Mining sound from a familiar left-field map of influences, the major plot points abide for James Cargill and Trish Keenan, the two remaining members of Birmingham, England’s Broadcast: Carl Orff’s didactic Schulwerk compositions, the Velvet Underground, Krautrock’s motorik urgency, a mountain of BBC library recordings and, primarily, the pioneering electronic group the United States of America.
Tender Buttons, Broadcast’s third proper album in ten years, may cover accustomed territory, but the journey feels no less fresh. Broadcast remains one of the few groups able to infuse Cold War-era hardware with striking organic beauty. Synthesizers saturate the songs with life as they buzz, simmer, decay and race like blood rushing through singer Keenan’s cool veins, which seem only faintly connected to a small and fragile electronic heart. The shy pulse of that heart is the major modification between Tender Buttons and 2003’s HaHa Sound. With the exception of opener "I Found the F," Buttons relies on minimalist machine beats that lack the muscle and movement of the live drums that made HaHa Sound explode. Buttons glides where HaHa would have walloped. That propulsive spark may be missed at first, but there’s such a resplendently intricate web being spun that listeners are left with little time to ponder any percussive deprivation.
Highlights include aforementioned opener "I Found the F"; the sun-drenched nod to Californian pop of "Goodbye Girls"; Keenan’s positively Nico turn on "Black Cat"; and the lead single, “America’s Boy," which actually celebrates — rather than vilifies — the American soldier. Keenan reveals a chilly, micro-processed sexuality on “Corporeal,” cooing “Under the X-ray, I’m just the vertebrae/ Do that to me/ Do that to my anatomy.” Meanwhile, “Tears in the Typing Pool,” “Arc of a Journey” and “You and Me in Tim” are the lullabies of Brian Eno’s twilight, complete with singing bells and hushed, morning-dew vocals.
Broadcast’s ability to meld breezy, hushed melodies with (sometimes violently) deconstructed sounds allows the group to exist as both ear candy for steadfast outsiders and an adventurous listen for those who’ve never heard of Robert Moog (R.I.P.) or Mark E. Smith. In that respect, Broadcast is like Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Radiohead, creating the kind of gateway music that urges listeners to swim further upstream and test unconventional waters. Keenan’s pastoral vocal acts as a comforting tether as the uninitiated discover Vashti Bunyan, Silver Apples, Tomita and Edgard Varese.
Tender Buttons seeps gossamer melodies through the cracks and fissures of corrupted synth lines and manipulated guitars. Imbued with intelligent design and a sense of chaotic spontaneity, it is a clear and certain statement. Made of equal parts detached beauty and inspired disintegration, it is a transmission from another place — no matter where you live.