If you were to construct a phenotype for the kind of person who listens to Birmingham’s Broadcast, here is what it might look like: Girl, penchant for Czech new wave films, patent leather mary jane, wears a silk scarf as a kerchief, windows down in a vintage convertible, has opinions on the gesture of a work of abstract painting, understands modern dance, dinner is a martini (dirty, gin, olive) and a bed rice with some raw fish on it. Yes, Broadcast, the pop project helmed by the late Trish Keenan, demands a sort of commitment to sensuality from its listener. It demands that you are kind of a gourmand of life, someone with a Taurean approach. And Haha Sound, the band’s second full length record, is perhaps the band’s most sensual release of all.
To understand Haha Sound, you must first turn to one of its source materials, the 1970 Czech vampire flick, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders. In the film, a beautiful young woman wanders through a dreamscape of nosferatus and youth-obsessed older women. It is surreal, psychedelic. One moment the titular Valerie wears a purple dress in an all-white bedroom, the next she’s surrounded by nuns at a church service where the state of being a woman is compared to the state of being a pomegranate (which is to say, split me open at the center and fuck me, daddy). This cerebral terroir is a fitting place for Broadcast, who play on the film’s theme with “Valerie,” chopping it and screwing it and miniaturizing it. The reason that is a fitting pace for Broadcast is that Valerie, like Broadcast, is precious, bordering on votive. The synthesizers are heavy, flickering, distorting themselves around Keenan’s vocals.
Haha Sound was released 20 years ago today, following the dissonant experimentations of 2000’s The Noise Made By People, ahead of the Gertrude Stein namecheck that is 2005’s Tender Buttons. It is the band’s prettiest offering, a much more cogent record than Noise, but also a much dreamier abstraction than Buttons. With a lineup that included jazz drummer Neil Bullock, the record was partially tracked in a church hall that Keenan discovered because it was the location of a junk sale she attended. Accordingly, Haha Sound has this quality of junk shop found sounds, of chintzy dollhouse miniatures and crappy plastic keyboards — factory made, but the workers are elves. “I am gray/ Still on the page/ Oh, colour me in,” sings Keenan in the record’s first moments, and around her, synthesizers take on the quality of shattering glass. Call it a Brother’s Grimm storybook tale where the whole point is that the rye bread is hallucinogenic.
The record is a complicated mix of influence. The Czech vampire movie, yes, but also dusty old 45s, the naitvité of the ‘60s, a paisley scarf floating in a thousand-year-old well. Haha Sound is a record that is obsessed with beauty, obsessed with intricacy. And this is maybe the reason why it is my favorite Broadcast album. Because it strives not to be legible but to be beautiful, especially and exquisitely beautiful. It asks listeners not to think about narrative but instead to think of beauty as something oblique and ephemeral. And explicitly retrograde. Haha Sound is its own weird little island, its own bizarre little dream, endlessly customizable. It does not fear sounding like a pastiche of the past because it is too strange to sound like any specific band or artistic movement. The Free Design, the Shaggs, found sounds from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, naive girl groups like Wendy and Bonnie, the widescreen pop of the Rotary Connection and Burt Bacharach.
Keenan sounds so effortless constructing this world, this storybook tale for us. “Lunch Hour Pops” shudders; its synths pirouette like a ballerina in her jewel box. Keenan sings about balloons, rear windows into consciousness that exist in the back of a human brain, clouds that rock like a ship at sea. You can see it all coming into focus, a film where all the effects are practical, toy horses and little red rowboats. On “Ominous Cloud,” the mood is of escapism. “I’ve got to get away,” sings Keenan, “From this town I don’t want to face.” She sings like she is on a swing, legs pointed up towards the big terrible blue heavens. And there is something sublime about “Before We Begin,” which has an effect like floating on top of a rotating Leslie speaker down a lazy river. Keenan’s vocals are like a big quilt.
Broadcast were a band that basked in mystery, difficult to categorize. They welcomed it. In a 2003 interview around the release of Haha Sound, they talked to a reporter for Under The Radar about this very thing. “When asked how they would describe their sound to the average person, such as a cab driver, they are at a loss,” writes Mark Redfern, “‘It’s impossible,’ [Tim] Felton admits…’I must say, I’ve never been able to do it, to describe it, I just can’t do it.'” Of course, having your thing be that you’re so mysterious and difficult to categorize only cements a legacy, invites other bands to copy your shtick.
Trish Keenan died in 2011 due to complications from pneumonia, and obviously that was it for the band. But Broadcast are everywhere today, in different miniaturized forms, in so much of contemporary dream and psych-pop music and in the culture at large. There’s Keenan on a Melody’s Echo Chamber record, there she is somewhere inside of the heart of a girl with blunt Jane Birkin bangs and a communist reader on her lap. There she is in the junkyard pianos people buy on Craigslist to make their music sound more naive, feral, beautiful. Because that is what Haha Sound does to people. It makes you appreciate the naive, the feral, the beautiful. You look into the looking glass and see your face reflected back to you, distorted, more precious, and strange. That is what it is like to listen to Haha Sound; it brings you closer to a stranger version of yourself.