BROADCAST: TENDER BUTTONS (2005)
1) I Found The F.; 2) Black Cat; 3) Tender Buttons; 4) America's Boy; 5) Tears In The Typing Pool; 6) Corporeal; 7) Bit 35; 8) Arc Of A Journey; 9) Michael A Grammar; 10) Subject To The Ladder; 11) Minus 3; 12) Goodbye Girls; 13) You And Me In Time; 14) I Found The End.
By 2005, Broadcast were basically a duo, narrowed down to just Trish Keenan and James Cargill (if there is somebody else assisting them here, you won't be learning this from the credits list) — the instrumental ʽMinus 3ʼ is a sarcastic, but steadfast title implying that the spirit will still go on, no matter what. The most unpleasant consequence of all this desertion is that the «band» no longer has a real drummer, and is forced to resort to «pssht-pssht» drum machines — I say «is forced to» in the faint hope that this was, indeed, a decision they reached due to pressing circumstances, and not to the newly widespread indie-kid love for those kinky Eighties' sounds (which were once so popular because they were so trendily futuristic, and now are regaining in popularity because they are so trendily retro).
But we can all probably tolerate some drum machines if they are only an unfortunate side effect on an album as magnificent as Tender Buttons — easily Broadcast's one and only masterpiece, that one record on which they manage to transgress their own formula and deliver something that is more than just «mood music». Through a creative mistake, HaHa Sound was nearly drowned in tinsel — its ear-candy may have been the epitome of «prettiness», but you really cannot go all the way with just «pretty». In contrast, Tender Buttons does everything it should be doing — it brings back both the hooks and the glaciality of Noise Made By People, and more than that: the hooks are polished and perfected, and the glaciality is somehow combined with the cutesiness of HaHa Sound in a synthesis that is now fully their own, belonging to nobody else.
Where ʽColour Me Inʼ introduced the vibe of HaHa Sound as a «ceremoniously jovial» one, here, ʽI Found The Fʼ spells trouble from the beginning — like a melodic folk dirge, with Trish's sad vocals riding on the twin support of a jangly electric guitar and an electronic harpsichord. The vocal melody, with its "bridge adjusting to the water, water, water, water..." twist, is unforgettable, and the modest arrangement is perfectly attuned to it. The lyrics are irrelevant (although the line "in all the logic I was lost" is important), like most psychedelic lyrics, but the vocal tones aren't — now that they have slightly gained in darkness and ominousness, Trish Keenan produces a far more hypnotic effect than when asking you to colour her in.
The formula is then immediately repeated on ʽThe Black Catʼ, which is where you understand that most of the album is going to carry on the same way: a psychedelic guitar riff, a futuristic synth loop, and that oddly reserved, superficially «colorless», entrancingly «matured» vocal on top. But does it really make the record monotonous? No — there is enough variety in the textures to ensure that you do notice the breaks between songs. On ʽBlack Catʼ, for instance, the instruments are notably fuzzier — burrowing deeper into your subconscious as Trish merges the black-cat cliché with the Cheshire cat image. "The black cat, the black cat, curiouser and curiouser", as the synths, guitars, and even these goddamn drum machines spiral deeper and deeper into your head — and the way she sings "awkwardness happening to someone... you love" is nothing short of genius. Okay, one genius, passing through. Here today, gone tomorrow. Still fabulous.
The title track is a drone where, apart from the main bluesy melody that they might as well have learned by listening to T. Rex's ʽGet It Onʼ or an AC/DC album, there are also spontaneous elements of raga floating in and out of focus — so that, in the end, it is more reminiscent of early Velvet Underground, with Trish pulling a Nico (stern and impenetrable as always, but shorn of the occasionally annoying Teutonic haughtiness). Due to relative lack of vocal hooks, it is not as memorable or subtly overwhelming as ʽBlack Catʼ, but it shifts the mood once again — no sissiness, strictly business — workmanlike psychedelia for «real men», so to speak.
This is the way it goes on until the very end — there is no need to describe every song in detail, because eventually they run out of «new moods» (but never of «new hooks»), yet it would take relatively little effort to do so, considering how meaningful and «true-ringing» most of the melodies are. Even on the album's most lyrically crude number — ʽAmerica's Boyʼ, an «ironic» comment on US foreign policies that over-exploits clichés like "quaker toil and texan oil", "gun me down with yankee power", "cowboy corn and bugle horn", etc. — they still concoct a separate atmosphere: sprightly, upbeat, toe-tappy even... the song hardly works as a relevant social statement (although probably, like every progressive artist of the time, they just had to make one sooner or later), but it still works as a Broadcast song — where you only listen to the words for their form, not their meaning.
Other favorites include ʽCorporealʼ, driven by an almost rockabilly guitar line and a chorus that, be it captured in another age and in another world, would have been gross ("do that to me, do that to my anatomy" — I mean, really!), but is only used here to convey some world-weary melancholia mixed in with a bit of tenderness; ʽMichael A Grammarʼ, which sounds as if the enchanted / enchanting little girl of HaHa Sound has been replaced by her stern, but responsible mother, with all the magic remaining in place; and ʽSubject To The Ladderʼ, jogging on a one chord rhythm pattern and looking like the soundtrack to some weird druidic ritual.
As usual, the basic tracks, upon completion, are further decorated with electronic sawdust — in a «come-what-may», Sgt. Pepper-ish manner; not much actually comes, but not much goes, either, and the noisy effects may actually be doing the band a good service — without them, the overall sound would have been too thin, what with only two people left to man the controls. As it is, there is a difference between the occasional «quiet ballad» (ʽTears In The Typing Poolʼ, where Trish's only companions are a simple acoustic guitar pattern and something that sounds like a ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ-style-tuned Mellotron — not breathtakingly, but beautiful) and the «pop rockers», not to mention the «experiments» — the codas to some of the tracks still preserve the legacy of HaHa Sound, guiding you out with jarring bursts of noise because, well, even Broadcast remember that «music» should not be restricted to «melody» and «harmony», no matter how much your spirit is drawn towards soothing psychedelic pop.
In general, Tender Buttons got a slightly less admiring welcome than its two predecessors — HaHa Sound usually scores higher on the average critical rating meter — which probably has to do with the drum machines and the «thinner» sound: instead of an ocean, critics found themselves in front of a small sonic brook. But as far as my ear tells me, now that they no longer hide behind a huge wall of overdubs, and follow a well-pronounced «less is more» policy, the songs get better, and the music becomes more meaningful. It's all too bad that the two of them could not bring themselves to completing at least one more «proper» album — before it was too late. Hopefully, this one at least will stay with us for a long time. Totally delighted thumbs up here.
Check "Tender Buttons" (MP3) on Amazon