When I’m writing about music, I have to constantly remind myself not to get seduced by the trappings of cool. It can be even more difficult in music writing, where bands gather critical momentum that breeds an insecure first wave of homogenous praise. Read a lot of music reviews and you’ll find writers soaked in the weight of previously made accolades, reflexively citing the same influences, rewording the same compliments, and generally caving into the indie mind meld. Oh sure, there’s always room for a backlash. But I’ll be damned if that isn’t just the first herd running backwards. Trust me when I tell you that being any kind of critic is a process of negotiating a minefield of imposter syndrome. And that is as it should be.
When I think back to the early formation of my definition of what was cool, it was obviously warped by my alienation from small town life and my belief that there was a place where (usually London or New York City) people sat around all day quoting Oscar Wilde and spinning only the most obscure records for their world-weary amusement. I loved bands that were detached because I thought that detachment came from some superior position of enlightenment (think Buddha, not Jeffrey Dahmer). Indifference is also part and parcel of the sexual fantasy of music, the idea that your favorite musicians are somehow tapping into an otherworldly realm of talent where you’re an unworthy hanger on that they just might deign to in a moment of desperation. Of course, I’m taking the long way to Grandma’s. What I’m really saying is that I was curiously predisposed to love the new Broadcast record, only to find that, after repeated listens, I couldn’t honestly find much at all that I liked.
HaHa Sound‘s biggest flaw is its total lack of immediacy. Trisha Keenan’s ethereal vocals limply haunt the background. They sound like they were recorded through two soup cans connected by a string, never once rising to the level of being there. Like the Aislers Set, this gauzy vocal burial is part of the effect they’re aiming for. But to what end? Is it supposed to sound like Marlene Dietrich, catatonic from a dope bender, hunched over a mic in some East Berlin lounge? If there’s something beautiful or intellectual about having no affect, I haven’t the slightest inclination to understand it. At least Stereolab, Broadcast’s most obvious reference point, counter their trademark deadpan with somewhat engaging arthouse politics. After a few times through this album, the thinning echo of her vocal sleepwalking gave me the feeling of being emptied like an ashtray.
The deadening distance extends beyond just the absentee singing. The songs themselves are frustrating collages of melody that coalesce and dissipate before they can consummate anything substantive. “Oh How I Miss You” would make a great chorus for a Spiritualized song, but it’s hard to find it likable as a brittle, one-line mantra with no place to go. “Pendulum” starts with a forceful staccato rhythm but chucks its charm over Keenan’s dull chanting and a gloss of squeaks and other cartoon noises that do nothing other than scribble over any pleasure you might have been inclined to take from the song. Worse, the beat, originally the only thing interesting about the track, gets pounded out with the unvarying cadence of basic training boot stomps until you’re ready to wring your fingers from your hands. It also doesn’t help music that sounds like champagne bubbles and rotating velvet beds to have lyrics that are so utterly hollow. On “Man is Not a Bird” Keenan wisps , “I will lament with the sky / I no longer feel night on the inside” and you could almost ignite the pretension fumes with your Zippo. The rest of the tracks contain similar cowardly non sequiturs that mimic ’60s pop songs without making any attempt to revive the consistently flatlining sentiments.
When things work well, Broadcast create mildly pretty space-age ennui. “Ominous Clouds” has a washed out St. Etienne sweetness to it that works fine as a serviceable piece of twee. “Valerie”, the only song I really like, takes a slice of “The Little Drummer Boy” and winds it through an ebbing, folktronica track, loaded with breathless harmony. “Winter Now”‘s thickly picked bassline and swooning chorus also make a dent of enjoyment even if the retro keyboard hiss sounds like an annoying leak. Really, someone should fix that. Broadcast’s preference leans toward gothic texturing, foregrounded bells, analog synthesizers, and percussion with all the subtlety of construction work. While this is what’s supposed to distinguish them from any other indie pop band, it’s also what makes listening to the record such an exercise in migraine management. I spent most of the time listening to HaHa Sound with my eyes squinched tightly, the same expression I have on my face when the dentist is working a decayed molar with that drill that smells like burnt scrambled eggs.
Some of the more avant garde instrumental asides sound completely forced and obligatory. The barely minute-long “Black Umbrellas” injects a warped, accelerated drum beat that tins furious before spinning out pointlessly. “Distorsion”, is another brief drum solo embedded in spooky clamor. Frankly, it’s bullshit. These oddly unnecessary interludes seem thrown in for the sake of posturing or self-consciously staking out a measure of artistic credibility. As critical preemptions, they fail to throw the listener off the conclusion that Broadcast don’t really do much of anything as a band except sound like they do.
At the end of HaHa Sound, I couldn’t help but think it sounds like a bunch of Ph.D. students who were afraid their friends wouldn’t be impressed with a Dusty Springfield record. That’s too bad, because I sure would have.