Friday, February 22, 2013

Artist Retrospective: Broadcast


Why haven't I heard of these guys before?  They're awesome.  Wait, let me backpedal a bit.  Broadcast are an electronic indie band of the 2000s, mainly consisting of ethereal vocalist Trish Keenan (sadly lost to H1N1 in 2011) and electro-wizard and guitarist/bassist James Cargill.  They actually started as a five-piece, but bled members till they ended up as a duo on their third album.  They have a retro-futurist feel, influenced by 60s experimental acts like The United States of America, but still a unique sound that doesn't just sound like retreads of earlier acts.  I'm not hugely versed in electronic music, but I like these guys a lot.  They're experimental, sure, but you get the feeling that they experiment because they have a lot of cool ideas, not because it makes them seem smart or whatever, and the songs are generally strong as actual pop songs.

Note about ratings: I've decided I want to include ratings for these retrospectives.  Previously at the end of the retrospective I'd been ranking the albums, but it's easier and less dumb to do it this way.  The most important thing to remember is that these are relative rankings.  Every artist will have a 10, 10 means best of artist, and all ratings will then be relative to this.  All ratings are entirely self-contained, don't compare albums with the same ratings between retrospectives, that's not the point of the system.

Work and Non Work - 1997
Rating: 7.5
I lied a bit when I said Broadcast are a 2000s band.  Their first album came in 2000, but they released a few singles in the 90s, which are collected here.  These songs are a bit less lush than would show up on their debut, but they're not hugely weaker.  Right out of the gate Broadcast are a good group.  The main weakness of this one is in the sound quality.  The whole thing sounds a bit thin and muddled, and these guys really need a big, full mix to be at the height of their powers.  Message From Home is probably the strongest song here, I dig the guitar and synth trading off going "Bing!" plus there's a brief interlude that sound like it's from an old horror movie (which the next song, an instrumental, kind of carries on from.  It sounds like it should be in a modern revival of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or something).  As you'll come to learn, though, this band is at times maddeningly consistent, and none of these songs come off as particularly weak.  The album's fairly brief at only 9 songs, but that's good.  The songs here are mostly in the same mellow electro+guitars+drums mold without as much variation as proceeding albums, so 9 songs is enough for it to get in and out pleasantly without becoming tiring.

Actually, briefly going back to the instrumentation, this is probably the most indie rock-sounding album they've done.  There's certainly plenty of weird electronic stuff goin' on, but the drums, guitar, and bass are way more apparent than in later albums, and sometimes even lead the songs.  You may consider this a good or bad thing, depending.  Personally, this album mostly leaves me looking forward to the coming wackiness, but it might make it a better intro for less wacky people?  Theoretically I mean, everyone I know is pretty wacky.  Also one of these songs (The Book Lovers) was in Austin Powers...  So that's a thing.  It's a good song, so it's okay, although it seems a weird act to associate with that movie (though it does fit their retro-futurism).  A more fitting movie contribution would come quite a while later.
Highlights: The Book LoversMessage From Home, Living Room, Lights Out

The Noise Made By People - 2000
Rating: 8.5
The real debut, and a mighty impressive one it is.  A collection of tight, weird, mostly mellow (but not boring, important distinction) electro pop songs with strong melodies, courtesy of Trish's child-like vocals.  For the most part these songs are composed pretty traditionally, it's not Captain Beefheart we're dealing with here.  There's generally a verse-chorus structure, with melodies and everything.  For your average pop fan though, it's still weird stuff.  This album has this really otherworldly atmosphere.  A large part of it is, of course, the electronicness.  This isn't synth-pop, mind, these songs are backed by all kinds of weird electronic sounds and textures, and there's a lot of variety from track to track (compare the sad, fragile Echo's Answer to the dark buzz of Paper Cuts shortly after) despite the consistent atmosphere.  That's one of the advantages of electronic music, you can throw in all those little touches and tweaks without messing with the consistency of the album too much.  This combined with Keenan's slighty disconnected-sounding vocals, the frequently surreal lyrics, and some real instruments make this album feel like exploring a 60s sound studio set on Mars.  I'd say weird with a mundane core, but that's selling it short.  It's certainly weird through-and-through, but it's accessibly weird.  It hasn't lost sight of actual songwriting.

 I'm not crazy about two of the instrumentals, Minus One and Tower of Our Tuning.  They're nice enough, but kind of unsubstantial, and Tower of Our Tuning in particular goes on for a bit too long.  The closer, Dead The Long Year, is another instrumental , and that one feels like it has a bit more direction to it so I approve of it (and in any case, a directionless track is more excusable at the end of the album when there's no pacing to mess with).
Highlights: I always make up my mind, and then listen to the album again and realized I neglected some other great songs.  For now: Unchanging Window, Echo's Answer, Paper Cuts, You Can Fall. 

Haha Sound - 2003
Rating: 10
I loved this album from the very first time I heard the first track.  'twas also the first Broadcast album I listened to, which might have something to do with it.  That being said, after exploring their catalogue, I think Haha Sound is probably their best.  How is it better than the debut?  Well, it just is!  Basically, for their second album Broadcast chose to essentially refine and improve the sound they'd developed on their first one.  The first one was already decently varied, but this one is more so.  There's a bit more energy to it, Trish varies her vocal delivery more, and the songs here are filled with all kinds of weird sounds and effects.  The melodies are stronger, and everything else has been improved as well. 

Ya wanna know what's a huge pain for reviewers?  Reviewing great, consistent albums.  One feels like one has to mention everything.  Like, the vaguely creepy lullaby-opener Colour Me In, filled with a bunch of weird sounds and synth arpeggios and Trish's aloof vocals, the throbbing thiscouldbeadancesongifitwasn'tkindofscarysounding PendulumValerie, which sounds strangely like The Little Drummer Boy (with acoustic guitar!), the beautiful Ominous Cloud, the weird twonky-twonk percussion, with Trish droning above it all, in the closer Hawk.  Then there's Man Is Not A Bird, which has better drumming than I usually associate with electronic music and ends with a bizarre little instrumental bit.  Lunch Hour Pops brings back the nursery rhyme feel and is way too catchy...  And that's not all of it.  Agh, this album is too consistent.  Every song is good!  Even the instrumentals, this time around  This album has a bit of a different feel from the last one.  It's still weird, if not weirder, but it feels less otherworldly.  The drums are often quite prominent, and all the effects give it a meatier sound.  Still feels like it's floating a few feet above the ground, though.  Accessible, deep, weird, fun, catchy, dark, light, experimental.  What more do you want?
Highlights: Hurm.  Er.  Ah.  Mm...  Eh- No, wait...  Hm.

Tender Buttons - 2005
Rating: 9
Broadcast get weird... er.  This album is more experimental, colder, more minimalist, and less retro.  This is a seriously chilly-sounding album, which can make it off-putting at first listen, especially compared to the relatively welcoming soundscapes of the last two albums.  These songs still feel like soundscapes, but they're frigid, minimal, and even abrasive.  Gone are the busy woobles and clicks and whirs and thumps of the last two albums.  In their place are a few buzzing synths, some guitar strumming, a drum machine, and Trish Keenan's vocals sounding even more disconnected than usual.  It's a jarring change from the lushness of Haha Sound.  While that album was dark in places, it was fundamentally pretty easy to get into.  This one, despite being compositionally simpler, is harder.  It's less friendly.  It is named after a Getrude Stein book and, as we all know, Getrude Stein is well known for being accessible and easy to understand.  That being said, I don't want to sound like I'm overstating the "difficulty" of this album.  As I said earlier, Broadcast are not Captain Beefheart.  This is still a Broadcast album, and that means that it's still got a good mix of melody and experimentation   It's just less accessible than the last two due to the cold atmosphere and all the buzzing.

Anyway, this is still a very good album.  The melodies are strong as usual (though subtler.  As with the rest of this album, they need to sink in), and the songs, while a bit less varied due to the previously mentioned minimalism, are plenty distinguished.  You might be put of by all the buzzing initially, it might seem annoying or samey, but stick with it!  Listen to the album a few times and you'll realize that it's really, really good, and there really is a lot going on.  This album only really fully clicked for me on the third listen, and now I can only rate it a little bit lower than Haha Sound.  Also, is it just me or does Michael A Grammar sound like a blissed-out electro Smiths?  (Hey, Electro Smiths is a good band name.  Someone use it.)
Highlights: For the third time in a row, it's really hard to pick.  Let's go with: I Found The F, America's Boy, Arc of A Journey, Subject to The Ladder

The Future Crayon - 2006
Rating: 8
Sounds like a Flaming Lips title.  Sounds like a collection of Broadcast B-sides and rarities.  Mainly because that's what it is.  The second one, after the previously reviewed Work and Non Work, this one covers the time around the band's first two albums.  The album kicks off with Illumination, which is a gorgeous slice of symphonic goodness.  The next couple of songs are in a similar mold, falling on the lusher side of their sound.  In fact, the first half or so of this album is probably some of the band's most accessible music, and none of it is really much worse than anything on Haha Sound or The Noise Made By People.  Less coherent, obviously, because these tracks weren't originally made with an album in mind, but equally quality.  Especially the second track, Still Feels Like Tears, which is great.

Things get weirder as they go on, though.  Hammer Without A Master, for example, is a dark instrumental of constantly growing proportions.  It really does kind of give the image of a rogue hammer, although I realize that sentence probably sounds like nonsense.  The following Locusts is the band at its creepiest, with an especially eery delivery by Trish.  Chord Simple is a strangely affecting little instrumental, which is, well, quite simple, really.  Oh, and I have to mention Unchanging Window/Chord Simple, a seven-minute long alternate version of that track from their first album, combined with the previously mentioned instrumental.  I like it more than the album cut, I think, probably the most "epic"-sounding the band got.  The rest of the tracks display the band at their most experimental, more so than the two albums of this era, even.

But oh, what a difference sequencing can make.  See, my main problem with the album is that most of the vocal tracks are stuck into the first half, with the second half being mostly instrumental.  This means the album's paced somewhat poorly, and harder to get into than is really necessary (thinking of it as two albums helps).  Sometime I might mess around with the sequencing of this album to see if I can come up with something that balances it better.
Highlights: Still Feels Like Tears, Chord Simple, Test Area, Unchanging Window/Chord Simple.

Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age - 2009
Rating: 8
Long album title, hm?  This is a collaboration with electronic musician and graphic designer Julian House, aka The Focus Group.  It's fairly weird, but it's only a bit weirder than most of Broadcast's albums.  I have no familiarity with The Focus Group, so I have no idea how much Mr. House influenced this album.  The main difference between this and the other albums is that, well, firstly there are very few vocal-led tracks.  The majority are short instrumental sound collages, which are actually very good as long as you're not expecting traditional instrumental music.  Each one's individually short, but they all blend together, so it feels more like one long, constantly shifting soundscape.  The main difference between the songs on here, especially the vocal songs, and Broadcast's solo stuff is the instrumental arrangement.  Whereas Broadcast tend to rely on a wide palette of electronic effects, most of the instrumental work here consists of found sound sound collage, with some mostly acoustic instruments sometimes playing over the top.  I assume this is the influence of The Focus Group.  The main point that I want to make about this album, though, is that it's not just tuneless ambient sludge that all blends together.  There's ambient stuff, but there's also memorable melodies in both the instruments and vocals.  That being said, listening to any one song is sort of missing the point, as it really is meant to go all together.
Highlights: Everything blends together and builds off each other, it's hard to pick.  The vocal tracks are all good, but it'd be selling the rest of the album short if I picked those.  Listen to it like it's one long song.

Berberian Sound Studio - 2013
Rating: 7.5
Sadly, we now have to say goodbye to Trish Keenan.  This album was partially recorded before her death, so she is somewhat apparent here, and apparently Cargill has a bunch of vocal tracks that he's working on arranging into an album.  After that, who knows what'll happen to Broadcast.

Depressing intro aside, this album is a soundtrack to the film, er, Berberian Sound Studio.  From what I've read, the movie sounds a bit like a less horrifying A Serbian Film by way of David Lynch.  It's about a sound designer working on a horror film and then horror starts to happen and the director is crazy and such things.  That's all I really know about it.  But hey, we're here for the music, and a good soundtrack album should stand up on it's own, yeah?  And does it?  Well, sort of!  This isn't an entirely regular soundtrack album though, as many of the songs are just little unsettling snippets, most of them not being longer than one and a half minutes.  There are in fact only two regular-length songs here, Teresa, Lark of Ascension and Our Darkest Sabbath, the both of which are somber instrumental pieces (wordless vocals count as instrumental) centered around an organ.  The rest are snatches of Broadcast's synths, wordless vocals, and a bunch of horror movie sounds, such as screams, things squelching, and gibbering.  How short are most of these tracks?  Ponder this: The album is 39 tracks long and comes out to 37 minutes.

Still, is mood album, not song album, yeah?  Broadcast show themselves (er, himself?) the perfect choice for a movie about a sound engineer, with a powerful grasp of using electronic and real instrumentation, enhanced by found sounds, to create a strong mood.  Of course, those who pay attention to their albums already know this, but it's laid bare in the context of this album because, well, that's exactly what this soundtrack requires.  Oh, and it's creepy, duh!  Frequently pretty unsettling, to be honest (check out The Fifth Claw).  However, the main issue with the album, in sumarario, is thus: It's a good album, but I don't feel like I have much of a use for it.  It's not a songs album, of course, but it's also not really an instrumental album.  I guess you could count it as an ambient album, but only as a sort of catch-all category.  I'm just not sure I'll ever be in the mood to listen to a bunch of creepy soundbites and song snippets.  I'm weird like that.
Highlights: For god's sake, the tracks average less than a minute!  Leave me alone!

And that!  Is!  That!  Broadcast are a great band/duo/guyinhisbasement and you should listen to them.  It really sucks that we presumably won't see any more from them aside from what Mr. Cargill is apparently assembling, so treasure the albums!  (and also the compilations and other things.) 

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