The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Before We Begin

When I named this blog “The Noise Made By People,” I didn’t really think about how big of a gamble it was to name it after one of my favorite albums. After all, there is a lot of music I listened to back then that I don’t even really like anymore, and some that is downright embarrassing. But over the years, as so many artists have come and gone, the music of Broadcast has remained the one constant of my music fandom. I didn’t even process it as a risk because some part of me knew that would be the case.

All of music is so subjective, and I’ve learned it’s not really worth trying to convince people to care about anything that really matters to you. But I’m still motivated to write by some sense of justice — the feeling that some artists simply deserve a chance to be heard, or credit for doing something great that hasn’t been given to them. A lot of that motivation came from loving Broadcast so much and feeling like any amount of effort would be worth it if I could get one more person to experience this band.

Despite my love for them, I haven’t really written at length about Broadcast, at least not since the beginning days of the blog. I’m motivated now out of fear that their music could completely disappear from the consciousness. Trish Keenan’s tragic death means there won’t be a trendy reunion tour where everyone looks back on their music, and other writers have become so obsessed with newness that there is no incentive for them to look back at a band like Broadcast. I don’t think they’re going to be included in the canon of their time, even though I don’t believe there was a better band during their existence.

Maybe that’s overstating things, and I’ll admit it’s hard to separate my more objective evaluation of the band with what they mean to me personally. The truth is, I never felt like someone who was necessarily predisposed to like psychedelic music. Drugs terrify me and I’ve never done them, I don’t really care for a lot of the hippie stuff that has often gone hand-in-hand with it, and even now I rarely feel like I fit in with that segment of music fans. A lot of the credit (or blame) for my taste goes to this band, because their whole discography functions as an argument in favor of psychedelia as a form of escape and a way to expand the mind.

And Keenan was the perfect guide for a psychedelia newbie. Their music always makes me think of Alice in Wonderland, with Keenan being this ordinary woman who is thrust into a strange universe that she needs to make sense of. She was an incredible singer, but in part because she didn’t show off with big notes or consciously mind-blowing lyrics. She was just very human and there was a sincerity in everything she did, and when it was combined with their often strange retro-futuristic music, it was magic.

What I find most satisfying about looking at Broadcast’s music in order is how they didn’t follow the dispiriting path so many artists take, where they start out being super exciting and show tons of promise, then gradually recede towards bland normalcy in an effort to appeal to more and more people. They started out in a place that was kind of ordinary, then with every record they built on their sound, explored new areas, and took their dedicated listeners with them on a journey. The end result is what I would consider the most rewarding music I’ve listened to, and it’s why I always use this band as an example of doing things the right way.

Their first singles were released in the mid-90s and compiled on 1997’s Work and Non-Work, which as I mentioned before, isn’t the type of debut that really blows you away and makes you certain that the band is destined for greatness. And reading really deep between the lines, I don’t get the sense that the band was ever incredibly proud of these early songs. It’s really good music, but it doesn’t quite feel like Broadcast, or at least not what they would become.

I don’t have a time machine, but I speculate that part of the issue was timing: these songs were released when this type of loungy downtempo electronic music was at the height of its popularity. In particular, the band was burdened by comparisons to Stereolab and perceived as kitschy and nostalgic. This wasn’t helped by the inclusion of “The Book Lovers” on the Austin Powers soundtrack, which is still very weird to me.

These early songs mostly establish one aspect of the band’s sound, which is their ability to mine the past and create a sense of nostalgia in their music. They were particularly obsessed with the 60s band The United States of America, and on Work and Non Work, it sometimes sounds like they’re emulating that band more than they’re finding their own sound. But in hindsight, it’s also easy to hear some of the seeds for what would make this band so special on their ensuing albums.

While these are their least musically adventurous songs, that makes them a real showcase for Keenan as a relatively traditional singer. The band was still tinkering with their sound and figuring out what worked, but she was captivating from the very beginning. She always struck me as very shy and thoughtful, and it comes through in her singing, which has this humble quality to it. On these songs, she sings with more directness than she would in future releases, but she already had that quiet confidence and human quality that added so much to their music.

Still, the songs on Work and Non Work aren’t the ones I tend to revisit when I go back and listen to Broadcast, even though they’re really quite good. That’s more a testament to the strength of the rest of their music and the way they evolved so naturally than an indictment of these songs. The band took their sweet time following up on these singles, which would become routine for a group that always seemed to think through everything they did and never compromised their art in any way. And on their next single, they found their identity as a band, creating a song that to this day still doesn’t feel like it should have been possible.

#10: Eerie Wanda – “Hum”

I’ve decided to start giving out a Trish Keenan Memorial Trophy for the artist each year who comes closest to emulating the Broadcast singer. This year’s goes to Eerie Wanda frontwoman Marina Tadic, who reminds me of Trish with her gentle psychedelic songs that strike a perfect balance between being charming and weird (or, I suppose, eerie).

Eerie Wanda’s actual sound isn’t much like Broadcast’s; there are no electronics, with songs always built off Tadic’s guitar and some light percussion and bass. The arrangements are simple, meant to showcase Tadic’s vocals while providing a tranquil, daydreamy vibe that evokes the 60s.

Tadic’s voice is the real defining instrument here: it has a warmth and dreaminess to it, but also somehow always sounds off-kilter and distant, which gives Hum its underlying strangeness that makes it stand out from other guitar pop albums this year.

Discovery: Antena

One of my dorky music-related hobbies is looking into the past to try to figure out where some of my favorite bands came from. I spend a lot of time browsing on allmusic.com and surfing Wikipedia or last.fm to try to piece the whole puzzle together. Every so often it pays dividends and I find something cool that I may not have ever heard otherwise.

In this case I stumbled across Antena, a band named for French singer/songwriter Isabel Antena. A couple of my favorite bands are Broadcast and Stereolab, who played sophisticated electronic pop with some experimental tendencies, and it’s easy to see Antena as an early influence on both of them. The most obvious comparison to Isabel Antena is Stereolab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier, who was also French and had an elegant way of singing, but she also reminds me of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan whose voice had similarly detached, airy qualities that hovered above the music.

Musically, Antena reminds me a lot of Young Marble Giants, whose album Colossal Youth was released around the same time the band formed. Their sound is similarly austere, with electronic synths and drum machine rhythms. What makes Antena sound different from all these other groups is that they infused samba rhythms into the music, giving them a more tropical, summery feel. It’s an interesting combination that I hadn’t really heard before and is part of what has gotten me instantly hooked on the band.

So far I’ve only listened to the band’s 1982 compilation Camino Del Sol, which comprises nearly all of their early music. It’s full of some really cool songs, but so far my favorite is the title track which shows off most of the band’s strengths. You can listen to that song below, or the full album on Spotify here. If you’re into this brand of sophisticated electro-pop, they’re definitely worth a listen.

2011: A Retrospective and Look at the Future

As the year comes to an end, I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at some of the events and debates that stood out for me in the last year.

The death of Trish Keenan

Most of the year-end “in memoriams” will be focused on Amy Winehouse, but no musician death affected me this year like Trish Keenan’s, who died on January 14th of pneumonia at age 42. Keenan fronted the UK dream pop group Broadcast, who, while consistently admired, never really got the level of popularity and acclaim that I felt they deserved. They quietly made some of the most beautiful and original music of the last decade, drawing from their 60’s inspirations like the United States of America and obscure foreign soundtracks to create something completely new.  At the center of their sometimes dark, psychedelic sounds was Trish and her warm vocals, which ensured that there was always a heart at the core of their music.

Trish’s death struck me because of how unfair it was for such an amazing singer to die of something like pneumonia, and because her death seemed to be met with relative shrugs or lack of acknowledgement from a lot of places. Considering her band was responsible for some of my favorite music ever, it was depressing to see it all get glanced over, or to see the band’s plays spike on last.fm before settling back down to normal just a couple weeks later. Her death didn’t just remind me of how life can seemingly end at any moment, but also the inherent sadness that comes with loving a band that nobody else seems to care about.

I named my blog after their debut album in tribute (and because it’s a great name for a music blog anyways), and I’ll continue to preach the greatness of Broadcast everywhere, even if I just get met with shrugs.

The year of “boring”

The biggest ongoing debate in music this year seemed to surround one word: “boring.” Is music today boring? What music is boring? What does boring actually mean in the context of music?

For me, this has been a subject of my attention for a couple years, when I noticed that local indie radio station The Current was playing a lot of music that bored the hell out of me (typically mopey folk). But the issue really came to a head this year when widely celebrated albums by the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake, and Fleet Foxes were branded as “boring” by many people (including me).

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote an essay about the topic for The AV Club, where he criticized those that lazily use the word “boring” to describe music. I agree with some of what he says, but disagree with some of it as well. For one thing, I don’t think people that call music “boring” are wearing it with a badge of honor, but instead are simply disappointed at the direction music has taken.

But I agree that the word “boring” is dumb to use for music, which is why I’ve struggled a lot with this issue in 2011. Because, as much as I hate saying it, a lot of music this year really was boring. It’s not just that the sound of a lot of these artists is so low-key and passive, but there’s also the sense that it’s all been done before.  More than ever before, a lot of the most acclaimed music this year seemed to be stuck in the past, either fixated on reviving some trend (like the whole 80’s easy listening revival done by artists like Bon Iver and Destroyer that still completely baffles me) or recalling a specific sound and era. Even as I enjoyed some of the music by these revivalists, I still found it frustrating that so many seemed to be swimming in their own influences instead of making something we haven’t heard before.

Lame indie kids schooled by female veterans

While the whole boring music thing was happening, with most of it propagated by the same types of male artists that have always dominated indie music, an interesting trend for me emerged this year: A whole bunch of female artists returned from long layoffs and made some of the best, most original music of 2011.

It started in February when PJ Harvey released Let England Shake, her first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk and likely her best in over a decade. Like all PJ Harvey albums, it was an original, literate piece of work, but it also benefited from a broader scope as her look at war and her homeland felt bold and provocative when so much music this year felt lifeless and limp.  Her contemporary in original female songwriting, Björk, also returned with her first new music since 2007 with the dazzling multimedia Biophilia project. Arguably Biophilia’s music didn’t live up to its ambitious iPad app packaging, gravity-based instruments, science classes, and all the other crazy stuff Björk was up to this year, but it reminded me of how refreshing it is to see an artist actually try something new and attempt to take music somewhere it hasn’t been before.

Elsewhere, all-female supergroup Wild Flag, which included Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney, released what I thought was the year’s best rock album in September. For Brownstein, who has spent the last few years blogging for NPR and appearing on Portlandia,  it was her first recorded music since that band’s 2005 album The Woods. Wild Flag also included Mary Timony who had been relatively under the radar since her mid-90’s work with Helium.  For members with such pedigrees, their debut album was wonderfully unpretentious, a celebration of the greatness of rock music coming at a time when we need it most.

The reclusive Kate Bush even came back with 50 Words for Snow, her first new music since 2005’s Aerial. With its seven songs clocking in at a whopping 65 minutes, Bush’s album was an ambitious work that was remarkably distant from any sort of current indie trends.  Its lengthy songs never wear out their welcome and showcase Bush’s knack for quirky storytelling. The song lengths became an issue for me as a couple songs I didn’t like as much took up about 1/3 of the album, but it also had some of my favorite songs of the year, especially the 13 minute “Misty” about Bush falling in love with a snowman and “Wild Man,” her ode to the yeti.

So what does it say about music that the most ambitious, thought-provoking music this year was made by females in their late 30-50’s?  I’m not really sure, but I do think today’s entitled indie youngsters could learn a thing or two from the artists that helped make indie music what it is.

(These veterans were joined by up-and-comers like St. Vincent, EMA, Tune-Yards, Eleanor Friedberger, etc.  Overall, I think this was probably the strongest year for female artists in a long time.)

Looking forward to 2012

When I started this blog because I was bored over the summer, I figured it would be a fun challenge for myself, but one that few other people would care about.  For the most part I think that’s still true, but I’ve had more activity than I was expecting on it and have already learned a lot (such as that putting pictures of Björk in your posts is a great way to get a lot of google images hits).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for websites I used to make fun of all the time now that I know how difficult it is to write about something so subjective.

For the next year, my goal is to listen and write fairly prolifically, with more focus on new music than I had in the past year.  Hopefully that will lead to more people reading and taking an interest in the blog, and who knows what happens from there.  I’m thankful to anyone who read or took an interest in my writing this last year, and hope you stay on board through 2012.  This blog wouldn’t be possible without you.  Well, actually it would be, but it’d be a lot sadder than it already is.