[21 June 2009]
Clinching the Broken Family Band’s gradual transmogrification from oddball indie-country act to snide, laid-back garage-rockers, Please and Thank You is a refreshing draught of sharp guitar-based pop. Charming but never cloying, smart but never pretentious, this breezy East Anglian outfit casually tosses off the sort of lo-fi spontaneity and low-key passion that most American indie acts sweat and struggle to reconstruct. Imagine if someone started a band that actually earned all of those hyperventilating accolades that music critics lobbed at Vampire Weekend’s merely ordinary debut. That, my friends, is the Broken Family Band.
What truly distinguishes this band, in my view, is the intensely depleted tone and lyrical subject matter favored by vocalist Steven Adams. This is not your run-of-the-mill upper-middle-class disaffection, but flat-out exasperated ditch-dwelling. On opening cut “Please Yourself”, Adams’ deadpan delivery is that of a man too drained to bother with desperation: “go back to your motel / and please yourself”, he suggests, as his guitar scrapes like a mace dragging along on concrete. But his weary boredom hardens to anger once he finds a target with “cocaine in [his] mustache” who tells him he’ll “never get on / playing a cheap guitar”. “You should jump out of the window / or play in front of the cars”, he sneers at his upstart antagonist. This may sound like a bit of a mellow-harsher, but Adams’ enunciation has an almost-imperceptible delay to it that makes it stealthily funny, particularly on “mustache”.
What gives this volatile alchemy of misery and humor any measure of cohesion is the Broken Family Band’s sharp grasp of pop songcraft. “Salivating” is a fine example of this, a love-the-one-you’re-with relationship song mingling lo-fi guitar hooks with Adams’ telegraphed melody and punchdrunk cliché inversions (“I’m gonna get my shit together / and head out for some breakfast”). “St. Albans” injects an Interpol-style arrangement with a grimy narrative charisma and a simmering sense of awkward failure. “You Did a Bad Thing” juxtaposes a “la la la” chorus with a lyric sheet hectoring the sinful (whose spectral regrets seem to haunt the spooky bridge). “Cinema Vs. House” is masterfully structured guitar rock that keenly laments a relationship’s stale social routine (“we could go to the cinema / but that’s two hours without talking”). “Borrowed Time” and “Mimi” are full of productive tension; “Don’t Bury Us” and “Stay Friendly” are attractive and jaunty garage-rock nuggets. “Son of the Man” and “The Girls in This Town” rave away, and the brief closer “Old Wounds” is probably the closest thing to an anthem of hope that the cynical Adams has in him.
Though the stylistic lucidity of Please and Thank You will sound like monotony to some, what I tend to hear is a consistently strong batch of songs with a casual sort of thematic unity to them. Several times as the album unwinds (this strikes me as just the adjective to describe the effect), Adams makes reference to “the future” in a way that reduces to rubble the desultory expectation inherent to the term. The “future” that the Broken Family Band apprehends is nothing but another day, one that begins with a hangover and ends with drunken disappointment, before the cycle of deprivation restarts with another sickly sunrise. But we’re encouraged to laugh off the absurdity of it all, and this band’s humorous appeal is ample enough to steer us away from mere depression. Steven Adams and his bandmates mire themselves in a rut for us, so we don’t have to bother. We should be grateful to be spared the effort.