When the Birmingham group Broadcast first began releasing singles in the mid 1990s, they were lumped in with the wave of Stereolab imitators that crested then (releasing singles on Sterolab’s imprint did nothing to discourage the association), even though the band’s seemed to draw its primary influence from the semi-obscure 1960s band The United States of America, whose “Garden of Earthly Delights” sets the standard for spooky, careening psychedelia. Because Broadcast so evidently built their ProTools-assisted sound collages with stately loops and samples, it was able to give its backward-looking aesthetic a fresh, modern spin; they made electronica for those whose tastes usually reached no further into the future than 1972.
Early on, the group’s most successful tracks were like artfully contrived ice palaces, with meticulously arranged analog synth, string and drum samples, carefully layered and all coated with a frosty echo, and Trish Keenan’s emotionally inscrutable vocals intoned with deliberate detachment that occasionally verged on the robotic. It’s a surprisingly supple technique that yields a variety of moods: Sometimes she’s seems lost on the astral plane or like a morbid and precocious child communing with imaginary specters. At times it sounds as though she’s auditioning to deliver announcements on an airport PA system, but then at others times she sounds like the unforgiving, implacable voice of your conscience. Though rich with texture and nuance, these songs were often claustrophobic with foreboding and omnipresent alienation. The technology that made their music possible also seemed to trap songs in rigid, sharply delineated segments, airless and oppressively methodical. But this also gave their records a somber air that elevated them above the kitsch ironies and postmodern playfulness of Stereolab. You didn’t feel guilty throwing yourself into Broadcast songs like “The Book Lovers” or “Come on Let’s Go.” You never felt like just maybe the band was trying to play a joke on you.
As the band shed members, its sound grew more abrasive and experimental, with its latest, the stripped-downTender Buttons sounding more like the Silver Apples or the Residents. But the material Future Crayon, a collection of B-sides and compilation tracks, dates primarily from the period around its 2000 release, The Noise Made by People. One track, “Unchanging Window/Chord Simple”, is a remix of a song that appeared on that record. But much of the rest of the material was left off the albums for a reason; it’s inferior, not quite realized or simply unfinished. A preponderance of doodling instrumentals weighs down Future Crayon and makes it a chore to slog through in its entirety: “One Hour Empire”, “Chord Simple”, “Dave’s Dream” (littered with Atari 2600 sound effects), “DDL” (which sounds like a chopped and screwed Joe Satriani backing track), “Test Area” (an extended Krautrock-like space jam), “A Man for Atlantis” (replete with harsh electronic effects and random drop-outs), “Minus Two” (modem-on-the-fritz electronic noise), “Violent Playground” (basically a drum track treated with various filters), and “Belly Dance” (not at all evocative of gyrating women). These might make for suitable aural wallpaper, but they omit the band’s one clear strength, Keenan’s vocals. Without them, the music is indistinguishable from any other bloop-bleep production.
Among the tracks with vocals, there are a few misbegotten items: “Locusts” repeats the line “Little yellow lemon tree, pass that yellow to the breeze” over a halting, skittering backdrop, and the delicate, balladlike “Distant Call” is undermined by a stumbling, over-emphatic rhythm section. But the rest are up to the caliber of Broadcast’s best material. Better to eschew the album altogether (it’s not at all cohesive, if that criterion means anything to you) and purchase the few essential tracks if possible: “Illumination”, “Still Feels Like Tears” and “Poem of a Dead Song” all of which evoke the band’s best moments.
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// Notes from the Road
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