Tom Hoskins gives Public Service Broadcastings latest offering 2 stars
Using spoken word samples over music is by no means a new idea. David Byrne and Brian Eno did this on their revolutionary 1981 album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, making samples – not just of speaking voices but also of singers – the “lead vocalist”. It has been happening regularly since then, perhaps most impressively on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F# A# ∞, where the sparingly interspersed vocal snippets helped place the album in a politically and universally apocalyptic setting.
Public Service Broadcasting differ slightly from the above in their primary focus. Byrne and Eno experimented with the innate musicality of speaking and the interesting ways in which a vocal line reacts to a new backing track; Godspeed used the narrator to give the music background and to connect the political and emotional spectrums.
PSB, however, place the emphasis entirely on their vocal samples from the ‘40s and ‘50s public information films and archive footage. They attempt to “inform and educate” (aren’t these essentially the same concept?) through their music, yet there is actually little to learn here. A few interesting facts about Everest maybe, but the samples mostly entertain due to the quintessential posh English accent, which reprimands drivers and then quasi-raps about the night mail.
Even though PSB claim to be “teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future”, the negatives aren’t only entirely because the album isn’t educational. Brian Eno was fascinated with “making the ordinary interesting”; PSB’s samples are certainly more than ordinary and it should have been possible to create something exciting.
But these are not (hopefully) the sounds of the future, which is the album’s fundamental problem. Instead it somewhat resembles stale post-nu-rave cowbell-heavy synthpop with a bit of banjo for good measure, and drives the tracks forward in a monotonous, linear and entirely predictable manner. At no point is there any form of an emotional climax; instead sonic variation comes simply from mimicking the speaker, such as the empty angst of “Signal 30” underlining the increasing frustration of the vocal sample. PSB seem to realise this problem, as unlike My Life… the instrumental section almost always only plays a support role. The one time it dominates, on “Late Night Final”, the result is underwhelming. Inform – Educate – Entertain has potential and ambition, but is found lacking in each of its three aims.