Nick Brooke is working with fragments. The fragments come mainly from radio tunes, broadcast in the southern-border towns of the United States, and he wants you to know that they’re fragments, that they’re not a complete picture, that your imagination should prepare itself to work in the gaps. In fact, he wants you to know this so much that he decides to chop numbers of them into a stop-start-stop-start hiccough, which makes those gaps too blatant to ignore. Then, in some tracks he pauses so that he can drop in a solitary effect, as in Japanese or Chinese formal traditional music, a sound employed to accentuate a silence. The audience could be reminded that they might as well be listening to nothing at all, but they are not: they have chosen to listen to this.
Whether the people who live in the border towns get to choose the songs they receive from their radios or whether they have Springsteen, mariachi, Native American vocalisations, and cowboy yodel lobbed fulsomely in their direction by lazy higher powers or whether these were coincidentally the things Nick Brooke happened to hear on the radio when he went there and on different days he might have heard something else, we are not sure. This is his work, this is him, he is in control, repeating a sample, thickening it, resetting it next to others, making it darker or lighter, romantic or military, depending on the aural landscape. The sampled songs are accompanied by live singers who mimic vocals from the original recordings, rolling the tunes together like blenders, which must be an impressive spectacle when you see it live — Border Towns has been performed live — but when you hear it on the album you have to remind yourself, “These are people not samples, they are alive, please admire the way they slur between gospel and country.” The publicity eagerly reminds us that the “ambient sounds and fringe broadcasts are layered in perfect lockstep with singers” but this pride in very mere technical complicity leaves me disquieted. Why am I supposed to be excited by humans in lockstep with machines, I wonder? On what planet is this desirable? I would be more interested if they weren’t.