Patricia Ann Keenan, lead singer and songwriter for Broadcast, died January 14 of pneumonia contracted in her battle against H1N1 influenza. News reports quoted her sister earlier this week saying she had come down with the disease after returning from a brief tour of Asia and Australia. Her symptoms worsened over Christmas, developing into full-blown pneumonia, and she was put into intensive care two weeks ago. Broadcast’s last tour began December 1 in Malaysia and continued through Singapore, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne, culminating on December 10 with a set at the sold-out twentieth anniversary Meredith Music Festival. This was their first tour of Australia.
Broadcast last played Washington, DC at the Black Cat (also the title of one of their finest songs) late in 2009, touring with Atlas Sound. I admit, I agree with the reviewer of the 2009 show – their last album, a collaboration with the Focus Group called Investigates the Witch Cults of the Radio Age, kind of lost me. It is the culmination of their long journey – towards the exploration of imaginary ‘60s soundtracks of movies about the future, combining visual and sound collage and minimalism and stories – but I have to raise my hand and admit that they’d gone beyond where I could follow. I just wish I had one more chance to see them live – and, we are left with the additional pain of knowing they were getting ready to come back and work on another album. Would it be further noise and experimentation, or another bold foray into the seam between? We’ll never know.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb59Xs3QkFo
Warp Records announced Keenan’s death Friday morning. I agree wholeheartedly with their sentiment, “this is an untimely tragic loss and we will miss Trish dearly – a unique voice, an extraordinary talent and a beautiful human being. Rest in Peace.” Broadcast had been chosen by Animal Collective to play at the upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in May.
If you’ll indulge me, allow me a quick reminisce about Broadcast and the talented Ms. Keenan.
I first encountered Broadcast because of my love for and complete trust of Wurlitzer Jukebox, a mid-90s diy record label and favorite of John Peel. In 1996, they released the Accidentals 7” just right from looking at the cover; you knew there was something out of step with their contemporaries (who were mostly focusing on lo-fi shoegaze and noise). The austere but classic black and white beauty of the cover also belied the lush and hypnotic sounds therein. Even now, I’m stunned listening to its extraordinary structure – a pop song in several movements, timeless, hinting towards a space-age 1960s that never really existed.
They followed it up with a single (Living Room) and an EP (The Book Lovers) on Stereolab’s Duophonic (another band that had popped up on WJ). The journey through The Book Lovers EP signals their intent – each song creating its own world, with more enthralling entertainment packed into 10 minutes than most bands deliver in a career.
The collected songs were gathered together by Warp – long before Maximo Park had established Warp as a label that dabbled in non-electronica – and packaged in a cover that fused an identity uniquely Broadcast and recognizably Warp in a way that I find incredibly satisfying.
Still, the best was yet to come. Their first album proper, The Noise Made By People (2000) was preceded by the minimal masterpiece, Echo’s Answer (released on 7” with a beautifully-textured sleeve). The song has a sound that both harkens back to the Young Marble Giants, but with an incredible discipline; combining melancholy, warbling keyboards, and metronomic vocals – not a lick of guitar or drum – that keeps a mesmerizing beat and moves Keenan out from the décor, as one of the instruments, to the center as an awe-inspiring lyricist.
The album includes songs – “Come on Let’s Go” and “Papercuts” – that verge on pop/dancefloor (borne out by Two Lone Swordsman’s superb remix) and create an endlessly explorable world. On “Papercuts,” in the most economical turn of phrase, Keenan communicates her irritation with a (vain writer) lover, and immense longing, castigating him about “the writing for pleasure you wouldn’t let me read, the things you miss out when you try to deceive,” and then, exquisitely, in a line that makes me swoon every time: “you wrote a page about me, in your diary.” She pulls her lover back up, though, singing “don’t be so afraid, you’re bound to make mistakes, no matter whom or where you are, you’ve got to be willing.” It’s as great a moment as I know in song, but the band would top it on the second of two Extended Play EPs.
For me, these two EPs form Broadcast’s dizzying apex, with the chugging guitar of “Illumination” coming before one of the finest 7 minutes on any record, “Unchanging Window/Chord Simple.” It’s a four-part (live session?) journey, with a test tone intro, then album track “Unchanging” played straight forward, but dissolving seamlessly into the instrumental “Chord,” comprising a series of stately instrumental crescendos that break with increasing emotion before collapsing into dissolution, and one last time, majestically rising (at 5:33) to an outro of pure bliss. I was lucky enough to see them end a set with that live, and, let me tell you, it still makes my hairs stand on end to recall.
They continued on with the HaHa Sound (2003), the cover signaling Broadcast’s affinity for the same psychedelic imagery that defined their final years. HaHa Sound is incredible and beautifully inconsistent, combining pop perfection and further experiments in minimal song writing, shrinking in length, lyrics, and structure, using repetition, a cappella and futuristic madrigal-esque effects to create an incredible atmosphere. The Pendulum single could have been a double A-side, with non-album track “Still Feels Like Tears” among their best, but HaHa’s playfulness and inventiveness is still stunning seven years later. Throughout, Keenan cements her move from the background to the center with extraordinary lyrics and images that grab you from nowhere (“shake your earrings over my head, lay down your dreams on my pillow before bed”) or haunt you for days (“oh, how I miss you”).
Tender Buttons (2005) sports a haunting image of Keenan staring into a mirror, and describes much more of the, well, Arc of a Journey, from the F. to the End. I adore probably 10 of the 14 tracks, with pop standouts building on the chugging guitars (or noise) prevalent in “Goodbye Girls,” “Black Cat,” “Corporeal,” and the lead single, “America’s Boy.” In between are yet another set of amazing sound experiments playing at being incredible songs, perhaps the best of them being “Michael A Grammar.” Once again, Keenan creates an extraordinary story, describing returning to a Birmingham housing estate to watch them to pull it down, while her feet dance uncontrollably, trying to pull him along to change and take your chance to “let go.”
And that’s how I’ll remember her; an oddball, experimental, challenging and beautiful person that made music that constantly enticed me to wake myself and dance without control.