Why do I love doing these reviews? Besides seeing how much my opinion differs with a good friend, a big piece is being introduced to bands and projects I have not heard of. I absolutely loved TV On the Radio’s 2008 release Dear Science but did not know what the band had been up to since that time. Apparently I should have been scouring message boards, because I was unaware that one of the members, David Sitek, had released a side project entitled “Maximum Balloon.” Left alone to my own devices to discover music organically, my future library additions would become very compartmentalized.
Based on that reasoning, one would think I’m about to write 500 words about how much I fell in love with this self-titled album. To that, I would say: “Not so fast.” While it is obvious that Sitek is the lifeblood to the sound style of TV On the Radio, one man does not a band make.1 This album misses a lot of the fun that comes from listening to TVOTR, but does possess its own level of “cool.”
This coolness comes from the album’s unique sound and its ability to not be defined by a musical genre. Listener comments on different sites have dubbed Maximum Balloon a “dance album.” Listening to the 10 tracks presented to me, I have not felt an urge to move my limbs to the music, nor did it invoke images of sweat-covered twenty-somethings moving in a euphoric trance at a club. There are beat machines, 1980s style synthesizers, and chunky guitars mixed into a fun electronic sound – but it has a sound that is better suited for headphone music versus dance music.
Let me explain what I mean by headphone music: Maximum Balloon’s unique sound makes listening to it different depending on the circumstance of the music hitting your ears. Putting it on in the background at home or a party, versus listening in your car, versus listening in your headphones create a completely different experience. If I had to rank the hierarchy, I would put headphones first; home second; and car last. In my car or in my house, the songs never seem to quite penetrate my consciousness; but walking around downtown Denver with the album plugged into my ears is a different animal entirely.
There is something about the combination of rhythmic steps, tall buildings, city lights, pedestrians and cars that make listening to it in an urban setting an event unto itself. The chopping guitar chords in “Groove Me” have new life; Tunde Adebimpe’s lyrics in “Absence of Light” give my consciousness a new clarity and I have a better sense of the movement of the living city; “The Lesson” has an opposite effect, as I get lost in the piano and Holly Miranda’s haunting vocals. I may walk past my destination by mistake, or on purpose – just to finish the emotional journey that I’m on. But when I try to replicate the experience by plugging my iPod into speakers at home, it just falls flat.
To define what this album means to me is almost impossible as it exists in many forms for me. I would prefer to drive to something else, I’ll put it on at home if I want to pay attention to something other than music – but walking around the city, I will go to Maximum Balloon or someone like Massive Attack every time.
How fortuitous that they are next to each other on my iPod.
1. Unless your name happens to be Billy Corgan, or Prince.