In the early part of the 20th century, the magic of "rainmaking" was a favorite trick of traveling showman journeying westward through new territories. That lasted until The Great Dust Bowl Drought hit the mid-west in the 1930s and people saw these slick-talking hucksters as the snake-oil salesmen that they really were. A decade later, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich created his own rain machine, a contraption he called a "cloudbuster" that was made only of metal pipes and cables, that supposedly altered the energy of clouds as a way to induce rain. Reich was regarded mostly as a crackpot; and he was jailed in 1956 and died less than a year later. In cinema and comic books, many villains often yearn for a rain machine, seeing the manipulation of the weather as a primary instrument of evil. In today's world, the decade of the oughts, several rappers claim to "make it rain." In actuality, they do not.
The RAIN MACHINE discussed here, though, is neither snake-oil nor cash money precipitation, but rather the debut album from Kyp Malone, singer and guitarist of TV On The Radio. Over the last six years, many words have been used to capture the Brooklyn-based band - experimental, dark, moody, art-rock, hipster. But TVOTR can best be described as lyrically honest, musically defiant, and generally courageous. A large part of that comes from Malone, who has helped shape the group's brilliant, singular sound, and raw, emotive lyricism as one of its primary songwriters.
Malone is driven by a bare curiosity of the world and a fundamental need to make sense of it all, and the observations and understanding of that information around him that seed his music and words, sometimes self-consciously, will feel familiar to those fans of TV On The Radio (not to mention, his distorted, ranging falsetto). But RAIN MACHINE also stretches beyond the usual palette Malone has ever used before, weaving together everything from jazz-fusion to achy blues to afro-beat in its expression. Malone describes RAIN MACHINE as a "nearly full spectrum of frequencies audible to the human ear, a reflection of a variety of emotions and situations real and imagined. Some rhythm, some rhyme."
And yet, the project is more than that. RAIN MACHINE captures a moment of an artist fully coming into his own as a solo artist. It's a funny thing to say about someone who has recorded three full-length albums and toured the world with one of rock's most acclaimed outfits. Malone has always found time for his own music projects. He regularly plays around New York City under his own name. He is also a part of the group Iran, with Aaron Aites, that has released three albums thus far. And Malone often lends his talents to fellow Brooklyn friends, like Miles Anthony Benjamin Robinson and Holly Miranda. But RAIN MACHINE is an extraordinary set of songs, unafraid of its own openness and vulnerability, of its own explorations to sometimes unanswerable questions.
"I feel like if I were to sit down and analyze the majority of songs I've written or co-written, with TV On The Radio or otherwise, there's a lot of my world in it," says Malone. "You see what's around you and you take it all in. Stuff that has happened to you, that you've been a part of, situations that you've observed that arise with friends and family and even the periphery, of what's being said to you through the computer or the television. You take all that in, and then when you write, it all comes out. I don't really know how to delineate where one thing starts and one thing ends."
This process can be heard on the song, "Give Blood," which finds Malone openly questioning the artistic process, and his role of being in the business of music. Against his own angled guitars and zig-zagging bass-line, Malone sings, "They want ya to give it up for free / And why you comply is beyond reason / And if you think sweat's the only thing they're looking for / Better check for leaches."
"It's a song in part about performance and the perception of the spectator and the person giving the performance," he explains. "The barrier that exists, it's part of how I've been making a living for the last half decade but I don't think that it necessarily serves music. And when you play the same thing over and over again, you try to maintain a certain level of energy and engagement which is unsustainable. A facade starts to develop, a show, and you start to question the honesty of that, and why you're doing what you're doing."
Sometimes, on songs like "Smiling Black Faces," Malone is describing the feeling of what he sees out in the world, referencing "bodies strung like tanning hides," and the headline-grabbing murder of Sean Bell, by off-duty New York police. Malone's shrieking vocals are contrasted on the track by a dance-worthy, near-jubilant bass-line, provoking anyone who listens to contemplate the message.
The freedom of writing on his own is apparent, and Malone recognizes that RAIN MACHINE allowed him to venture far. "If I'm writing with a group of people or another person, even if I wrote the song, I know it may be attributed to someone else. It's reflective of something more than yourself, so I may touch on something more politely. But there's a different freedom that comes with doing something by yourself, and I think this album reflects that."
Musically, too, Malone explores many sounds and styles that he hadn't yet shared with the public. "New Last Name," is built on a vibrant mix of guitars and percussion, and feels almost delicate coming out of the speakers. On some of the albums instrumental interludes Malone invokes a bluegrass vibe, carefully plucking his guitar strings, while "Winter Song" feels like the kind of song Malone would sing around a campfire.
Malone played nearly all the instruments on RAIN MACHINE, and it was produced by Ian Brennan (Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Jonathan Richman, Lucinda Williams). It was recorded in the summer of 2008, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, and finished in December back in Malone's hometown of Brooklyn. "I talked with Ian about doing it outside of New York, for a different perspective on everything," Malone explains. "And I didn't want to just do it in one place but a few." Having lived in San Francisco in the 1990s, Malone's return to record the first songs of RAIN MACHINE in the Bay Area was a way of going back to his early days as a musician. "There's a unique spirit and energy there that I haven't found anywhere else. It's really a special place for me. I wanted to see what it would be like now, writing and playing there."
Malone had been writing and recording songs by himself since moving to New York in 2000, and it was only a couple of years later that he would join TV On The Radio with two other musicians in the neighborhood, Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek. Some of the songs on RAIN MACHINE date back as far as 2004, when TVOTR was writing and recording its debut album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, but most of them were written last summer in the studio. "I have a lot of songs that I've written from that time, but I wanted a lot of this project to be representative of where I'm at right now, by a matter of degrees."
As for the title of the album, of the project, Malone says it refers to a dream that his manager had. "I'm not sure what her subconscious was trying to tell her with the dream but the idea of a rain machine resonated with me in relation to the songs. Take rain, it's elemental, natural. While machine usually evokes the man made, but a synergy is possible. A tree, a river, an oceanside mountain range are all rain machines," he says. "So the name RAIN MACHINE seemed like a good fit."