The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Let the Balloons Go Outside

Since I don’t do drugs, I think the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had was when I let go of a balloon outside for the first time and watched it rise into the air until it turned into a tiny dot and disappeared. It made no sense to me that a balloon would do that and nothing else would, and I wondered where it ended up — if it was in space or if it crashed on an island somewhere. As a kid, it might have been the first thing that made me start to ponder the depths of the universe and realize how little I knew about it.

Now that I am something resembling an adult, I have no use for balloons. If someone came up to me on the street and handed me one, I would say “why are you giving me this balloon.” If they insisted on me taking on the burden of the balloon, I would walk around with it for awhile out of some weird sense of guilt, then eventually get tired of having to hold the string and let it go because I don’t care about the environment. And as the balloon rose up, I wouldn’t think about how cool it was that this object was floating into space. I would think “yeah balloons do that because of helium or science or whatever.”

Trish Keenan either never stopped being fascinated by balloons or found a way to channel that sense of kid wonder through her music. As easy as it is to feel depressed about her death while listening to Broadcast, on Haha Sound the predominant feeling I get is joy. “Lunch Hour Pops” might be their most overtly happy-sounding song — it’s like a nursery rhyme with her sing-song vocals plus the chirping electronics, and includes the refrain “let the balloons go outside.” It’s an ambiguous psychedelic image that also captures the band’s approach to making this album.

Haha Sound is a pop music carnival where every song is like a different exhibition that shows the listener something new. There is the cotton candy girl-group inspired “Before We Begin,” the spiky sci-fi rock of “Pendulum,” the warm, affecting shoegaze of the last two tracks, “Winter Now” and “Hawk.” If there was a criticism to be aimed at The Noise Made By People (there wasn’t, but speaking theoretically here), it’s that it was very focused on a specific minimal aesthetic. Haha Sound feels like a reaction to that: it’s Broadcast at their most maximalist, and the joy comes from hearing the band explore every possible texture and sound they can come up with while still combining all of that weirdness with timeless pop songwriting.

This would be the last Broadcast album before it reduced to a duo of Keenan and James Cargill, probably because it used up every idea they had for the full band. Neil Bullock’s drumming is worth singling out because the rhythms on this album are really creative and make every song on Haha Sound feel distinct. “Man is Not a Bird” is his best showcase; its dense sound and the textures he provides make it a significant departure from TNMBP while maintaining all of the band’s strengths.

Keenan sits at the center of these kaleidoscopic pop fantasies, observing the strange world around her with a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it’s Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz, or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, there is something about the concept of the ordinary woman in a fantasy land that resonates, and she inhabits that role on Haha Sound perfectly. She adds such relatability to the band’s psychedelic sounds and visuals, like on “Ominous Cloud,” where the titular image is used to convey trying to overcome self-doubt and procrastination like all of us do.

While I’ve always loved Haha Sound, it didn’t emotionally connect with me as much as Broadcast’s other music until I started listening to it repeatedly in the last few weeks. Lately, I’ve been more into music that can take me back to my old balloon-loving self while still treading new ground, and this album’s unjaded sound appeals to me now more than ever. I’ve also been asking myself what makes this band’s music ageless, and I think it lies in its mix of classic pop songwriting and malleable lyrics, themes, and sounds. No matter where I’m at in life, I’ll be able to find something in Haha Sound that makes me feel and sparks my imagination.

I Guess I Like Yoga Music Now

It is weird that I’ve gotten to a place where I’m listening to an album called Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga when I don’t meditate or do yoga. That I listened at all is mostly a testament to the genius of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who has an innate ability to make what should be background music into something that is engrossing and full of spirit. This is one of those new old albums; it was recorded in 2013 and commissioned by her mother who wanted a soundtrack for the yoga classes she teaches. This makes it one of her earliest recordings and one that offers insight into her development making music on her Buchla modular synthesizers.

Smith’s last two albums are among the most immersive, thoughtful, and imaginative I’ve ever heard. 2016’s Ears was a colorful collection of songs that fused her synthetic sounds with her love for nature, and 2017’s The Kid built on that style with layers of deep, affecting storytelling and whimsy. Due to its reason for existing, Tides lacks the ambition and diversity of those albums, but it shows Smith figuring out what would become her signature sound through various synthesizer tones and repetitions.

There are a lot of negative connotations for this type of new age hippie music, and I’m still surprised that I love Smith’s fluttery, spiritual style as much as I do. In addition to sounding so vibrant, there is a sincerity and braininess to her approach that reminds me of artists like Broadcast and Björk. Even on an album like Tides where she doesn’t sing, I get a strong sense of who Smith is through her music — there is real charisma here and it finds a way to transmit itself through sound.

Tides doesn’t really aspire to be more than background music, which actually becomes part of its appeal. It’s a chance to hear Smith tinkering and learning in a relaxed way at a stage in her development where she hadn’t yet figured out how to make the mesmerizing ambient pop songs of Ears and The Kid. This makes Tides a useful chapter in the story of her career, which is defined by her growing and progressing on every song and album as she gains more mastery of her tools.

I can’t really evaluate it from a yoga or meditation context, but I assume it works quite well for that purpose too. I imagine I’ll listen to Tides a sneaky amount this year while I’m writing or falling asleep, or when I feel like hearing one of my favorite artists starting on the path to finding her voice.

Please Don’t Sing About Donald Trump

Two years into his presidency, musicians have formed a consensus about Donald Trump: he’s a subpar president whose style of governing leaves much to be desired. Most of them don’t seem to care for his behavior one bit, and I don’t blame them. I don’t like to get too political, but heck, I’ll just say it: I don’t really enjoy Donald Trump as president either. I’ve been underwhelmed by much of his decision-making and have yet to really be blown away by anything he’s done. In fact, I think there’s a very real chance he’ll go down in history as one of our least great presidents.

Right when Trump got elected, there was a lot of chatter about how great it would be for art, as all of the brave artists would rally to “stick it to the man” and make their best work while suffering terribly. I was a bit more skeptical. I don’t think a bunch of assholes running the country is the sort of thing that spurs creativity and I’m familiar with how artists get when they feel like they need to “speak their truth” about current events. So I knew what we were really in for: a lot of songs that preach to the choir, pretending to be really daring while having an ineffectual “Trump stinks, maaaaaaaannnnnnn” tone. When I hear songs like this, I understand for a moment why the GOP is so passionate about cutting funding to the arts.

Everyone knows I’m not the type to rip into specific artists and mock their craft. That isn’t what this blog is about, and I would never use this space to add more negativity into the world. So I won’t bash specific artists (like, say, The 1975) for making music that I feel is about pandering to people with obvious talking points. Instead, like always, I want to focus on the positive: an artist who has managed to make music about these times that resonates without resorting to condescending lyrics and false bravado.

The album I’m talking about here is Julia Holter’s Aviary. When it came time to rank my favorite albums at the end of the year, this was the hardest one to peg because it had so much going on and it was hard to tell if I liked the music or just liked the process of listening to the music (I have no idea if this makes sense). Clocking in at a ridiculous 90 minutes, it’s an album that clearly is making a point through excess. There is an unreasonable amount going on even in each song, they all seem to run a little too long, and there are way too many of them. It’s not quite impenetrable, but it asks a lot of anyone listening to it.

This is all reminiscent of what living in 2018 is like, where there is a lot of overstimulation and it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what matters, particularly when it comes to political news. Her twist is to turn all that mind-numbing chaos and noise into something beautiful so that the album also functions as an escapist fantasy world, similar to Björk’s UtopiaAviary has a lot to say about life right now, but it always shows the listener instead of telling. All of its moods are conveyed through sound and feeling.

What I come back to with Holter’s album is how it challenged the listener and rewarded them for putting in the effort. Because it was this mountain to climb, I wanted to keep listening and thinking about it until I made it to the top. Music that is explicitly about Trump could never hope to accomplish that unique feeling because the artist has chosen to anchor themselves to the type of tired commentary heard on Saturday Night Live. An album like Aviary, on the other hand, understands there is no value in telling people what they already know.

The appeal of the obvious topical music is that it is perceived to be offering a window into these times and capturing a certain mood of the populace. I have never really bought into that as a reason to praise music. Every artist is living in the present and on albums like Aviary, those traits organically came out because she was channeling her experiences and mindset into art. That holds true for every artist, even if they’re making shoegaze music with no discernible lyrics. There are many more ways to comment on life and society than quoting Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in your song.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Valerie

Broadcast had a wide range of esoteric influences in many different mediums, but one that comes up over and over again in interviews is the 1970 Czech film Valerie and her Week of Wonders. It’s a surrealist fairy tale about a 13-year old named Valerie who is becoming a woman. She has magical earrings which lead to a bizarre and frightening story involving a creepy priest, her vampire grandma, a polecat, and a boy who loves her and may or may not be her brother. The film raises many interesting questions like “what is this,” “what am I watching” and “isn’t that guy dead.”

Regardless of the actual quality of the film, it’s easy to see why it inspired Trish Keenan. Broadcast’s music always had a fairy tale feeling with Keenan’s voice playing the Valerie role of innocence amid the strange electronic fantasies they created. A lot of the imagery in Valerie and her Week of Wonders is the type of uncanny beauty that was Broadcast’s trademark. Another direct influence is Lubos Fiser’s lush soundtrack, which at times feels like a precursor to Broadcast’s sound.

After the smooth elegance of The Noise Made By People, Broadcast leaned further into the Valerie inspiration on Haha Sound, marking a departure for the band which would be typical from record to record. The space of TNMBP is replaced with tons of texture in the form of diverse percussion sounds, buzzing electronics, and other clatter. It puts Keenan in the center of a musical fantasy that is reminiscent of the film’s surreal imagery. They don’t exactly hide this: one song is called “Valerie” and borrows the melody from Fiser’s soundtrack while Keenan sings about the magical earrings.

“Valerie” stands out as one of the prettiest songs in Broadcast’s discography with its gentle strumming and Keenan’s innocent performance of Fiser’s melody. It also is a testament to how good they were at repurposing art that inspired them into music that fit their own sound. I loved this song before I even knew what Valerie and her Week of Wonders was, and I never even watched the movie until a few days ago. Understanding where some of this band’s ideas came from adds a layer of appreciation to it, but isn’t necessary at all.

I suspect the band would quite enjoy that I ended up watching the movie because of their music. Part of Broadcast’s charm was that they came off as so enthusiastic about their influences, and they used their music to try to get listeners interested in art they felt was meaningful. What I’m still discovering in their music now are little reference points that I never recognized as someone who hasn’t ventured into a lot of the areas Keenan was obsessed with. They function almost as easter eggs that make the band into cool friends that turn you onto stuff you wouldn’t have found on your own.

The sincerity of their love for Valerie and her Week of Wonders is why the band borrowing the melody for “Valerie” feels like such a thoughtful homage when in other hands it could have been perceived as an act of theft. It’s the band resurrecting this old, forgotten piece of art and bringing it into conversation with the present and the future. The term “retro-futurism” kind of sounds like music writer babble, but “Valerie” is a direct example of it, where the past, present, and future all collide in one song. The rest of Haha Sound finds similar joy in linking different eras in a way that Broadcast did better than everyone else.

A Defense of Artists in Their 30s

While Emma Ruth Rundle topped my year-end list for the second time in three years, I didn’t see her on any list published by a major music website, which I tracked for fun through Metacritic and this spreadsheet by Rob Mitchum. In and of itself, this is no big deal. A lot of music I love doesn’t appeal much to others and I would never expect it to be on anyone else’s list. But Rundle is different: my success rate with recommending her music to people is extremely high and I’ve converted many people I talk with about music into fans. And while many artists I love are languishing in complete obscurity, Rundle is on a reasonably well-known label (Sargent House) and has a passionate, growing fanbase who sold out her shows on her last American tour. I also don’t feel that her music is all that impenetrable; it’s unique but has its roots in hook-heavy rock that is in a similar musical space as many albums on these sorts of lists.

It’s ridiculous to say an album must make everyone’s year-end list, but given just how many albums get charted at the end of each year, it’s odd to me that Rundle has been completely shut out by all critics after delivering consecutive incredible albums. I really don’t think it’s strictly a matter of me having different taste. I’m convinced she’s victim to certain biases in the music media that have caused her great music to be undervalued or overlooked completely. Maybe it’s a waste of time to think or care about this, but I feel like the best thing I can do with this tiny platform is try to correct what I perceive as wrongs by these larger outlets.

The more I think about it, the more I think Rundle’s biggest issue is that her career arc is… untidy. Part of what the music media likes to do is frame narratives about artists by crafting these arcs, and they like to start young so they can have control over the story. The artist’s first album is the “breakthrough,” then the second is their Best New Music “statement” and the third is their “magnum opus.” Then they “decline” from there and the media moves on to a new crop of young artists. Obviously this pattern doesn’t always hold true and it’s a large generalization, but I think anyone who pays attention to music criticism has witnessed something resembling this cycle repeat itself over and over.

This year, I noticed a lot of really young songwriters who are in the same musical ballpark as Rundle and seemed to be early in that media cycle — I’m talking about artists like Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, boygenius, Soccer Mommy, etc. They’re on their first or second album, which means they’re getting promoted as “exciting new voices.” They’re talented artists, but it’s hard not to view the hype around them as being linked to their age and relative inexperience, which lets the media tell a new story with unlimited possibilities while appealing to a younger demographic. (I also want to stress that this doesn’t mean people who love these artists are being “tricked” into liking them or anything — I just think these artists were given a chance to be heard that wasn’t afforded to many artists with similar talent.)

Then there is Emma Ruth Rundle, who played in like three different bands and released several albums before finding her voice (in my opinion) on 2016’s Marked For Death at age 33. I liked all of her music even before that album, but I feel she has taken a massive step forward with her solo works. And the path she took to those albums was a real joy to listen to because I could hear her improve and figure out who she was over a course of several years. But the media doesn’t have time or patience for that kind of story: they want artists to come out of the gate fully formed at a young age so they can be out in front promoting something that feels fresh and hip. I strongly believe that if Rundle were 10 years younger, the reaction to her music from the media would be much different.

The problem with that is Rundle needed to make all those albums before she could arrive at her sound on Marked for Death. The typical musician narrative where they peak right away in their early 20s is wildly unrealistic and just untrue most of the time. It’s caused a lot of young artists to be hyped too soon and has caused a trend where artists deeper into their careers are consistently taken for granted. Every artist is on a different path and not all are going to follow the same tidy arc that is applied to everyone.

Of course, this is something I want to believe, since I’m almost 30 and feel like I’m still improving at my craft all the time and have barely even lived yet. And I think that’s part of why I am relating more to artists who have taken more winding routes to success. Now I really enjoy hearing artists at different stages of their journeys, whether it’s Rundle or someone like Melody Prochet, who took six years to release her second album that completely blew away my expectations (and also, believe it or not, was left off almost all year-end lists). There are inspirational stories to be found in those albums, even if the media isn’t telling them.