Broadcast’s previous releases, such as 2001’s The Noise Made by People and Extended Play, have all been fairly hit-or-miss affairs with me. The band exhibited a rare talent for taking a decidedly retro, analog-driven sound and using it to pen haunting, atmospheric ballads without sounding cliched or derivative (though the Stereolab spectre did perhaps loom a bit too heavily). At the same time, they also exhibited a propensity for burying their music under unnecessary amounts of analog noodling and harsh noises.
Still, their music has always held enough intrigue that getting Haha Sound was pretty much a no-brainer. But I’ll admit that I steeled myself for the eventual disappointment of hearing the band dawdle off into more “experimental” territory in-between their lovelier pop material.
Such concern, however, proved to be quite unnecessary. There are a handful of moments on the disc when the band becomes a bit too enamored with their sound’s more abstract facets, which explains the “locomotive picking up speed and heading for a collision” sound of “Black Umbrellas” (and no, it’s not as cool as that description makes it out to be), the free jazz-like squawkings and shapeless drumming of “Distorsion,” and a few other similar moments sprinkled throughout the disc.
But by and large, Haha Sound feels far more immediate and concise than their previous efforts. There are still plenty of random analog bubbles and gurgles, but they are constrained and given direction by the band’s gauzy songwriting. As a result, the songs have an experimental, unpredictable feel to them but never lose their listenability or catchiness.
The result is songs like “Colour Me In” and “Valerie,” whose backgrounds are a kaleidoscope of tiny noises whirring, squeaking, and ticking away, all adding strange little accents to an already intriguing sound.
Although Broadcast’s music still has a decidedly chilly atmosphere about it — due in large part to Trish Keenan’s detached vocals and the band’s love for cold analog sounds, as well as the thin, trebly production that coats their music with a sleet-like sheen — I’ve always found their music strangely nostalgic and alluring.
The shimmering “Before We Begin,” Haha Sound’s loveliest and most evocative track, is a perfect example of this. The band’s synths sound as soft and ephemeral as a gentle snowfall, creating a strange and wintry dreamland through which Trish’s sighing voice eerily floats.
While the album’s mood is predominantly one of lament and longing, it’s not all doom and gloom. The surreal and almost silly lyrics of “Colour Me In” — “If green is chasing the hills over miles/If blue is pursuing the sky/See if the red of your heart doesn’t mind/Where to begin to color me in” — and the lilt of Trish’s voice make it easy to picture her singing with a wink and a wry smile. And the music of “Lunch Hour Pops,” with it’s sparkling harp and Trish’s effortless cooing, has a certain head bobbing appeal. But even those songs are permeated by a wistfulness and nostalgic air.
On “Man Is Not the Bird,” the band’s eerie, elegiac sound provides a stirring contrast to the defiant words of the chorus (“I will not lament with the sky/No longer feel night on the inside”). And there’s a sense of longing in lyrics such as “I’ve got to get away from this town/Got to get away from these ominous clouds” (“Ominous Clouds”) and “Though it’s just a dream/You’re closer than you’ve ever been/Oh my heart waits in winter now” (“Winter Now”) that’s so palpable, the band’s brittle sound crackles with repressed desire.
Despite Broadcast’s music often sounding abstract and unemotional, like Stereolab being covered by the robot cast of some bizarre 60s British sci-fi show — I’d love to hear Broadcast’s take on the Doctor Who theme, by the way — there’s a strangely human quality to their music. In this regard, they remind me not of Stereolab but rather of Hood, who also excel at crafting music that, while rather dour and glum, still rings with desire and longing.