Even before they signed on to the same record label as Gane, Sadier and company, anyone with a passing knowledge of indie pop would realize that comparisons between the fledgling electronica outfit Broadcast and the perennial cult favorites Stereolab would be inevitable, to the point where they'd haunt the group for the entirety of their careers.
These comparisons aren't always apt, but the mere juxtaposition of hypnotic, synth-dominated arrangements and angelic female vocals proved adequate in irrevocably associating the new group with their legendary predecessors, and Stereolab are most assuredly a difficult band to perpetually be in the shadows of.
Having Stereolab as your foil is especially unfair in the context of Work And Non Work, as the CD is, rather than a proper debut, a collection of the early singles and EPs that Broadcast had produced during the late nineties. Thus the album depicts Broadcast at their most inexperienced and insecure, hardly a scenario conducive to accolades when you're constantly being compared to a band at the zenith of your genre of choice.
This situation is exacerbated by the production quality of the album. Rather than being defiantly lo-fi like an indie rock band sneering at the bigwigs who run the rock and roll establishment, Work And Non Work is lo-fi in the sense that it sounds as if the band barely had a sufficient budget to string some noises together and successfully capture them on tape. This isn't an inherent liability, as groups like Guided By Voices circa Bee Thousand boast arrangements that receive additional charm from their homebrewed sound, but for a band whose specialty is creating pristine soundscapes a lack of sonic fidelity can certainly mar the proceedings.
This low production quality isn't an insurmountable barrier, but it definitely gives Broadcast's subsequent output a decided edge over their humble beginnings; this isn't, however, the sole respect in which their later works have an advantage.
If a listener whose exposure to Broadcast consists solely of the band's more polished, mature output listens to the album, they'll doubtless find the transition to Work And Non Work rather jarring, even if they're fully prepared for the disparity in sonic clarity. Broadcast would improve immeasurably in the songwriting department as they gained more experience, and while this isn't surprising it does make the qualitative contrast between Work And Non Work and the likes of The Noise Made By People and Haha Sound rather pronounced.
Nevertheless Work And Non Work is already quite an accomplished album, especially for a band's modest origins. Each song features a solid melody, some choice vocal hooks and a relatively tight performance. Ergo the problem arises from the fact that Broadcast had yet to fully develop their musical identity and master the genre of electronica, resulting in material that while superficially beyond reproach tends to be rather conservative, with comparatively simplistic arrangements, basic structures and music that, while not generic, is certainly far from unique or idiosyncratic. The band had already perfected the fundamentals, but they lacked the confidence and seasoning to create the kind of complex, adventurous music that would typify their later output.
In the context of a longer career this is ideal, as Work And Non Work constitutes the perfect foundation for Broadcast's more ambitious enterprises, but for a listener longing for the group's more distinctive material it can prove a bit frustrating, even though as an independent product it's actually quite involving and enjoyable. While not representative of Broadcast as a whole it still features a handful of strong, if comparatively rudimentary, compositions, and certainly merits a listen even when divorced from its intriguing historical connotations.
If one approaches Work And Non Work with no preconceptions of what Broadcast should be, or better yet has never been exposed to their oeuvre, then they'll doubtlessly find a highly entertaining experience. The poor production can be detrimental to the overall listening experience, and the music isn't always as complex or distinctive as one might like, but Work And Non Work still portrays a band that has an acute understanding of the dynamics of electronica and quirky indie pop, leading to a fun affair that may not compare favorably with either Stereolab or later Broadcast but still has plenty of merits of its own, with standout tracks including the atmospheric Lights Out and the catchy Living Room.
While the album, for historical reasons, is essential to any Broadcast fan or completist, it may be those who aren't devoted to the band who end up enjoying it the most; this may seem counterintuitive, but such is often the case when a listener decides exactly what a given group should sound like, with a rigidity that won't allow deviations from their comfort zone.
There are certain flaws that frequently surface when dealing with electronica, aural maladies that are so ubiquitous that at times they seem like inherent, inescapable components of the genre itself. Electronica frequently appears to be an abrasive, forbidding form, all too often cold, clinical and emotionally distancing, with the occasional twinge of dissonance to completely ward off the uninitiated.
Fortunately, Broadcast don't conform to these electronica clichés, as the band inject a warmer, more human side into their work, made all the more welcoming and accessible through the group's heavy reliance on pop hooks. While many of their contemporaries are content to merely produce a parade of inert sounds, with no energy or vitality to animate them, Broadcast mold their noisemaking into structured, easily processed songs, complete with well-defined melodies, memorable vocals and a passion that's far more human than machine.
Where Work And Non Work was a solid but unexceptional outing that exhibited tremendous promise, The Noise Made By People showcases the band realizing this latent, untapped potential. On an artistic level The Noise Made By People features far more complex, creative and rewarding melodies accompanied by comparably deft, rich and intricate arrangements, while on a more superficial (but nonetheless integral) level the quality of the production is infinitely superior to the headache-inducing lo-fi stupor of their early EPs and singles.
Despite this huge progression The Noise Made By People still contains at least a modicum of filler. While Minus One and Tower Of Our Tuning could be dismissed as harmless, inoffensive instrumental segues, they're far too protracted and uninspired to constitute anything less than full-fledged irritations, albeit minor ones. The closing instrumental, Dead The Long Year, is far superior, but after a certain point it loses momentum and degenerates into desultory electronic fidgeting, ending the album on a decidedly anticlimactic note.
Given how essential the vocals are to the sonic alchemy of the group one could attribute the relative mediocrity of that trio to their instrumental status, but that isn't a very compelling argument in light of the stellar music that occupies the rest of the album. Highlights abound, from the irresistible Come On Let's Go, a catchy pop anthem with some of the most immediate and hard-hitting vocal hooks on the album, to the glorious You Can Fall with its deft marriage of electronic backdrops and traditional songwriting to the absolutely beautiful opener Long Was The Year.
The inspired interplay between electronic music and angelic vocals is paramount to the quality of the album and indeed the core sound of the group as a whole. Both elements merge seamlessly throughout the CD, never clashing or obstructing one another but rather elegantly complementing each other at precisely the right moments. While one could argue that this dynamic was lifted from Stereolab, Broadcast make great strides toward making the sound their own, embracing creative songwriting and arrangements in such a way so as to elevate them far above the status of a plagiaristic indie outfit or a run-of-the-mill tribute band.
Thus while not without its flaws The Noise Made By People is still a terrific product, truly an example of electronica at its most captivating and axiomatically gratifying. Broadcast never convey the impression that their music is the product of some flatulent computer ala Autechre, opting instead to create music that was obviously written by humans for humans. It seems all too often like this approach is frowned upon, as if injecting humanity into electronica compromises or undermines the medium, but even if it irrevocably brands me as a philistine I far prefer human melodies and arrangements to avant garde mechanical noisemaking, and fortunately for me that happens to be the forte of the group.
In a time when most electronica outfits are virtually interchangeable, cadres of technophiles fiddling with high-tech equipment, filtering every note they play through a plethora of sterile gadgets and producing music that sounds like some obscure language spoken only by computers, Broadcast differentiate themselves not by taking the electronica style further but rather by diminishing its importance in the overall scheme of their work.
This isn't to say that Broadcast don't really adhere to the genre; Haha Sound is transparently a product of the electronica scene, complete with the obligatory bleeps and bloops that have become irrevocably intertwined with one's notion of the style. But these assorted trappings of the electronica genre are only part of the overall package, as Broadcast offer an adroit fusion of techno-ambience and indie pop, resulting in a final product that's not only more accessible but likewise far more unique and distinctive an interpretation of the genre than the stereotypical futuristic cacophony offered by the faceless legions of me-too computer-rock acts.
This doesn't mean that Broadcast are above indulging in some typical electronica excesses, as indicated by the wholly extraneous instrumentals that bookmark the gorgeous Ominous Cloud, the avant garde noisemaking that constitutes the sadly protracted coda of Man Is Not A Bird and the questionable decision to superimpose the pretty Colour Me In over a dissonant aural backdrop. These transgressions are relatively minor, however, and ultimately don't detract from the overall product, merely serving as brief distractions from the considerable merits of the album.
The main attraction on Haha Sound is the elegant marriage between electronica and indie pop, as Broadcast find the perfect balance between the two forms, dispelling any fears of incompatibility between the disparate styles. This fusion only works, however, because of the stellar songwriting, as the album is bursting with inventive, catchy melodies and countless irresistible vocal hooks.
Moreover, the emphasis on pop doesn't preclude experimentation, as the album as a whole is an incredibly diverse affair filled with boundless innovation, innovation that isn't solely confined to the electronica side of Haha Sound but likewise informs the pop dynamics as well. While the pop hooks are always immediate and accessible they're still strikingly creative and original, with this creativity reinforced by the unique ways in which the pop and electronica genres blend together in startling new ways.
Electronica is seldom a diverse genre, but Broadcast manage to explore a range of styles over the course of Haha Sound. Colour Me In is a pretty tune that exudes an almost childlike innocence, Pendulum is one of the few Broadcast songs that actually rocks (and rocks quite well at that) and Hawk radiates a kind of subtle majesty that makes it the ideal closer.
These factors all come together to make Haha Sound a masterpiece of the electronica genre, a truly exceptional album that surpasses the already brilliant The Noise Made By People through its greater scope and emphasis on experimentation. The range and caliber of the album demonstrates that Broadcast are by no means a mere Stereolab knockoff, nor are they 'just another' electronica band, but rather a highly accomplished group with striking and original content to offer anyone who's willing to give them half a chance.
Tender Buttons is a vastly different product from Broadcast's previous work, though it demands little in the way of deductive skills to ascertain what factors to attribute this creative shift to. In the wake of the band's artistic peak, Haha Sound, Broadcast was reduced from a band to a duo, with all members departing save the core two, James Cargill and Trish Keenan.
The changes wrought by this diminishment manifest themselves in myriad forms, most notably a sudden veer toward minimalism. This shift in direction is elementary, as the lack of bandmates necessitated this sonic reduction, but this isn't to say that Cargill and Keenan don't also utilize these new spare arrangements to their advantage as well.
Ergo while Broadcast's newfound tendency to strip away layers of their sound may be the result of a transparent case of cause and effect, nevertheless the duo incorporate this new dynamic into a greater artistic initiative, producing works of haunting minimalism and moody, sparse instrumentation. This adroitly compensates for the loss of a fuller, more developed sound; it may not be superior to the group's classic modalities, but it remains a clever way of masking a potentially damaging liability.
An affinity for minimalism isn't the only major change in the band's sound, however, as Broadcast have developed a profound fondness for aural dissonance that informs much of the album's sound. Sonic discord is customarily anathema to me, but somehow Broadcast's use of dissonance manages to engender a kind of bewitching quality into their material, a certain brand of ugly beauty that, when employed in moderation, can actually enhance the final product.
The reason that this dissonance can be tolerable, and sometimes even beneficial, is due to the fact that the primary melodies themselves tend to eschew discordant excesses, confining their abrasive elements to the back of the mix where they can thrive without disrupting the core music. As a counterpoint to more conventionally beautiful music the dissonance adds a new layer to the sound, which is especially important on Tender Buttons given that, thanks to the self-imposed exile of the majority of the bandmembers, more layers were being stripped away than added.
This isn't to say that the band always employ restraint and discretion when infusing dissonant elements into the mix. On Arc Of A Journey, for instance, Broadcast succumb to sonic self-indulgence and allow the discordant passages to interfere with the core of the song. Whether or not one can still enjoy the track acts as a good barometer for assessing quite how pronounced one's aversion to aural discord is; in my case, while it was certainly an obstacle for me at first I was eventually able to adapt to that sonic paradigm and appreciate the song, though I can understand and commiserate with anyone for whom deriving pleasure from the track is a futile endeavor.
This reinforces the reality of the album, which is that it's a far more challenging affair than the band's prior work. From the newfound reliance on minimalism to the near omnipresence of dissonance to flagrant, gratuitous drum-machine abuse that in no way is a legitimate substitute for any departing drummer let alone one as prodigiously gifted as Cargill and Keenan's erstwhile colleague Steve Perkins, a plethora of factors conspire to make Tender Buttons an album that can only be appreciated if one is willing to devote some extra time and effort to that endeavor.
This isn't to say that the bulk of the tracks don't feature strong melodies, it's merely that said melodies are often less accessible, immediate and axiomatically entertaining as Broadcast's preceding output. When the band makes a concerted effort to produce something commercially viable (not that a Broadcast song can or will ever be a hit) they're still more than capable of crafting a less challenging product, like the eminently enjoyable America's Boy and Michael A Grammar, but more often than not even the strongest tracks can be more demanding for casual listeners.
Nevertheless in time one can appreciate the beauty of Tears In The Typing Pool or the catchiness of Black Cat's vocal hooks, as in reality every song has something worthwhile to offer. Thus perseverance is rewarded, and Tender Buttons emerges as a deserving follow-up to the brilliant opus Haha Sound.
If a band is going to force diehard completists to hunt down every last one of their obscure outtakes, elusive rarities and little known EPs and singles then the least they could do is make this potentially laborious, time consuming endeavor as simple, streamlined and convenient as possible. Few groups heed this advice, opting instead to confine their secondary oeuvre to an array of difficult to find products that pass in and out of print with an alarming frequency, expecting their hardcore audience to search for these coveted discs with the vigilance of one pursuing the Holy Grail. Thankfully, however, Broadcast have demonstrated far more compassion and empathy for their more obsessive listeners than some of their more sadistically exploitive contemporaries, releasing their more obscure material on readily available compilations. Thus one can easily find the band's pre-The Noise Made By People output on the collection Work And Non Work, while Broadcast's non-album content circa 2000 to 2003 can be acquired on the CD The Future Crayon.
It's understandable that The Future Crayon lacks the historical significance of Work And Non Work, as the latter boasted Broadcast's earliest efforts as an ensemble while the former is essentially a glorified rarities collection culled from a period where the band's peak material was readily available. It's decidedly less predictable, however, that the album is actually considerably less consistent than Work And Non Work; one would assume that the work of a band in their prime, even their lesser efforts, would easily surpass their earliest output, and thus it's somewhat distressing that a collection of Broadcast's immature beginnings constitutes a more worthwhile product not only on a historical level but on a qualitative one as well.
Many of The Future Crayon's flaws can be attributed to the horrific track sequencing perpetrated either by the record label or the band themselves. Nearly all of the more accessible, immediately enjoyable material is situated at the beginning of the album, while the latter half is predominantly devoted to the band's more experimental, challenging fare. This bifurcation makes for a highly compelling and entertaining (if somewhat slight) first half, but it also renders the second half an ordeal to sit through, a parade of seemingly desultory noisemaking and cacophonous collages.
On the band's previous outings a certain balance was always maintained; the accessible material and inaccessible material were deftly interspersed, and thus dissecting, analyzing and accordingly appreciating the more challenging content was hardly a formidable task. When all of the inaccessible material is concentrated into a single dense block, however, the music becomes all but impenetrable for even the most diligent of listeners, warding off interpretation thanks to its sheer chaotic, entangled monotony.
The first half of the album largely redeems what could have been a debacle, sporting a handful of lost gems like the beautiful opener Illumination; songs like this can be unreservedly recommended to any fan of the band, even a more casual one. The second half isn't actually bad, however, and it would doubtless be far less intimidating were the album structured in a more logical manner. As it stands, though, the CD is a thoroughly bipolar experience, a split personality affair sporting a schism halfway through that can't be bridged even by the occasional stronger efforts on side two like the entertaining if (intentionally) basic Chord Simple.
Ergo The Future Crayon is a deeply inconsistent opus. The second half simply affords the listener no time to breathe between its endless array of inaccessible anthems. I alluded to the fact that many of these tracks could be better enjoyed had they been more competently positioned on the album, but it's clear that even if that issue were addressed the majority of these numbers would still be vastly inferior to the more experimental moments on the actual albums. This should hardly come as a surprise given that rarities collections are notorious for featuring decidedly lesser material, and when this reality is coupled with the egregiously wrongheaded decision to pack all these tracks together the situation is exponentially exacerbated.
Broadcast material, even at its worst, tends to at least be more interesting than misfires by most other bands, and this helps salvage a highly flawed product. Most fans of the group will probably want this album, if only for completion's sake, but they should be cautioned that The Future Crayon fails to measure up to the band's albums proper in any meaningful ways. The first side is indeed quite enjoyable, and I'm certain that diehard fans will insist that the latter half is a work of genius that goes over the heads of a more mainstream audience. I, however, have always insisted that what makes Broadcast such a strong rock outfit is the fact that they inject a more human element into the customarily sterile, lifeless world of electronica, and the second half of The Future Crayon is the closest the band has come to producing generic work in that genre. This is a severe blow to me as a listener, and makes me all the more appreciative of the fact that, on their real albums, Broadcast abstain from such electronic excesses, apparently confining these tendencies to work that will doubtless pass under the radar of all but the most devoted fans of the group.
While it's highly debatable whether or not Broadcast truly conform to the tenets of the 'hauntology' genre, the band's pronounced predilection for library music and futuristic soundscapes make them prime candidates for a collaboration with The Focus Group and their burgeoning Ghost Box label.
If one is skeptical as to whether or not Broadcast belong on a hauntology label then this album will do little to change their mind. This doesn't indicate, however, that Broadcast have undergone no changes during their lengthy hiatus, but rather that these changes have nothing to do with hauntology as a genre or art form.
On this particular outing Broadcast have eschewed the notion of a collection of individual, fully-developed songs in favor of a more album-oriented, cohesive vision. The problem, however, is that Broadcast's greatest strength is their deft melding of experimental music and indie pop. When the band sacrifices the latter component they expose their weaknesses, resulting in a somewhat anemic and tedious experience.
Over the course of the album Broadcast demonstrate time and time again that they're not aural alchemists of the caliber of the likes of Stereolab. Whereas those venerable masters of sound could sustain a song, or even an album, without vocal hooks or an accessible melody, Broadcast simply demand a more traditional brand of songwriting and performance, falling flat when they attempt to distinguish themselves on a more defiantly avant garde level.
There are a handful of more fleshed out songs, such as The Be Colony and I See, So I See So, and unsurprisingly these tracks are the highlights of the album. Broadcast are still a formidable presence when they adhere to their tried and true experimental music/indie pop formula, and it would behoove them to keep that in mind on subsequent projects.
The fact that the album focuses more on sound-effects than music simply flies in the face of every logical means of showcasing Broadcast's prodigious talents, transfiguring an accomplished ensemble into a pack of amateurs aimlessly fiddling with knobs and dials, favoring studio trickery over actual songwriting.
Whether or not the album is a product of the hauntology genre is irrelevant; what matters is that the album simply isn't terribly good. It's perfectly acceptable to produce an album that's more a cohesive whole than a collection of parts, but should one choose that approach then he'd be well-advised to make sure that the overall experience actually gels into something meaningful.
The fact that the tracks fluidly segue into one another doesn't signify that there's actually some greater method or guiding intelligence at work. If the bulk of the tracks sound desultory and interchangeable then the listener will derive small solace from the fact that they flow together reasonably well, and will be further disheartened when it becomes apparent that as a collective the songs truly don't amount to much more than they do when taken individually.
Thus the album is a mediocre product, as well as the first Broadcast release that I've had to cast such aspersions on. The band barely seem to care about songwriting, either cutting edge or traditional, and this effectively strips the group of their greatest strengths and assets. The album is still interesting on some levels, but by and large Broadcast have always needed their indie pop side in order to be effective, and if this CD is any indication then that fact isn't likely to change in the foreseeable future.