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Agitated Arable

October 22, 2009

After all, isn’t there something arable about the idea of broadcasting, the sowing of seeds, scattering around, casting broadly? In the BBC’s Broadcasting House stands the sower sculpture by Eric Gill (who, incidentally, hated electronic media).
For the last couple of days I’ve been living inside the little universe of Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. Here’s what I’ve found.

I’ve admired Broadcast for quite a while, without really knowing why, but I suppose that I liked that I couldn’t quite place them – in the late 90s they certainly didn’t sound like all the other main artists Warp, sounding folky and ethereal rather than cold and logical; then after the turn of the millennium Broadcast’s singer Trish Keenan was talking about, and sounding somewhat like psychedelic folk singers like Linda Perhacs just before all those New Weird America people made it fashionable to do so (and by that point Broadcast had made Tender Buttons, an album stripped down to the sparsest analog synths).

The Focus Group, meanwhile, is a fellow called Julian House who designs record covers for Broadcast, at the same time as releasing records on the Ghost Box label. I wrote about Ghost Box close-relatives Moon Wiring Club quite a bit ago, and many of the things I enjoyed in Moon Wiring Club’s fictional village of Clinksell – the spooky kitsch, the haunted domesticity – are also features of Ghost Box’s own imagined place, Belbury. This might all sound like frivolous playtime stuff, but really I feel that music that doesn’t try to create its own little world – or should I say art that assumes it can occupy this world, with no effort to create a new world in turn – should be ashamed of itself.

I like what’s happened to Broadcast, on their passing through Belbury. A feeling of warmth towards elderly electronics, a haunted English folkiness (drawing on the pagan or pastoral folk themes that are keynotes in classic British horror) – these things have long been latent in Broadcast’s music, but under The Focus Group’s examination these tendencies become camped up, playful, grotesque. Which is appropriate.

Prior to listening, I did have my reservations about this record. The last time I anticipated an album about witchcraft on a classic label (They Were Wrong So We Drowned, by Liars, on Mute) I was disappointed by that record’s bludgeoning rockish textures. Witchcraft aside, Broadcast and The Focus Group have produced something much more welcoming and homemade.

Happily, Witch Cults… is meant to be a mini-album but has twenty-three tracks on it. This seems to be something of the Belbury / Clinksell way – perhaps the interest in library music provides the prompt for producing archives instead of albums; or perhaps it’s a taste for the macabre dictating that the artist should present a cluttered box of collections. Either way, this bittiness, this not presuming that every piece of music should take up five minutes of our time on this earth, or another, is to be admired.

Broadcast are playing in Toronto this coming Saturday night, but (unfortunately) won’t be there, because (fortunately) I’ll be at the Polish Combatants Hall to see the avant-garde violinist Iva Bittova… well, radio age witchcrafts broadcasts be damned, I can’t be in two places at once.

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