Treble 100: No. 87, Broadcast – Haha Sound

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Broadcast haha Sound

The last music that Trish Keenan gave listeners was only meant for an audience of one. Shortly before her death in 2011 of complications from pneumonia, the late vocalist and co-founder of Broadcast made a mix of obscure psychedelic music for a friend of hers, the Mind Bending Motorway Mix as it’s come to be known, which is an animated, ecstatic tour through some of the most peculiar and fun corners of psychedelic music. The fantasy synthscapes of Emerald Web’s “Flight of the Raven,” the bells and whistles of Tages’ “You’re Too Incomprehensible,” the baroque harmonies of Twice As Much’s “The Spinning Wheel”—it felt like stumbling across a blueprint to Broadcast’s music, as well as a glimpse of insight into this person we grieved but scarcely knew outside of the incredible music she made.

It also felt like a gift. In the absence of any more new music from Broadcast, we instead received something just as special—music they treasured. And fairly obscure music at that, rare and idiosyncratic psychedelic curiosities whose place here suggests a particularly curious kind of listener or crate digger. These songs were a far cry from the typical lineup of canonical psychedelic influences, which by extension told us something that we had perhaps known all along: That Keenan was One Of Us. Enigmatic a figure as she was, if that’s all we knew about her, that was enough—that she, too, was someone with an insatiable craving for something new and strange, those revelatory musical obsessions we couldn’t wait to introduce to anyone who’d give us a listening ear.

For those of us who found solace in the Mind Bending Motorway Mix, Broadcast was just such a band. Though transparent about their influences—and who wouldn’t be, with taste that impeccable—Broadcast often chased the unknowable and otherworldly. In their early days they split the difference between UK indie jangle and mid-century cool, which they refined into a form of psychedelia that filtered the euphorically disorienting gaze of ’60s psych-rock, ’70s krautrock and all curiosities in-between through contemporary technology. Even when channeling the sound of the past, they seemed to emerge somewhere just beyond the sight lines of the present and a few yards to the left of this dimension, capturing a warmly surrealist beauty that they perfected on 2003’s Haha Sound.

Broadcast’s lineup had whittled slightly after the release of their previous album, The Noise Made By People, with drummer Steve Perkins and keyboardist Roj Stevens departing the band. Despite this, Haha Sound feels like an even fuller and richer production, even if, throughout most of the album, it’s not always so easy to discern the source of a particular sound. The answer more often than not comes down to synths or samplers, but there’s a mystical alchemy at play that can’t be explained through a Korg user’s manual. The band increasingly grew apart from the broader UK indie scene as they followed their wilder instincts, and the album actually landed on the U.S. dance/electronic charts after its release, but Haha Sound slips through the rigid grasp of genre. In attempting to summarize their music in a 2003 interview with Under the Radar, the group’s Tim Felton said, “I must say, I’ve never been able to do it, to describe it, I just can’t do it.”

An album defined by sound itself as much as melody or even music, Haha Sound seems to both draw you into its world while continually building that world out around you. From the sound-effects plunge of its playful introduction “Colour Me In,” the physical logic of the material world begins to evaporate, but what unfolds is far more interesting—Julian House’s visually stunning cover art is about as perfect a visual aid as you’ll find. There are games of Centipede as scored by Raymond Scott and free-jazz jam sessions with atonal electronic noise. And on the eerily cool single “Pendulum,” setting Silver Apples synth warble up against a Jaki Liebezeit rhythmic strut, Trish Keenan plays tour guide for the melting scenery: “Captured under hypnosis, faster and faster images.”

For all its whirring effects and indiscernible shapes, there’s a brightness about Haha Sound that sets it apart from the haunted detachment of the album that preceded it and the mournful chill of the one that followed. There’s a playfulness to songs like “Lunch Hour Pops” and its twinkling arpeggios, and an almost nursery rhyme-like quality to “The Little Bell.” And “Before We Begin” is one of their single prettiest moments as a band, a mix of girl-group and French yé-yé pop filtered through a curtain of silver haze. All the while, Keenan offers an internal monologue on the risk of opening her heart before deciding to do so, singing, “What’s in tomorrow, fortune or sorrow/Wait, you may win?” Even when Keenan addresses those inevitable darker feelings on standout “Ominous Cloud,” they take a detour through whimsy first: “I’ve got to find a place/Be myself and learn to face/The ominous clouds/But not now, not now, not now.

The album is also wallpapered with stunning details to be studied and pored over, like that moment toward the end of hazy folk ballad “Valerie” where there’s the slightest tilt in pitch, as if it’s being played through a sticking reel-to-reel. Or the cascade of jazz session drummer Neil Bullock’s booming percussion against simple, sweet melancholy drones in “Man Is Not a Bird.” Or how the stark, high-pitched notes that open “Winter Now” seem to arrive like the soft flutter of the first snowflakes of the season. They embrace mischief as much as beauty, dissonance as much as clarity, and just as often as they seem to settle firmly on pop, they throw up another roadblock or unlatch another trapdoor, making each listen feel like a brand new gauntlet to run—Keenan’s voice providing the comforting beacon to help guide us through.

It’s that playful inscrutability, coupled with an unlikely grace in spite of it all, that’s continued to draw me in closer. When Haha Sound was released in August 2003, I listened to it innumerable times, and with each spin I latched on to a different moment—a melody, a rhythm, a riff—and a new reason to cautiously share what felt like a closely held secret. In the past, I compared being a Broadcast fan to being a member in a kind of clandestine club: “if someone knew and loved Broadcast, I knew I could trust them.” I stand by it; I’ve never interviewed or met Paramore’s Hayley Williams, just to throw one example out there, but because she covered “Colour Me In” in 2020, I trust her implicitly. In 2022, when I reached out to ask 11 different artists about their favorite Broadcast songs, in the process it felt like discovering a rare, unspoken bond with a group of strangers. Some of them probably received their own Motorway Mix of sorts with that one Broadcast song that introduced them to that special sound; lord knows I’ve made countless such mixes myself.

When the band toured behind the album in fall of 2003, I invited a friend to see them at The Casbah in San Diego. Woven into the setlist of new songs and select earlier cuts were odd rarities and b-sides like “Where Youth and Laughter Go,” while the band stood awash in abstract black-and-white projections stitched together from experimental cinema and ’60s-era science class film strips, Keenan the picture of oblique charisma. At a certain point my friend leans over and asks, “Are those benzene rings?” I can’t remember if I said anything in response—I couldn’t avert my eyes from the magic in front of me.

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