Sunday, April 15, 2012

Record Review: Breton

The album is dead, say the pundits. Listeners live on shuffle play and you can't sell'em anymore, so why bother? From an artistic point of view, however, this holds about as much water as telling playwrights to only write one-act plays or painters that they can only use one subject per piece. Just as real musicians desire to use a bigger canvas for expression, real music fans demand to hear their heroes go big. Finally, if a forward thinking bunch like Breton still see value in creating a long-player, I wouldn't worry too much about the health of the format.


That leaves us with Other People's Problems, the debut album from Breton, which comes on the heels of the Blanket Rule EP, the most recent of several they've released since 2010. The first sign that they are going to treat this seriously is the addition of secret weapon Hauschka, a fairly prominent avant garde pianist/composer who is also signed to FatCat Records. His string and brass arrangements appear on four songs, which are brilliantly sequenced throughout the record, lending it a continuity. Fortunately, there is no reverence for the work of the Dusseldorf-based master. The first sounds we hear on lead track Pacemaker (after some ominous clanking, which may be the "Demolition" or "Metro" referred to in the sleeve notes), are Hauschka's strings, chopped, scuzzed, and quickly joined by the brick-hard rhythm section. Roman Rappak's doleful sprechstimme soon enters along with some uber-distorted synth that could cause a weak woofer to clip in protest. It's a fantastic song that doesn't end so much as back out of your consciousness.

Pacemaker is an apt title for an opener as it sets the tone without hesitation. Those of us who have followed Breton for a while know we will hear them evolving but familiar. Anyone new to the band will know right away what they're about and be ready to go along for the ride. Electrician follows, with the crucial couplet "Why are they trying to salvage/What we'll be leaving by the side of the road?" Crucial, because nearly everything is treated as salvage in Breton's world, from the dilapidated London bank they use as a headquarters, to Hauschka's strings, and even Rappak's voice, Adam Ainger's drums and the field recordings used by Ian Patterson and bassist Daniel McIlvenny to thicken the texture. It's a scorched earth approach that leaves only the future as a possibility: Don't pick up our scraps because we've bled them dry.

The third song is a re-recording of standout 2011 single Edward The Confessor, an assaultive stomp that includes their other secret weapon, Rappak's delicate harp filigrees, which are also heard on one or two other songs. The noirish soundscape of 2 Years follows, with its alternating refrains of "Two years is not so much" and "Whatever happens, don't ask us who we're here to see" - its mood made stunningly effective by the soulful backing vocals from Py. It's one of my favorite songs on the record, a haunting combination of glitch, strings and sorrow.

For all their engagement with the world of electronics, samples and studio wizardry, Breton has always come off as a band and Wood and Plastic has a careening forward motion that only a live rhythm section can create. Soaring strings once again bring drama and segue nicely into the next song, Governing Correctly, which opens with the bone-dry wit of Ainger's drums. This song showcases the band's compositional chops, almost a mini-suite with three or four micro-movements in a mere 3:50. There's a casual virtuosity in the way the synth picks up the melody of the almost spoken lyrics, hinting at an anthem, but only just.

Interference is actually anthemic, with massed football-terrace vocals and a chorus of "It's a mechanism we've come to rely on/It's a skeleton." Hauschka's work here has a grandeur reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield that exposes the cinematic nature of the song, amplified in the poignant video Breton created. Ghost Note is a dense keyboard-heavy workout leavened by Rappak's harp but unmistakably grim. "They decide, they decide, they decide," Rappak repeats, as if he indeed has no choice.

The spacious opening to Oxides comes as a momentary relief, as does its mildly funky backbeat. However, subway announcement vocals and mechanistic synth patterns soon bring the calamity of modern life back to the forefront. Just when you think there will be no let-up along comes the goofy cowbell and cheap keyboard intro to Jostle, which they somehow transmute into the most lyrical song on the album, the way a shaft of sunlight can make an urban wasteland sparkle. Shattered safety glass and the stars in the sky can be equally uplifting, if we let our eyes do the seeing instead of our minds.

The album ends as I hoped, with the fractured stasis of The Commission. Five minutes of broken glass, bass drum drops, pulsing keys and echo-laden vocals. It's the kind of song that continues after it's over, until you go back to the beginning. And you will go back quickly - Other People's Problems is a triumph.

The packaging is also exemplary, as is the extra stuff included in the deluxe package, most notably a limited edition cassette. Only 150 exist and no two are alike. Mine was recorded an old copy of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and contains gorgeous mostly instrumental music - low-fi and hinting at further possibilities for Breton. No doubt the contents of these tapes will provide future material to be salvaged...

Full disclosure moment: I am thanked on the inner sleeve, not for anything I've done in any official capacity but just for trying to spread the word across all my networks about this terrific band. Call me "the under-under-assistant east coast promotion man."


1 comment:

  1. I like this, "Don't pick up our scraps because we've bled them dry."