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Broadcast never shows all its cards. In its short career, the Birmingham, England, group has managed to shroud itself and its music in a mystique that Portishead, another group infatuated with spy-flick soundtracks, might envy. Broadcast’s Work and Non-Work (1997), a set of three 1996 singles, established the band as a drama-obsessed purveyor of modern noir pop. With songs dealing in cinematic emotions underscored by supernatural keyboards and the pretty, sorrowful vocals of Trish Keenan, Work managed to dig a secret tunnel between the electronica and pop undergrounds—between the abstraction of Squarepusher and the jangling of Belle and Sebastian. If Broadcast’s sudden presence made it enigmatic, its sudden absence amplified the effect: A long silence followed Work and Non-Work; for reasons unknown, the band played barely one live gig a year. Even casual fans were left to wonder what the hell had happened.
Now the mystery is solved: The members of Broadcast have been in the studio for three years recording the band’s debut full-length, The Noise Made by People, having fired a squadron of producers in the process before finally deciding to shape the record themselves. While the band was away, its plundering of ’60s-movie music lost whatever novelty it had; Ennio Morricone’s scores for spaghetti westerns and the soundtrack to The Fantastic Planet have been referenced all over the place. Which means that Broadcast needs to look beyond its secondhand-store record collection to get our attention. It must create its own atmosphere—and on Noise, it does. The new album inventively marries the familiar filmic influences to warbling electronics and ballroom rhythms, and the music oozes with mystery. Its tunes become themes to the isolation of modern life.
On Noise, Broadcast speaks in a broad sonic language that combines the dialects of spy jazz, psychedelic garage rock, Spacemen 3 drones, and turntablist abstraction with a dazzling variety of subtly shaded echoes and effects. Joe Meek, the sound-sculpting British version of Phil Spector, would be proud. Yet Broadcast’s odd bits of otherworldly sounds are usually placed in service to fully realized neoclassic songs. Keenan writes and sings about a ghostly kind of world, but one that the lyrics obscure more than they reveal. She’s preoccupied with a dream life that predicts the future, the determination of fate, and the impossibility of escape. In “Come On Let’s Go,” romance becomes a matter of you-and-me-against-the-world. Roj Stevens plays the keyboard—and fills in for what would otherwise be the string section—here and elsewhere. With all the stylistic elements solidly in place, Broadcast’s wide-screen epic fills the theater with feeling.
The record balances big set pieces with small scenes shot in Super 8. On the single, “Papercuts,” Keenan shoots an innocent scene that hides sinister secrets—she’s after the truth laid down in a diary. In “Echo’s Answer,” Keenan murmurs about “invisible time” and “messages of discontent.” A few hypnotic organ notes create suspense and foreboding, though Keenan sounds strangely soothing, as if she were a clairvoyant spirit beckoning from a warmer place. On the eerie noir ballad “Until Then,” the band’s pop conventions and otherworldly conceits are riveting: Electronic woodwind sounds and theremin waltz together. Synth strings and plucked bass tones thicken the air. An acid-guitar lick adds an element of espionage. And a faux orchestra swells at the end.
Although “Unchanging Window” features numerous sources of electric fuzz, the mood, not the technology, dominates. Broadcast has influences older than its members. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the late-’60s L.A. group the United States of America, but it’s a mistake for us to think that we’ve heard these sounds before. The edge stays sharp but never grates. Evidence of the band’s craft exists deep beneath the first layer, and, for all the attention to detail, somehow Noise never comes off as self-indulgent. The songs end when they should, and there’s not a wasted note in earshot. CP