Tender Buttons


t's depressing, though hardly surprising, that you can't throw a bacon double-cheeseburger with a super-size fries and a bucket of Coke syrup without hitting a European band with something to say about the Bush Administration and their Quest For Empire. It's become somewhat obligatory; even Elbow—Elbow!—are doing it.

In fact, it's almost a no-brainer; perhaps the last two weeks will change this, but it still feels like it takes some hardy constitution, or career-death wish, for our stateside entertainment to do or say anything uncomplimentary about our more powerful citizens. Kanye West, on live television, hurries through some bullet points about how our government doesn't care about black people, and there's country-wide shock that a hot young entertainer would say something so virulent, as if it's a sentiment that's never been expressed before. So the first single off Broadcast's new album is called "America's Boy," and it's surely some sort of rallying cry for us starved for some anthems for us! Right?

Wait, put the fist down. It's a red herring. Lead mewler Trish Keenan crafted the lyrics out of edited fits of automatic writing, so phrases like "Texan oil" and "America's boy / American soldier" might pop up, but they're couched in otherwise consciously meaningless (or, as it often the case with the best automatic writing, unconsciously meaningful) phraseology, with her permafrost vox buried in the mix somewhere between the pitter-pat drum machine and the skree-tastic, but strangely melodious, keyboard scrapes. Whatever sentiments you might think she's expressing have more to do with you (O.K., me) filling in blanks, presupposing something that isn't there. So it isn't quite a nursery rhyme for the End of the American Hegemon. But Keenan repeats the choral phrase, and the verse meter and its simple A-B rhyme, for the length of the song, and it creates its own sense, its own force of meaning, out of nothing, So it is. But it's not.

This is but one misdirection out of many on Tender Buttons. On its surface, it seems like such a simple little curlicue, all Mother Goose coos, descending-scale melodies, and no-wave screech over dinky drum-machine patters. That's really it; no mucking around in different time signatures, no showy genre fusions, just a single idea, explored at every conceivable angle over the span of a full-length. It reads like a dearth of ideas, but sounds like the product of single-minded, laser-sighted focus. Most acts would falter here, but Broadcast pull it off with an easy grace and breezy elegance that belies its surface tension of noise vs. melody, and a lot of that has to do with the combination of its essentially aleatoric nature and its hypnotic sense of developed repetition. "Arc of a Journey" is basically that same drip-drip drum beat and nonsensical cooing, spiral fashion, whilst little bits of fried circuitry fritter around at the edges. Slowly they start crackling, buzzing, and whirring, passing each other, coming together, then breaking apart again, and building ever-so-imperceptibly in tension without boiling over into an obvious noise-fed release. When the vocals and drums drop out, and the noise is left to reconstitute and subdivide once more, it feels more comforting than cathartic; the noise spinning off into the ether feels like the only appropriate ending.

So what the hell happened here? Previous to this, Broadcast has been responsible for a singles collection and two albums of serviceable, but mostly unmemorable, electro-lounge in the mold of later-period Stereolab. Since then, they've lost two members—they're now down to Keenan and original bassist James Cargill—so perhaps that explains some of the more aggressive focus and minimalist arrangement, but not the surprise-around-every-corner freedom they find within their self-imposed stricture. Album highlight "Black Cat" is probably the poppiest number here, with a jangly guitar at its center, and a one-note-at-a-time circularity, but its ostensible bounce is kicked around by its lightly-executed darker edges, all squealing ring-modulators and distorto-theremins whizzing around, not only on the chorus ("All goodness happening to someone you love / The black cat / Curiouser and curiouser," each line repeated, on the down-beat), but at precisely random moments on the verses too. The title track, a slower number with guitar glissandos ping-ponging around the edges, finds a mantra in the words "Die / cut," which might as well be the thesis statement here. In "Corporeal," Trish rhymes "do that to my anatomy" with "the strings of my autonomy," followed by many crashings-about of digitalia, and any sense that this album has no point are obliterated, as the muscles are exposed under the sleek exterior of this lithe, sinewy machine.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2005-09-23
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