Broken Records – The Dreamless Sleep of the 90s : Album Review

Selling rock back to Athens, New Jersey and Cincinnati, Broken Records return, with sufficient identity and character to make a fair trade.

Release Date: 2nd October 2023

Label: J. Sharp Records

Format: CD / Digital

Rings a distant bell, somewhere, doesn’t it? The band name, that is, they being Scotland’s one time band most likely, and signed, initially, to uber-hip 4AD records. Time and tide can wreak havoc, mind, on the best laid plans, not to say a world-wide pandemic, effectively stalling the band, four albums in. This album has taken, broadly, from 2018 to now to meet release, during which they have shed members and gained a new line-up, if still based about the core of brothers, Jamie and Rory Sutherland, with Ian Turnbull, all from Edinburgh. Take a listen to the record and a whole host more memories come flooding through to the fore, the music strongly influenced by many a giant of US indie, both in mood and construction. With any number of instruments to hand, there are few scenes they can’t paint, with the strong and lugubrious lead vocal a ringer for either of Nick Cave or Matt Berninger. But, although these songs will evoke either of those two, or R.E.M, or Arcade Fire even, this is much more than carbon copying, the songs having a life of their own. (Now, if all those bands could come up with a top notch album of new material, yes, and some of them still have it in them and have, well, perhaps it could or would sound a little like this.)

Mindful the album title may be supposed to be explaining away all these palpable references, it kicks straight off with You Won’t Be There, which, with a mournful keyboard motif, could be one of Cave’s current style of tone poems. As the backing limbers up with the introduction of guitars and rhythm section, it makes for a transfixing listen. Synth and strings weave a hypnotic mid-section mantra, violin and keyboards a frequent front line feature of the band live, and already I am drawn in. The vocals come from Jamie Sutherland, with his brother sharing keyboard duties with Turnbull, as well as being the violin player. (This feels very much violin rather than fiddle territory.) Turnbull also plays guitar, as does the singer, with Craig Ross on board purely for that instrument, backed up by Clarissa Cheong on bass and Andrew Keeney’s drums.

Track 2 is the much livelier Night Time, an altogether jangle-tastic cascade, echoes of early Bruce in the delivery, melded with a bit of Simple Minds bombastic heft in the setting. I like. The title track hits midway between the trajectory of these first two, Sutherland finding, more overtly, his own voice, throwing a plaintive warble into the mix, something that is better than it reads. Very Mike Mills piano propels it, with handclap percussion and an otherworldly violin theme making for quite the mix. The rhythm section keep up a lively momentum. An Answer slows things right down, a Stipey piano ballad, yet with Sutherland’s now addressed vocal identity remaining. Some backing vocals and ethereal synth tones keep it interesting, the lyric about unanswered questions and big skies. A touch of muscular guitar offers further ballast and it is altogether haunting. A song like this always benefits from a trumpet, this duly delivered.

A bounding rhythm introduces Is There Still Light, another echo of the Don’t You Forget About Me hitmakers back in the blend. A solid construct, the component parts form discrete layers that never quite coalesce, their separateness integral. Swell is smack bang in the middle of the record, and clearly so placed, being very much the magnum opus, a magnificently gloomy dirge, a trumpet parping funereally as it starts, strings expanding around it. A piano motif beckons in Sutherland, at his angstiest lower timbre. The texture of sounds is confident enough to let him seem to branch off wheresoever he wishes, the repeated love, love, love almost an echo. No doubting the “seeds” of this one, it is anything but bad, and carries,, dare I say, a little more obvious melody than Warren Ellis sometimes gifts his singer.

A Thousand Songs has an swoony organ pitched midway between the chapel and the carousels, taking this song to somewhere in New Jersey. Again, this is homage more than pastiche, the drums an effective clatter throughout. Breathe sticks with a wall to wall soundscape of keys, and vibrantly bounding bass, a shouty evocation to looking after your fears. In fact, this is a mood throughout the album of mortality, of nostalgia and of catharsis. Is It Love (You’re Looking For) is a love song, and relatively uncomplicated by Broken Records standards, a graceful melody to bathe the question. The scatter of words remind, a little, should we have to go there, with the sometimes sentimental Dylan of Not Dark Yet. But brighter. (Is it bright, yet, if you will?) Closing with an anthemic flourish, it is a deceptively strong song, opening the door for closer, All The Time. Not All OF The Time, but I am stricken by the same sense. It is a striking end to this little pot of gold, the strummed acoustics stacked against all the layered orchestrations overhead.

I am taken how well and often Scottish bands can recycle and revive the music of the Americas, selling it back to them, yet expanding and adapting the style. From the jangly Glaswegiana of Teenage Fanclub, outbyrding the West Coast, to Idlewild writing the songs Stipe, Buck, Berry and Mills hadn’t yet got round to, these guys (and gal) are all part of this every changing landscape. And deserve a welcome return.

Here’s Night Time:

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