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“This Broadcast Album Tender Buttons is Horrifyingly Beautiful”

According to Wikipedia, London’s Broadcast were founded in ’95. Their first album, anyway, the heavily experimental and patchily entertaining The Noise Made by People, didn’t cavort out until 2000. This one and their sophomore effort Haha Sound, which is excellent by and large, would surface on Pitchfork’s “Best 200 Albums of the 2000s,” The Noise Made by People at #177 and Haha Sound at #121.

Ironically, my sort of underdog favorite journal of last decade, Coke Machine Glow, forsook both of those titles and entered 2005’s Tender Buttons at #71 on their top 100 of the decade. Really, I was vibin’ with all of it, but deep down I sort of knew in my heart of hearts, or, that substance your heart turns into when it’s shriveled up like a raisin from the hot sun and complete, chronic emotional defeat, rather, that Tender Buttons might have been the more substantial and inspired effort. But come on, it’s not only less experimental than its two predecessors, but the second song features the line “Awkwardness happening to someone you love”. Ack! I am going to my proverbial happy place! This dry sense of humor is just way too poker-faced and caustic!

Anyway, that song is “Black Cat,” which follows the almost impossibly textural opener “I Found the F,” replete with this spine-piercing organ sound, brisk bass and this hilariously jaunty drum beat on an organic kit. Now, “Black Cat” is a formidable beast of instrumentation and production in its own right, but I must first comment on Trish Keenan’s voice, which sounds not only palpably foreign but almost like Asian, giving the song an undeniably exotic feel. Also, there’s an almost narcotic complacency about her voice, the type of thing that could have only come with supreme confidence, the complete obliteration of all posturing and unnecessary, gimmicky effort.

The track three title track, you think, is going to be an instrumental, until Keenan’s voice comes in circa 1:25 emitting this hypnotized mantra: “Cold calm colors caress,” summoning up a distinctly Stereolab-like vibe, which surely they generally have a way of doing (the ‘Lab’s lyrics tend to veer toward imagism and away from linear real-life narration, in other words). For “Tender Buttons,” we’re back to organic drums, which now marks the total as two organic to one programmed at this point on the album, and a wonderful guitar duo of a plucked classical acoustic along with a warm, treated and twee-sounding rhythmic guitar that fills up the mix like bubble gum.

“America’s Boy,” then, chimes in with PROGRAMMED drums. So, yes, up to this point on Tender Buttons, every odd-numbered track has featured organic drums, and every even-numbered, computerized beats. Generally “America’s Boy” is Trish Keenan’s banal love song to a Yankee soldier, but the production remains blistering, a baffling array of controlled guitar feedback and modulated bass wreaking havoc on your eardrums. Just, then, when you think an acoustic guitar ballad like “Tears in the Typing Pool” is on the verge of dissolving into ennui or stasis, Keenan unleashes a line like “The patchwork explains / The land is unchanged”, which reminds us that the recording of this music is her UNABASHED and vulgar celebration of life itself, on its most primal level, the way nobody else other than her exactly could do.

You could very well name “Corporeal” the centerpiece, another even-numbered track with programmed percussion, as well as the entrancing vocal chorus “Do that to me / Do that to my anatomy”. “Corporeal” I’d say is arguably the first song on the album to have just an overwhelming, cosmic amount of undeniable beauty on it. Ultimately, it’s just a song of womanhood, I think, but one of desire, too. It’s like Keenan is lamenting the corporeal FACILITIES she has, and their perhaps lack of attention, while still lodged firmly within the musical songwriting mode which pumps out so much melody. She’s got this hypnotic way of toggling back and forth between the words “anatomy” and “autonomy” in the song, the latter of which basically just means independence and self-government, something apparently available to women all the while in London, or so we hear.

Ok, FINALLY in “Bit 35,” there’s an odd-numbered track with programmed drums on it. Maybe my numeric theory was stupid after all. Yeah, it looks like it was. What more can I say about that?

On “Arc of a Journey,” then, pops up again that otherworldly organ sound that just pierces your ears with this shrill sort of croon of death, the other climax of which being a pretty passable chorus of “A picture with a past / A future so vast / A mnemonic game / On the arc of a journey”.

I think that probably my favorite song on the album is “Michael A Grammar,” a love song with lyrics by Keenan about, just, a dude, I guess, sort of like Fiona Apple’s “Jonathan,” another great love song which gives us a glimpse into the ideals these of these women who already seem like such ideals themselves that the compounded ideals of theirs seem subservient to the artistic lens through which they choose to view them. Stylistically, this selection is barer than most others, especially than the epic stretcher “Arc of a Journey” which features copious sound manipulation, almost like an electronica equivalent of a Grateful dead “space and noise” interlude. I hear bass, synth and guitar, generally, but it seems almost impossible still to parse the exact rudiments that are at work here. But again, primarily of note is the substance here, and not the style, which is Keenan’s beckoning, the work of someone who sounds truly in love, of “If you’re feeling like you’re looking for that chance to let go”, her voice slightly cracking in on itself with computer modulation but more than enough human warmth and vixen-like power to carry out the message with emotional effectiveness. She’s like a tiger of all the right stripes here and actually this could even be seen, September 2005, as the exact moment when the baton was truly handed over to women as the ruling sector of our society. Given her performance here, it sounds like they deserve it.

 

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