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Album review: Maximum Balloon - Maximum Balloon (Interscope)

Just when you thought you knew the man, Sitek goes and does something bold, unexpected and... fun

Album review: Maximum Balloon - Maximum Balloon (Interscope)

7 / 10 Born a hipster, die a pop star,” seems to be the mantra of Dave Sitek on his Maximum Balloon project. After dumping Brooklyn for California by moving there, he’s moved into its headspace too – you could tag this as his ‘West Coast record’. And, man, the view is beautiful.

The roadmap Sitek’s used for this journey is based on classic ’80s pop. He cited the prefab funk of Prince B-side ‘17 Days’, Madonna’s Danceteria pop juvenilia and the synthesized eccentricity of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She’s So Unusual’ as jump-off points. He’s also named the project after a childhood game of writing “random messages on balloons”. Both of which suggest that he’s in the mood to shake off the shackles of TV On The Radio’s high-mindedness in favour of something more innocent, instinctual and fun.

Indeed, adjectives that come to mind when listening to ‘Maximum Balloon’ are: bright, colourful, carefree and neon – quite a leap for someone whose day-job band has been described as ‘post millennial’ and ‘dystopic urban jams’. Toto, we’re not in Williamsburg anymore…

In a way, this musical U-turn seems appropriate when you consider that he’s been deconstructing the pop song and then putting it back together for years. After the boundary-busting ‘Dear Science’ he’s pushed things even further, and on ‘Maximum Balloon’ has synthesized his sound into something radical – some sort of unique 21st century funk.

Like much of what Sitek does, the best moments are the unexpected ones. There’s ‘Apartment Wrestling’, which manages to distil everything that makes David Byrne so compelling via its nervy rhythms and seconds-away-from-collapsing time signatures. There’s ‘Young Love’, which pits the castor oil-thick vocals of Celebration’s Katrina Ford (which recall both Siouxsie and Propaganda’s Claudia Brucken) against a whirring, tingling synth line. The effectively loopy results are as good as anything by his ’80s golden oldie templates.

Next to these moments of transcendence, though, are elements of Sitek’s vision which clearly don’t work as well. The N.E.R.D-esque single ‘Tiger’ (with vocals from Dragons Of Zynth singer Aku) suffers from sounding like it’s trying too hard to sound effortlessly TVOTR-esque. Instead it ends up like nothing more than a cheap copy of Sitek’s band. On ‘Groove Me’ (with Theophilus London) Sitek’s music is minimal and carefully layered, yet London’s flow is riddled with clichés (“catch this sound/Before it blows up”) and the result is a by-numbers dance workout. Most disappointing of all though, is the slinky but underwhelming Karen O team-up on ‘Communion’ which never seems to take off from its sedentary beat position, and instead sounds like a leftover from ‘It’s Blitz!’.

But there’s plenty left in-between to feast on. After Sitek brought such golden alchemy to her debut, the Holly Miranda track (‘The Lesson’) is a soaring number which grafts her Jeff Buckley-like vocals on to a patchworky, ambient background to beautiful effect. ‘If You Return’ re-imagines Yazoo for 2010 with Little Dragon singer Yukimi Nagano’s drowsy vocals wonderfully complementing Sitek’s slow musical build-up. And ‘Absence Of Light’ with Tunde Adebimpe is a clattering, abstract beast which adds a much-needed darker hue to the proceedings.

Sitek’s made the leap into solodom with boldness and panache. There’s a sense of cohesion here, which can be sometimes lacking on ‘featuring’ albums (NASA, we’re looking at you). And with a man who’s worked with everyone from Amanda Blank to Aziz Ansari’s RAAAAAAAAANDY! at its helm, it feels like Maximum Balloon is a project that could inflate infinitely. Let’s hope it does.

Priya Elan

Click here to get your copy of Maximum Balloon's
'Maximum Balloon' from Rough Trade Shops.

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