Friday, July 06, 2007

Winning and Losing in Love: The Broken Family Band

This year I have been very absorbed in a range of instrumental music (especially the likes of Battles, Supersilent, David Torn, John Surman, Fraud and Tord Gustavsen – much of which I still need to write about here). Some events in my life recently have given me something of an awakening, and jolted me right back to the art of songwriting, particularly the revelatory recent albums from Feist and Bjork, to which I may add some further thoughts soon. Although it’s very different musically from those two scattershot albums, The Broken Family Band’s latest seems to have come along at precisely the right time – and it’s brilliant. It’s a great big slap in the face to anyone who thinks that songwriting is somehow an inferior art form to more studied composition (actually, the two are very much complementary – I can’t listen exclusively to either). It’s harder for me to gather together thoughts and feelings about instrumental music for some reason, which might give evidence for the greater accessibility, perhaps even the greater relevance, of the song for most modern ears. Or maybe it just says that I prefer to marry my love of sound to my love of language. Who knows?

The Broken Family Band’s singer and chief songwriter Steven Adams has written a brave and interesting piece in The Guardian today, explaining his band’s modus operandi. BFB insist on maintaining their regular day jobs in addition to performing in a semi-professional touring group, turning down more opportunities than they accept as a result, and ensuring that their musical endeavours are strictly ‘for fun’. As a jobbing musician with more than one other regular job, I find this really quite inspiring and endearing. It also explains how easy it’s been to take this band for granted when they are actually something genuinely special. They just always seem to be there, quietly working really hard, but mostly somewhere in the background in terms of the more trivial preoccupations of the British music media.

Let’s look at the bare facts, though – ‘Hello Love’ is their fourth full length album, along with two mini albums, in a period of just over five years. This is a remarkably prolific flexing of songwriting muscle by today’s market determined standards – and Adams’ Guardian article is illuminating in capturing how the band’s working methods actually make this easier to achieve. They have managed to create a working environment for themselves in which there is much creative freedom and little burden of pressure. They’ve therefore been able to establish a signature sound without the interference of label budgets or A&R executives, and have carefully refined that sound at a pace that they have dictated entirely by themselves. They are surely the best possible role models for other aspiring young bands with independent spirit, with a body of work that is looking increasingly fit for some sort of longevity.

I’ve been guilty of taking them for granted myself – leaving their recent albums languishing in the lower half of my albums of the year lists because they have usually been flawed in some way. There have been problems with the sequencing, as on ‘Cold Water Songs’, or problems with the finish as with ‘Welcome Home, Loser’. The latter may still be their best collection of songs, but it was slightly spoiled by an Abbey Road gloss which sounded suitably clean but also slightly anaemic. ‘Balls’ returned them very successfully to the rawer, more untamed aspects of their established formula, whilst ‘Hello Love’ positions them somewhere in the middle ground, albeit in a wholly satisfying way.

The sound is much smoother and more polished than on ‘Balls’, but by getting down to business quickly, recording the entire album in just 12 days, the band have managed to capture an energy and enthusiasm to match the uncharacteristic attention to detail in the production. The whole group sounds fantastic, from Mickey Roman’s exuberant drumming to the textural embellishments of Jay Williams and regular guest Timothy Victor. The icing on the cake comes with the deceptively sweet layered backing vocals of Jen Macro, with which the band have liberally seasoned this very fine record.

The most infectious songs here (‘Leaps’, ‘So Many Lovers’, ‘Julian’ ‘Love Your Man, Love Your Woman’) are crisp and clear, with Adams’ voice at last assuming a little more versatility and communicative power. Elsewhere, they expand their musical remit considerably. The closing ‘Seven Sisters’ is a first for the band in that it ambles on for nearly eight minutes, neatly combining reflective country balladry with an aggressive comic punk-thrash coda. ‘Hey Captain!’ sounds slightly less surreal on record than it did live earlier in the year, but I’m still pleasantly baffled by its sudden transition from reflective folk pickings to Mogwai-esque post rock sludge. Somehow, it really works, and it’s great to see the band move beyond the constraints of verse-chorus-verse song structure. Meanwhile, ‘You Get Me’ and ‘Don’t Change Your Mind’ are far less immediate, but have a gradual, almost insidious charm. The latter also has some brilliant lyrics about not being able to sleep naked in case you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, not a problem normally addressed in the contemporary pop landscape.

In fact, there is an honesty and clarity throughout that may previously have been lost for some listeners amidst the group’s ersatz Americana schtik and shrouds of irony. ‘Leaps’ addresses the subject of sex with admirable candour and positivity, whilst the drumless ‘Give and Take’ (sounding more like something from Adams’ solo outing ‘Problems’) is an exquisitely nasty break-up-and-move-on-song (‘hey, enjoy her body, enjoy her mind/she will take them away from you in her own time’). Best of all is ‘So Many Lovers’, a song that dares to deal with the paradoxes at the heart of relationships (‘lady, I know you think the world of me/but I’m not sure the world agrees, that I can be with you’ – one of Adams’ cleverest lines to date) and comes with a jaunty singalong chorus to which pretty much everyone must be able to relate (‘you should be happy to be among the infinite number of people who have loved and lost/and we’ll all know better next time…’). The relentless chug of ‘Love Your Man, Love Your Woman’ sounds like a rallying cry to forget about all concerns and get on with the simple business of good hard lovin’ (‘so you need peace, security…BUT THAT STUFF’S JUST TEMPORARY!’). Slightly more oblique is ‘Little Justice’, which veers between the tender and the ferocious. Does the central demand for ‘a little justice…bring our lovers home?’ hint at current government foreign policy perhaps? It might be arguable that Adams leaves himself vulnerable to accusations of being earnest here – but his barbed wit and satirical bite are very much still lurking. They prevent lapses into sentimentality, and are more effective now for being the bedrock of his musings rather than the veneer.

It’s great to see a band I used to enjoy in local Cambridge boozers now getting plenty of national press attention and packing out venues the size of Koko, even if the reviews have inevitably been of the ‘quite good’ three-stars-out-of-five-variety. Actually, the more I listen to this record the more I feel that, on this band’s modest terms, it is some kind of masterpiece. BFB don’t aspire to breathtaking originality or breaking musical boundaries – that is simply not their purpose – but here they have produced a set of songs that is ceaselessly thought-provoking, touching and, in the end, uplifting too. Like the band say, it’s just for fun, but that’s the highest possible praise.

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