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The first sounds you hear on the new Broadcast album are the gurgling death throes of the group’s tape-delay machine. It’s an apt starting point to Haha Sound, marking the end of a previous incarnation of the band and the beginning of a new one. In the time since its full-length debut, 2000’s The Noise Made by People, the retrofuturistic, cinema-obsessed pop outfit has bid adieu to not one but two drummers, as well as to founding keyboardist Roj Stevens, who departed during the early stages of Haha’s recording. All this in addition to the fact that, after some dissatisfying experiences in the studio, the Birmingham, England-based band opted to build its own home setup and record the new LP with no outside help. Producers, according to vocalist Trish Keenan, “just don’t bring enough to the whole process.”
A group could be forgiven if a formidable DIY undertaking that follows a slew of personnel changes were uneven, its new musical ideas only hinted at. But that’s hardly the case here. Whether it was knob twiddlers with the wrong ideas or a keyboardist with too many, Broadcast’s remaining trio has jettisoned whatever made The Noise Made by People a bit less impressive than the string of intriguing singles and EPs that preceded it. On Haha Sound, no song is underwritten, no arrangement feels overdone, and no retro reference seems forced. There’s an assertiveness to the disc that makes past efforts sound merely decorative by comparison. And the band’s production work abounds with choices both judicious and clever, revealing more with every listen.
That’s probably most evident on “Pendulum,” the album’s first single and a track that old fans will experience with a mix of recognition and surprise. On the one hand, it’s the band’s baldest recapitulation to date of its most oft-cited influence, the experimental electronica rock of Joe Byrd’s the United States of America. On the other, it suggests less obvious but nearly as strong comparisons to Jefferson Airplane and even Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. But if it’s true that Keenan & Co. have nodded toward psychedelia in the past, this is comparatively heavy stuff.
Keenan sings a trancey incantation about the power of mysterious forces”Logic offers no defense/Underneath this influence/…And the force feels/So much closer than love”as a burbling synth repeats a descending chord pattern and Tim Felton chisels sparks out of his guitar. Meanwhile, James Cargill’s throbbing bass and the insistent beats of new recruit Neil Bullock steadily build the song to its space-rock climax. Hypnotic, head-bob-inducing, and aggressive, it’s a trip, surebut it’s also light years ahead of anything this band has done before.
The importance of Bullock’s contribution here and throughout Haha Sound cannot be overstated. Heretofore a drummer in jazz combos, Broadcast’s newest member defines the album almost single-handedly, taking an element that previously added little to the group’s sound and making it indispensable. On “Minim,” Bullock grounds Keenan’s la-la-la dreamscape with rock-hard kit dynamics worthy of Tony Williams. Bullock is also the anchorman on “Distorsion,” his Elvin Jones-derived cymbal work and fills making the difference between a mere tape experiment and a compelling instrumental. And on “Man Is Not a Bird,” his shuffling beat provides perfect counterpoint to Keenan’s vocals, first as a welcome ripple on the surface of her moonlit reflections, then as a sustained current that carries the song on its own.
These performances represent new tricks in Broadcast’s bag or shore up weaknesses, but Bullock’s drumming augments pre-existing strengths, too. The big beat and dramatic drum rolls on “Before We Begin” and “Winter Now” are worthy of a Spector-constructed wall of sound, allowing Keenan to take her spot-on ’60s chanteuse act to new heights of romantic, girl-group glory. Just like the early single “The Book Lovers” or The Noise Made by People’s “Come On Let’s Go,” these songs show off Broadcast’s longest-held asset: a pop classicism that is both studied and seductive. Keenan has a small voice, but she deploys it here with fresh savvy, maintaining a near-spoken tone while trusting the dynamics of her melodic lines to do the romantic stuff. Similarly, the rest of the band now relies more on rhythmic structure and leitmotifs to keep your ear’s attention. Past songs may have used busier arrangements, but none of them created an atmosphere as compelling as any found on Haha Sound.
As always, though, those atmospheres derive from a distinctly cinematic sensibility. “Lunch Hour Pops” has a sprightly theme reminiscent of Nouvelle Vague maestro Georges Delerue, even if that song was actually penned in tribute to the dreamy heroine of Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. The gorgeous chanson of “Valerie” was inspired by another Czech New Wave film, the surrealist Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. And the beach-bummed narrator of “Ominous Cloud” complains with a moody directness befitting a character from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: “Oh, I’ve got to get away from this town/…I’ve got to find a place, be myself, and learn to face/The ominous clouds/But not now, not now, not now.” These songs find inspiration in the sounds and visions of cinema, but it’s the band’s more abstract numbers”Distorsion” and the loop-driven, string-adorned “Oh How I Miss You”that sound ready-made for someone’s score.
In any case, it probably won’t happen in Hollywood. For all of its newfound appeal, the band’s electro-acoustic pop experimentalism still resides rather uncomfortably between the more techno-cratic product of its Warp labelmates and the indie-friendly elitism of groups such as Stereolab and the High Llamas. But if those points of comparison once encompassed the whole of Broadcast’s world, thanks to Haha Sound, they now merely put you in the neighborhood. CP