A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Steve Burns and Broadcast.
GET A CLUE: Those who have seen the Flaming Lips know that the group's live shows can feel like child's birthday party run amok, with sometimes dozens of fans donning animal suits and popping balloons. So it should come as no surprise that Steve Burns, best buddy to big blue dog on "Blue's Clues," would turn to Flaming Lips principals Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins and Lips producer Dave Fridmann for his indie-rock makeover.
While "Songs for Dust Mites," the debut offering from Burns, is no children's CD, it possess some of the same childlike sense of wonder and pop experimentation that have graced releases from the Flaming Lips. Of course, Burns is well aware that the fickle indie-rock community may be skeptical of his bid for seriousness. "I've been working on this album for almost two years now, and I am fairly certain that this is an album for adult people, or very, very tall children whose brains are abnormally well developed," Burns writes in the album's liner notes.
Album opener "Mighty Little Man" kicks things off with a slice of fuzzed-up guitars ala Built to Spill. Drozd's keyboard arrangement stands in for an orchestra, while Burns supplies a harmonica that plays like a soundtrack to a carnival ride. Proving that Burns isn't entirely in debt to his backing crew, his lyrics tell an imaginative tale of an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself graced with superpowers.
Elsewhere, the electronically-enhanced orchestrated pop of "Troposphere" wouldn't have been out of place on the Lips' 2002 release "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (Warner Bros.), with reflexive lyrics that glide through the chorus on fantastical string arrangements. The title track features a downhearted piano engaged in a give-and-take with Fridmann's spacey backing effects and Drozd's bombastic rhythm. "Superstrings," composed without any Lips mates, is a hooky piece of indie-pop thanks to an effects-addled guitar playing hide-and-seek around Burns' vocals.
Engineered by Ivins, the album was released by PIAS America, also home to similar-minded act the Starlight Mints. The latter group, in fact, is playing backup to Burns on a club tour that is currently slated to last through early September. "Songs for Dust Mites" arrived last week at No. 48 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums tally and can currently be sampled on Burns' official Web site.
Burns also has a role in the long-awaited Flaming Lips movie "Christmas on Mars." Burns plays a "confused and incompetent spaceship engineer," according to a post on his site. The band hopes to complete the film by year's end.
NO LAUGHING MATTER: The second full-length from Broadcast opens with "Colour Me In," a sort of nightmarish nursery rhyme. Sounds of feedback and static drift in and out while keyboard notes spin like a broken-down Merry Go-Round.
Yet vocalist Trish Keenan manages to keep her cool throughout, singing with a calmly detached attitude that's seemingly oblivious to the discord beneath her. The electronics that worm their way around the singer, be they spacey psychedelics or the foreboding ticking of a clock, are the norm in Broadcast's world, a sort of hipster nightclub where the Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu and Stereolab share the dance floor.
"Haha Sound," released two weeks ago via Warp Records, sees this U.K.-based group further shaping its experimental sound collages into compact pop songs. The guitar manipulation on "Pendulum" would make Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore salivate, yet the tune still manages to slam to a close with the exuberance of the Clash's "This is Radio Clash." The trippy takes on 1960s pop that are "Before We Begin" and "Lunch Hour Pops" bring to mind Portishead covering Burt Bacharach, while the keyboard flash of "Man is Not a Bird" recalls the recent work of Ladytron.
Broadcast has had plenty of time to hone its sound. Formed in 1995, the group, which openly discusses its debt to avant-garde '60s act the United States of America, has released primarily EPs. A compilation of the band's early recordings, "Work and Non-Work," was released to great acclaim in 1997 on Warp. The group signed to Tommy Boy for 2000 effort "The Noise Made by People."
While that album failed to make any impact on Billboard's charts, and is now out of print in the U.S., it has sold more than 50,000 copies worldwide, according to Warp. The band's underground reputation continued to grow, and Broadcast-influenced acts such as Manitoba and Four Tet became favorites on the college music circuit, making "Haha Sound" a highly anticipated summer release for electronic music fans. The album debuted last week at No. 8 on Billboard's Top Electronic Albums chart. It also arrived at No. 50 on the magazine's Top Independent Albums tally.
Broadcast will embark on lengthy club tour in September, starting out in the U.K. and hitting the U.S. with an October 16 date in Brooklyn, N.Y.