Broadcast has always been especially adept at fusing the pop sounds of the past with the more cutting-edge soundscapes of the present. On their two previous, well-received (and immensely likeable) albums, 2000’s The Noise Made By People and 2003’s haha Sound, singer Trish Keenan crooned away like an enticing combination of Cilla Black and Francoise Hardy, her warm, captivating voice juxtaposed wonderfully with a musical backdrop consisting of a blend of deceptively simple cut-and-paste assemblage and organic instrumentation that was just as rooted in ‘60s John Barry compositions as much as the contemporary sounds of UK’s electronic underground during the late ‘90s. Although the Birmingham band was not without its flighty moments (“Colour Me In”, anyone?), the match was often a sublime one, as such adventurous, yet warmly accessible songs like “Before We Begin”, “Ominous Cloud”, and “Papercuts” proved Broadcast were fully deserving of crossover success.
Two years after their last album, Broadcast are a markedly different beast. Streamlined down to a duo, consisting of Keenan and multi-instrumentalist James Cargill, their new music matches their stripped-down look. Gone are the lush arrangements, the live drums, the jazzy vocal intonations. In their place, the duo take off in a much more urgent direction, as Keenan adopts more of an emotionally detached singing style, spewing verses of spontaneous poetry, often inspired by crossword puzzles, while Cargill delves deeper into more minimalist, creative electro arrangements, with only the slightest touches of bass and guitar. However, an Adult. carbon copy, this is not, as Tender Buttons, while more experimental than anything they’ve done in the past, is bold while holding true to the characteristics that made so many people fall under their spell over the last five years.
Broadcast has always been fascinated with deriving their sound from equal parts synthetic and organic, and taking a cue from classic krautrock, there’s a decidedly Teutonic feel to the new album. “Black Cat” clicks along, an undulating synth melody offset by waves of feedback, as Keenan sings in a decidedly enigmatic tone, sounding aloof, and unwilling to let us know what she’s really thinking, as she intones enticingly in Carroll-esque fashion, “curiouser and curiouser.” Both “Michael a Grammar” and “Corporeal” zip along at a similar motorik pace, as Keenan’s phrasing starts to resemble Stereolab, her light melodies offset by a clinical chilliness in her voice, her lack of emotion compensated by a tremendous hook during the chorus. “Tender Buttons” has Keenan narrating spoken word verses over a simple, Velvet Underground style vamp, but as “I Found the F” proves, for all the musical departures, the root of the Broadcast sound is in the vocal melodies, and the coupling of both Keenan’s spoken word and her layered, dreampop-style melodies proves that the warmth is still present on much of the album.
“Tears in the Typing Pool” is lovely, containing Keenan’s best vocal performance on the record, her stately inflections resembling a more tender version of UK popstress Sophie Ellis Bextor, as Cargill provides understated accompaniment, consisting primarily of mellotron and acoustic guitar. The bittersweet “Goodbye Girls” offers a sympathetic view of the world’s oldest profession (“Love distilled/For Your guild/Feelings superimposed”), while the gentle “You and Me in Time” bears a strong resemblance to Angelo Badalamenti’s work with singer Julee Cruise. The real winner on the album, though, is the impassioned “America’s Boy”, one of the more ambiguous war-themed compositions of recent years, as Keenan’s lyrics both seem to condemn (“Gun me down with Yankee Power”) and admire America’s pride in its military, something not felt as strongly among the British populace towards their own soldiers.
Interspersed with several synth-laced interludes, Tender Buttons balances the man-machine theme as effortlessly as Broadcast has done on their earlier work, but instead of finding a comfortable middle ground, there’s more of a sense of tension to the proceedings, the vocal hooks lulling you, only to have electronic noise jolt you awake. For those who loved haha Sound, it may sound jarring at first, but ultimately, Broadcast’s newfound edginess makes this rewarding new album their boldest to date.
// Notes from the Road
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