Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Trish Keenan and the Personal Impact of her band Broadcast

Four Years Later and "How I Miss Her"

by J. Albert Barr



Four years ago this past week the angelic-voiced Trish Keenan tragically succumbed to the complications caused from having contracted the H1N1 type of swine influenza shortly after she returned from touring with her U.K.-based band Broadcast in Australia at the end of 2010. She was only 42 years of age. I was beyond shocked when I first heard about her sudden passing. And it effectively put an abrupt end to Broadcast as an active electronic/experimental pop band, thus leaving a gaping, palpable void in the musical landscape, in the opinion of this author, and the substantial cult following Broadcast had built over the course of their 15-year existence at the time of Trish's death.

I personally discovered Broadcast by sheer, wonderful happenstance one lovely, early autumn evening back in 2001. I was visiting one of BMV's three bookstore locations, at Yonge and Eglinton, in Toronto, Ontario where I lived at the time. That summer - having given into the mounting nostalgia that began a year or so before - I had, officially, ventured back into the kaleidoscopic world of comic books; an initial passion of mine between the years of 13 and 20, or the majority of the 80s.

That evening, I was upstairs, on the second-level, flipping through BMV's considerable comic book section looking for more Doom Patrol issues written by the brilliant Grant Morrison; his now legendary run on the title ran for 45 issues between 1988-1992, a period in which I had pretty much stopped collecting comics, save a couple of Batman mini-series to, finally, cap it off in 1988-89. It proved to be a crucial and fertile period for both the evolution and maturity of comic books, generally speaking. Great new writers were entering the comic book industry around the tail-end of that key decade, such as: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and the aforementioned Grant Morrison. I had, by the turn of the millennium, only just become exposed to these exceptional creators and dazzling wordsmiths when I re-entered the comic book world while in my early thirties.

Anyway, as my fingers palpated through the several rows of comic books like an office clerk with sundry files, indie-pop music was playing over the store's speakers. I wasn't familiar with the artist, but they seemed quite impressive without distracting my comic perusing. It sounded like it was an entire album being played when I was suddenly struck by what I now know was the album's fourth track, a stunning pop song titled "Come On Let's Go". I instantly thought to myself, after the song had played: "I have to find out who that was!"

After finding a few more issues towards my goal of completing Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol run, for only a buck or two apiece, I made my way downstairs to pay for the comic books. And so when I saw the store clerk, I promptly asked him who the artist was performing those amazing songs I heard, especially "Come On Let's Go", and he told me it was Broadcast, and that the album was called, The Noise Made By People. It was actually released in 2000 under the Warp Records indie label; the band's official debut full-length. I quickly learned, after having found a copy of The Noise Made By People at the nearest music store I could find with it in stock (and instantly falling in love with it), that Broadcast had a compilation release in 1997 that compiled their 1996-1997 EPs. The name of that album was Work and Non Work, and I snatched up a copy of it posthaste! I was just as blown away by it as I was with The Noise Made By People. Broadcast had suddenly become a personal favorite of mine.

My foray into the fringe-world of indie music was a crucial one for me as a pop/rock music lover around the turn of the millennium. For me, Top 40 radio had essentially died after the 80s ended, having just entered my 20s then. By 1991-1992, I was fully immersed in alternative music, and the grunge scene when it suddenly exploded in early 1992, thanks to Nirvana's now legendary Nevermind album single-handedly altering the music industry with its raw and powerful, punk-influenced sound hitherto not experienced before at that level of exposure in the mainstream. I was also heavily into R.E.M., Crowded House, Elvis Costello, The Replacements, Squeeze, Sam Phillips, The Pixies, The Smiths/Morrisey and The Stone Roses, just to name a choice few.

By the mid-to-late 90s grunge had run its course, alternative rock was watered down and turned into sophomoric, frat-boy party music, and so hip-hop, boy-bands and fetishized pop divas became all the rage. For me, and a discerning cross-section of music aficionados, the only viable option for quality pop/rock music was the burgeoning indie scene. My listening to the CBC Radio 2 show Brave New Waves was how I discovered great new bands and artists during the late 90s and into the new millennium. I was also expanding my music palette in terms of taste by getting into a fair amount of electronic or electronic-influenced music. One fresh sound that appealed to those who liked trip-hop (which included myself, being a huge fan of Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky at the time), trance/house music, the Manchester scene and shoegaze, was chill-out electronica. Some of the acts under the umbrella term of "chill out electronica" were, of course. Air, as well as Zero 7, Blue States, The Orb, Morcheeba, Boards of Canada, and Moby.

Another off-shoot of this kind of electronic-based music was the supremely wonderful style generally known as indie electronic, which features neo-psychedelia, baroque pop, dream pop and experimental rock. My favorite acts from this particular off-shoot of indie electronic are the magnificent Radiohead (despite their considerable commercial success having initially establishing themselves as "alternative rock giants" before dramatically altering their sound with 2000's monumental Kid A), Stereolab, The High Llamas, and of course, Broadcast.

Broadcast has been compared to Stereolab, I feel, unfairly and inaccurately. Though both bands do feature relatively similar retro-flourishes and futurist, spacey characteristics in their respective sounds, Stereolab evinces a far more jaunty, danceable, albeit political, sound, with Krautrock, Burt Bacharach, and lounge legend, Esquivel, influences, hence the apt title of the 1993 mini-album, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. By direct contrast, Broadcast's sound is edgier, darker and more personally introverted. Their influences are 60s cinema soundtracks, the proto-electronic U.S. band, The United States of America (whose only album was released in 1968, an eponymously titled masterpiece), Elephant's Memory (their classic "Old Man Willow" song featured on the 1969 Midnight Cowboy soundtrack exemplifies Broadcast's early material), as well as old radio age aesthetics and 60s French pop (Stereolab have this influence in their sound too, but I'd say they are a little more "France Gall", and Broadcast more "Francoise Hardy"). The one thing both bands have in glorious spades is melody! They are both also quite experimental and creative, pushing the boundaries of pop music in the process, thus almost never repeating themselves with subsequent album releases (although, admittedly, Stereolab's sound started to get a little repetitive after the tragic death of key member, Mary Hansen, whose final album with the band, 2001's Sound-Dust, proved to be their last truly great album, in my opinion). Unfortunately, Broadcast wouldn't be around long enough to potentially repeat themselves, for better or worse.

For me, Broadcast's music played a crucial role in my life after the world essentially changed dramatically after 9/11. Not that there wasn't other important bands and artists in my life that got considerable "air time" in my personal music rotation (I've already mentioned several of these fantastic artists), it's just that Broadcast's music seemed to absorb itself deeper within me, and affected me more profoundly. As I listened to each of their invariably great albums, vivid worlds would open up in my mind triggering a manifold of feelings and sensations that evoked different periods throughout the 20th century, and beyond the first decade of this century. A big part of that listening experience, and, ultimately, gift bestowed upon me and, I presume, whoever else discovered this irreplaceable band, was the ethereal voice of Trish Keenan. Her intimate and delicate voix celeste was always (and continues to be with the wonderful work she left) a soothing, aural amelioration from the seemingly, and increasingly, crazy, detached and inhuman world that has exposed itself more obviously since the millennium, and again, since 9/11.  

The lyrics from 'Come On Let's Go" resonate more now than ever, as far as I'm concerned, what with
the culture, and people, becoming ever more artificial and unreal: "It's hard to tell who's real in here/ Come on let's go/ You know who to turn to/ Now everything's changed/ Come on let's go/ Stop looking for answers / In everyone's face/ Come on let's go / What's the point in wasting time/ On people that you'll never know/ Come on let's go". It remains both affirming in its connection with this listener, and fortifying in terms of maintaining one's constitution in the face of such overwhelming coldness and disconnection with so many lost souls who are simply, and obliviously, complying with the "consumerist machine", for it's own sake.

Three of Broadcast's full-lengths, in particular, are among my all-time favorite albums. Those are the aforementioned Work and Non Work (which has several unforgettable tracks like "The Book Lovers", "Accidentals", "The World Backwards" and "We've Got Time"), The Noise Made By People (besides the aforementioned classic "Come On Let's Go", this personal landmark album also features the sublime "Echo's Answer", "Paper Cuts", "You Can Fall", "Unchanging Window" and "Until Then"), and 2003's incredible Ha Ha Sound (featuring the awesome "Before We Begin", "Pendulum", "Ominous Cloud", "Lunch Hour Pops" and the gorgeous and sweet "Winter Now"). After the latter album the band was reduced to just the duo of Trish and James Gargill. The result was the very stripped down 2005 Tender Buttons release. One thing I loved about the previous albums was the amazing drumming put on display, especially on Ha Ha Sound,  but on Tender Buttons the remaining band members resorted to using drum-machines, which I felt at the time of its initial release was kind of disappointing regardless of the circumstances that necessitated the use of percussion machines. Time, however, has softened that earlier opinion, and I presently think Tender Buttons is a damn fine album featuring many of my favorite Broadcast tunes (i.e. "Corporeal", "America's Boy", "Black Cat" and the beautiful "Tears in the Typing Pool").

Their later releases, the rarities and b-sides compilation The Future Crayon (which has one of my favorite Broadcast songs on it: "Illumination"); the overtly neo-psychedelic and experimental opus they collaborated on with The Focus Group, Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (bar-none their "trippiest" album); and the eerie soundtrack to the psychological horror film, Berberian Sound Studio, are all wonderful albums in of themselves. Back in 2013, James Gargill (the lone member of the allegedly, still "active band") stated in an interview with Under the Radar, that he was working on finishing a new Broadcast album, which will indeed feature Trish Keenan's lead vocals. These vocals, of course were recorded prior to her sudden, tragic death. I really hope that potential album finally sees the light of day, not only as an understandably unexpected and thrilling treat for all of us Broadcast fans, but as a final tribute to the beautiful, and deeply missed, Trish Keenan herself.



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