Essential Records: Broadcast's 'Tender Buttons'

Posted by Billy Gil, March 10, 2015 05:07pm | Post a Comment

Defunct British duo Broadcast has most of their catalog reissued this week, including Tender Buttons. The band’s haunting third album is undoubtedly their high-water mark. Released in 2005, it slowly but surely raised the band’s profile, landing on several year-end best-of lists, drawing more attention to their previous albums and putting them at the upper echelon of independent artists, before their career was tragically cut short by the death of singer Trish Keenan.

I first heard Broadcast while perusing said year-end lists. (Also, wow to a list of albums so good that this is only No. 22; the early-to-mid-2000s are more than due for a resurgence.) But Broadcast’s tasteful oddity of an album somehow outlasts any other record made that year.

The key to Tender Buttons’ (and Broadcast’s) continuing endurance is how unassuming it is. Fourteen trim tracks (save five-minute noise piece “Arc of a Journey”) that actually sound like they were made by two people, using instruments that sound like they were found through a year’s worth of estate sales, Tender Buttons avoids sounding pretentious because it never really claims to be more than it is, Gertrude Stein references and all. It’s a record that remains mysterious even though all of its elements are basically at the forefront. Keenan’s vocals remain clarion despite getting plenty of the reverb treatment, thanks to her erudite British diction. All those moogs that sound like they’re falling apart, stitched together by James Cargill’s web-like guitarwork and pumping basslines, even those roaring in the background, you can pretty much hear it all, yet it feels like facing mirrors stretching to infinity, given the sense of space their layering allows.

Tracks like “Black Cat” offer an antiseptic rush, pulsing forward while Keenan intones curious, disjointed phrases as though reading from a medical journal. The title track’s VU-style drone is perhaps even more detached, Keenan’s wordsmithing devoid of color and melody. I remember the album’s following tracks hitting me particularly hard as they grow more humanistic, following “America’s Boy” broken-Nintendo game noise bulges. “Tears in the Typing Pool” sounds like the soundtrack to signing divorce papers, winsome and stuffy at the same time. “Corporeal’s” evocative imagery conjures sex in classrooms and medical chairs (“Under the white chalk … Under the x-ray … do that to me”), or a physical manifestation of such a fantasy as synths squirt and fizzle around her vocal, which is among the best she put to tape.

Though their other releases (especially Haha Sound) have comparable highlights, Tender Buttons is their most consistent release. Side Two remains equally brilliant, from “Arc of a Journey’s” lavaflow of synths through “Michael A Grammar’s” spare saw-tooth-wave jam, “Goodbye Girls” arpeggiated, ’60s-pop perversion and “I Found the End’s” wordless descent. 

I personally found the album to strike a chord after returning home to L.A. from grad school. With no real job and a shakey long-distance relationship, it sort of represented that combination of emptiness coupled with possibility that I felt, and it still sounds like that to me. The end of something, the beginning of something else, the quiet unease and titillation that comes with all of that.

Tender Buttons is a dark and sometimes disconcerting trip, but it’s also full of wondrous, surprising sounds. Few records pull up a mood as well as Tender Buttons does, but it’s also incredibly listenable, the kind of record I try to avoid because it’s one of the first things that comes to mind every time I’m looking and I don’t want to play it out. That seems impossible, though; every time I listen, I found some weird sound or middle track I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Both as classy background music and as a springboard for introspection, Tender Buttons is, simply, incredibly efficient. Sadly, it was Broadcast’s last real studio album, save for collaborations and soundtrack work, and Keenan’s death continues to feel painfully premature. Cargill has said a new album is in the works, with vocals recorded by Keenan before her death. In the meantime, Tender Buttons remains endlessly replayable.

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Essential Records (35), Broadcast (5), Tender Buttons (1), Trish Keenan (1)