Less is more
A shrinking Broadcast pushes new buttons
Scene: A grayscale close-up of a woman vacantly staring upward from beneath choppy brunette bangs. Her face is washed out, almost sterile and soulless set against a bleached sky, as she angles transfixed. Is she desensitized or hypersensitive to the technocracy compounding around her?
No, this is not a still from a famous French New Wave filmmaker such as Jean-Luc Godard; it's the cover of Tender Buttons, the third full-length from Birmingham-founded British band Broadcast. Yet Broadcast shares not only a muted while gripping aesthetic with Godard's 1965 dystopian sci-fi classic Alphaville but also embodies similar pursed tensions and stark abstractions.
The Nouvelle Vague filmmakers (Godard, Truffaut, Malle, etc.) sidestepped the studio system and revolutionized film by taking to the streets camera in hand. In much the same way Broadcast — at one point a quintet, now pared to the duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill — has crafted autumnal, cogent vignettes from a personal place both emotionally and physically.
"It was all home studio, though we didn't really plan it to sound like that," says multi-instrumentalist/producer Cargill by cell phone from the West Coast. "We were happy with the demos and thought we'd try to turn it into the church hall, textured, 'Broadcast' sound of [2003's] Haha Sound but that didn't make the songs come to life; they actually sounded worse so we stuck with drier, lo-fi sounds. It wasn't intention so much as decision to leave it as it was; we just wanted something a bit more rough."
Indeed, Tender Buttons will appear aberrant to those expecting the same scope of oscillating '60s psyche/krautrock-influenced modulation. But Broadcast has always been highly adept at combining several aspects of retro pop with futuristic pops, which makes the comparison of Tender Buttons' static-basted machine beats and scuffed synth melodies with Alphaville — featuring a mecho-organic computer at its heart — all the more appropriate.
"The title was originally from [turn-of-the-century feminist author] Gertrude Stein," says Cargill, revealing the album's reference to meter-over-meaning poetic portraits, or "moments of consciousness." "But it did seem to work because of the machine and human elements combining. I think usually a lot of electronic music has come from a background of rave, but we don't come from that, so electronics are used much more in a less considered way. Without needing to worry about someone dancing, I could enjoy using very simple sounding drums, and I like grating synths the way I would a certain guitar effect."
However, Cargill says that not conceding to his innate desires and those hinted at by Broadcast's label, Warp Records, was difficult, as both were naturally inclined toward more orotund arrangements. Instead there are frittered rather than fussy whorls, detached yet mitotic mewls.
"I asked myself would people really think our drums would be better real — like if they saw a photograph and thought it would be so much better an image painted," says Cargill. "I decided people would have to respect things for their own merits."
The result of Keenan and Cargill's effects is that aspects of Tender Buttons are sullen, frayed and linear, while others are frosty, fluttery and heavy-lidded. Much the way surrealist poetry influenced Godard, fragmented imagery and the dismantling of narrative is a technique utilized by Cargill and, especially, singer/lyricist Keenan, who Cargill says occasionally uses several creative processes — such as automatic writing — to generate lyrics sometimes for the sake of "word sounds a certain way instead of meaning a certain thing."
Broadcast has always seemed a contrary band. First, by signing to Warp Records — the home of heady, affected electronics — that introduced a human element, and now by releasing an album far less grafted to the group's previous musical references and cinematic instrumentation. But Keenan and Cargill, like a Godard, have lost none of their resonance, have advanced their ability to maximize minimalism, and seem to have their finger firmly on a singular pulse, scene and button.