame the Savage," with its chorus about the "savage hearts of men"—that might be about the environmental apocalypse foretold by Al Gore, which would make it forgivable. On "Pony" Ford gasps in breathless petit mort staccato, then calls upon the spirit of "White Horse" by Laid Back, asking "Can your pony ride?" The word ride comes out "rhiiiy-duh," and she lands hard on the h—giddyup, indeed. Her spooky voice is what separates Celebration from all the other bands out there—no other singer can hold a candelabra to that ghost-girl yawp.

On Celebration's MySpace page they've compiled an epic list of the mystical shit they claim influenced their record—they prop "panther people" and "crystal geode worlds," but there's no mention of Sitek, who's inarguably as big a presence as the band itself. (More than just a behind-the-boards Svengali, he also hooked the band up with 4AD.) I'm not trying to say that Celebration are coattail riders, or that The Modern Tribe is a bad record—it's just awfully hard to judge it on its own merits when so many of its merits are actually TV on the Radio's.

Dragons of Zynth, a quartet from Brooklyn by way of Cleveland, are the other main group under Sitek's wing right now. Coronation Thieves, their September debut, was coproduced by him—with help from the band, a promising sign—and likewise features appearances by TVOTR's entire lineup and the Antibalas horn section. D.O.Z. actually do sound like TVOTR from time to time—they play a sort of dubby, psychedelic skate rock—but then only the barest similarities are required for their big-brother band to get credit. Just like all "girl groups" get compared to other all-girl bands regardless of aesthetic, all black rockers are presumed to have something in common with one another. Even in this late century, a band composed entirely of African-Americans is seen as near mythical, the Pegasus of indie rock. The good news is that Coronation Thieves really is exceptional—it slips out of TVOTR's shadow and ups the ante.

Dragons of Zynth, in finding their footing, try out a whole slew of ideas, borrowing from all over and applying those influences liberally and evenhandedly. They nick not just from TVOTR but from Black Flag, dub, Gil Scott-Heron, Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon's "World Destruction," the Chili Peppers' Uplift Mofo Party Plan, and P-Funk at their most lucid and intergalactic. "Breaker" switches from rapid-fire skate punk to verses that combine air-traffic control chatter, solitary tom drops, and compressed, crackling guitar. Singer Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh has a saccharine/sour falsetto and New York problems—on "Anna Mae" he sings about being "in love with a rich girl." His soulful voice has an acrid edge, and when he flips from a feminine coo to an unapologetic snarl, it's really fucking satisfying.

The album's best song, "Rockin Star," is the equivalent of a palace coup: D.O.Z. beat TV on the Radio at their own game. They take the sound—the rhythms, the dynamics, the entire lot—and drive it all hard toward Armageddon. Amid hallucinatory, whippetized deep-space fuzz and a screwed beat-box sample, layers of vocals dart in and out of the mix, buzzing like mosquitoes—Orraca-Tetteh sounds like he's come untangled from the world, like he's floating untethered in some carnal but ethereal dimension. The song settles down in its quietest place, then takes a three-note step into a monster swell of distorted guitar that makes My Bloody Valentine sound puny and unimaginative. Buried in the scuzz are streetlight buzz, the cries of a baby, a meandering sweet-funk strum that might've come from an old Little Beaver record, animalistic scratching and baying, and extreme noise terror. With that, Dragons of Zynth silence all doubts: they've got too much fuck-you-heroes in them to sit under anyone's wing for long.v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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