RATE MAXIMUM BALLOON
David Sitek is a musical genius. And I don’t mean that in the general “This guy makes really good music” kind of way – it’s much more than that. His name belongs with other visionaries: Eno, Byrne, Bowie. He takes risks, stretches genres, and challenges conventions, and is uniformly successful in those efforts. As a producer, his talent and versatility is indisputable – his production credits range from experimental indie rock to young gun hip hop, his clients from actress-turned-chanteuse to mixtape savvy stand-up comic. He is a member of perhaps the most reliably brilliant band of the last ten years. And now, on a whim, he’s managed to synthesize all of those schizoid successes into a single, cohesive, guest-heavy solo album. David Sitek is a musical genius.
Great producers have the ability to channel the core of each artist they work with, crafting a record that showcases the strength of the individual while simultaneously exploiting the skill and handiwork of the producer himself. That is exactly what Sitek does here as Maximum Balloon, collaborating with co-conspirators from his past to craft an album that is identifiably Sitek-ian but fascinatingly diverse. “Absence of Light” and “Shakedown,” which feature TV on the Radio colleagues Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, respectively, sound like off-shoots of that band concentrated on the strengths of their featured vocalist. Adebimpe’s voice soars over menacingly large sonics crunching and rumbling in the background. For Malone - whose characteristic vocals are lighter and less textured than Adebimpe – Sitek lightens the load, replacing multi-layered synths with bright horns and teasing guitar licks. Neither song would be out of place on TV On The Radio releases, particularly the earlier works in that oeuvre, but Maximum Balloon seems to be a more comfortable home for them.
It would be easy to discount those two songs as cheating, though, since Sitek is simply painting with a familiar palette under different name. Less easy to brush aside is the ease with which Sitek channels his other, more varied muses. Stellar up-and-comer Theophilus London’s melodic patter has never seemed as natural as it does on “Groove Me.” Little Dragon’s buzzy electro pop is expertly folded into a richer environment without losing its sparkling appeal. David Byrne’s “Apartment Wrestling” is an updated Talking Heads-esque romp, and Dragons of Zynth’s Aku Orraca-Tetteh mixes with a churning bombination to become an unlikely pop gem. Maximum Ballon is full of success after success after success. This isn’t Sitek stumbling across a couple of lucky pairings, this is Sitek showing off - the musical equivalent of making ten trick shots in a row in a game of H.O.R.S.E.
Still, Maximum Balloon sometimes feels like a side project, a proving ground for ideas that fall outside of Sitek’s many other spheres. In TV on the Radio, the confluence and combination of Adebimpe and Malone shape the band’s transfixing complexity. Here, on Maximum Balloon, Sitek separates the variables for experimental purposes, dealing with each element on its own. It’s a scientific approach to art that serves Sitek well, but the end result occasionally sounds a bit too controlled. Not to stretch a metaphor, but Sitek is most successful when he serves as a catalyst, bringing separate entities into the same space and allowing them to interact. The moments of brilliance on “Young Love,” “Absence of Light,” and “Tiger” do just that, while others, like “Communion” and “The Lesson” seem just a bit too monochromatic.
Still, even at his dullest, Sitek outshines the majority of modern music-makers. The man is a musical genius, and Maximum Balloon is a treat for the ears. In an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, Sitek classified the songs on Maximum Balloon as “outside of what anyone was asking for.” After hearing the possibilities – both unlocked and unrealized – on this album, I wouldn’t be surprised if people started putting in requests.
82 — [Rating Scale]