Broadcast - Talented twosome

Couples in rock: Don't you just adore 'em? Kim and Thurston; John and Yoko; Sonny and Cher. To this impressive pantheon add Broadcast, who've been led since 1995 by vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill. Their partnership is a testament to the concept of finding a niche and sticking with it, despite countless lineup changes.

Formed in Birmingham, England, Broadcast started their career with singles (the evergreen "Accidentals" and The Book Lovers EP) on the tiny indie label Wurlitzer Jukebox and Stereolab's Duophonic Records. The band upgraded to Warp Records in 1997, becoming the first non-electronic group to sign to that British IDM powerhouse.

Broadcast can be called "record-collector rock," but their collections abound with fantastic obscurities that most people don't even know exist. Therefore, Broadcast perform aural philanthropy by alluding to previous generations' overlooked LPs. Broadcast's most obvious influences—United States of America, White Noise, Silver Apples—all recently have received CD reissues and critical reassessments. But dig beneath this surface of proto-electronic psychedelia and mantric Kraut rock and you'll find subtle assimilations of '60s/'70s Italian soundtracks, library music (quirky miniatures made-to-order for TV and film), and the pranksterish spirit of Ron Geesin. Which isn't to imply Broadcast mimic these artists and styles; rather, they paraphrase them while maintaining their own distinctive aura.

Despite their scintillating instrumental qualities, it's Keenan's frosty, crystalline vocals and cryptic lyrics that distinguish Broadcast. Her most obvious forerunner is United States of America's Dorothy Moskowitz, whose dulcet tones illuminate USA's essential, self-titled album from 1968.

Commenting on that seminal work's impact on Broadcast in The Wire, Keenan said, "I like the idea of having a piece of electronic music and approaching it vocally, as well. It's not just a song written on an acoustic guitar and you try to squeeze these sounds around it."

"Since hearing that United States of America album," Cargill noted, "it's always appealed to us, to put that [color] and sound into songs. I don't know why more people don't do it, because that's where all the fun is."

This peculiar brand of fun has been evident in Broadcast's music since their earliest singles, helpfully collected on Work and Non Work. These formative efforts are marked by otherworldly Bruce Haack–like synth tones; Keenan's narcotized ice-queen vocals; waltz-time exotica; candy-coated psych pop with a languorous lilt and a romantic yearning; and Moogy reveries. Broadcast's debut full-length, The Noise Made by People (2000), and its 2003 follow-up, Haha Sound, further refined the group's retro-futurist vision.

It could be argued that Broadcast have only three songs (with occasional tangents): the woozy, waltz-time ballad; the midtempo, motorik jam à la Can's "Mother Sky" or Neu!'s "Hallogallo"; and the faux-innocent psych-pop song. Do Broadcast ever yearn to break out of their established formulae?

"I think we have broken the 'formulae' with Tender Buttons," Cargill counters. "I mean, where would a song like [the atypically topical] 'America's Boy' fit into those three categories? I'm not sure."

Tender Buttons sounds like Broadcast's most introspective album. It also hones the characteristic that makes Broadcast unique: a kind of haunted carefree quality, a euphoric inertia.

"After Haha Sound, we talked about making a much more minimal record, and I think that's something we've achieved," Cargill observes. "We removed a lot of the acoustic space, particularly with the use of simplistic drum-machine patterns instead of acoustic drums, so the overall feeling is naturally closer than the last album. That's the main difference—and the more minimal approach to the arrangements also contributes to that."

Losing their drummer yet again didn't change Broadcast's songwriting approach. "We've been working around absent drummers for some time now," Cargill notes. "With Tender Buttons, Trish generated a lot of the words using automatic writing techniques, newspaper crosswords, and dreams. I made several minidiscs of simple one-minute tracks for her to try some of her words out. We had the idea that initially having loads of rough source material is better than trying to sculpt out a perfect pop tune."

As for making music as a couple, how do Broadcast maintain harmony? "There really aren't many good things to be said about living and working together in the same house," Cargill laments. "It drives us a bit mental! It's just more economical for us at the moment."

Paradoxically, out of the duo's domestic discord come supremely pleasurable sounds.

segal@thestranger.com