Maximum Balloon is exactly what you might expect from a David Andrew Sitek side project. Since emerging with Brooklyn’s too-cool-for-school TV on the Radio and going on to produce debut albums by Scarlett Johansson and Foals, Sitek has operated in that enviable space where one’s name becomes a byword for hipness while no-one really knows what you look like. His ability to shape dark yet entirely accessible soundscapes that touch on electro, soul and black pop while retaining the otherness of art-rock make him the perfect person to present a multi-vocalist set that occupies a dinner party-friendly middle-ground between Gorillaz and Mark Ronson.
If that reads like backhanded flattery, well, it’s meant to be, but only up to a point. Sitek’s dense and detailed manipulations of synth-pop and line-up of interesting vocalists ensure that Maximum Balloon is never bland. It’s simply that, in deliberately contriving music he sees as lighter than his TVOTR exercises in soulful disquiet – hence the project’s title – Sitek has favoured an arty take on pop, rather than dirty his hands with pop itself. Maximum Balloon makes an impressive noise. But it struggles to make one feel anything more than impressed.
The album’s opening three tracks promise something better. The warm but detached vocals of New York chic-geek Theophilus London ensure that the horny sex-funk of Groove Me doesn’t descend into archness; Katrina Ford’s edgy purr is perfect for Young Love’s synth-pop deluxe; and Tunde Adebimpe brings some trademark TVOTR glower to the gothic disco of Absence of Light. But then Maximum Balloon begins to hang like stylish wallpaper, wrapping the achingly trendy likes of Karen O, Holly Miranda and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano in a beautifully rendered but predictable wash of groovy sound for the self-consciously hip.
David Byrne’s Apartment Wrestling retrieves attentions with its typically frantic evocations of nerdy autoeroticism, making Sitek’s debt to Talking Heads’ twitchy ethno-funk explicit. But Sitek’s revelation that Maximum Balloon’s major inspiration hails from a Prince B side is the clue. It’s this music boffin one-upmanship, perhaps, that stops Maximum Balloon being a truly great record.
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Maximum Balloon is a new project from David Sitek; guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and producer for TV On The Radio, as well as such critically-acclaimed and popular bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers. Featuring a collective of guest artists, Maximum Balloon’s self titled set include contributions from the likes of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TVOTR, Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon, Holly Miranda, Theophilus London and more. Aku from Dragons of Zynth is featured on "Tiger", the first track from the album.