PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING
Oxford Art Factory, May 10
Things are not always what they appear to be with Public Service Broadcasting. And that’s no bad thing for a band whose style is a mix of pre-fashioned voices (from film, documentaries, interviews and miscellaneous recordings) instead of singing, and semi-electronic/semi-analogue live playing often looped on stage.
People, we’re talking about a band whose most recent album drew on the stories, and the voices, of the Welsh valleys whose century of growth – or at least survival – on the back of the deadly but rich coal industry withered until killed by Margaret Thatcher. You couldn’t get more modern pop than that could you?
While he may habitually wear a bowtie – one of a series of pre-knotted eccentricities made by a friend – “frontman” J Willgoose esq is neither showman nor foppish fool: half of his conversation with the audience being silence, the other half droll and brief chats or programmed-voice thanks triggered on one of his computers. (At one point an over-enthusiastic audience member yelled out “rock and roll!!”, to which Willgoose esq responded drily, “well, kind of”.)
True, Willgoose esq (yes, it is a bit clumsy, but a gentleman’s nomenclature is after all his calling card) is the public face of the group he began as a solo project, and confirms assumptions of reticent Englishmen abroad by rarely moving more than a few metres from his bank of keyboards/computers. But some of the sounds he forces from the various guitars strapped to him like a closely held baby suggest the clothes may be second hand gentleman’s outfitters but the guitarist has equal parts desire to be in flannel (emanations from the growlier end of Seattle) or satin (some tasty little funk licks).
Drummer Wrigglesworth (yes, just Wrigglesworth old chap) says nothing but is an all-moving-parts mix of powerhouse and machine-precision, his playing constantly decorating the surface while churning beneath. Not for nothing do some songs take on the dark shades and rhythmic drive of Joy Division and others could be factory-built to be operated by a stern Arbeiter.
And though bass/flugelhorn/synth/percussion player JF Abraham (I know right, someone didn’t get the Wodehouse character name memo!) may spend most of his time at the back of the stage, he is a livewire presence, adept at the funk, and liable to leap to the front and encourage some incongruous, but reciprocated, clapping in time.
As you may have guessed by now, there was plenty of visceral and physical to add to the cerebral in this show. This might make sense given they happily drew from their looser, dancier first album as much as the second (which told the story of the Russian and American space race of the 1960s) and the Welsh valleys third.
However, even the songs from the relatively contemplative third album had that extra edge of both force and rhythm to add to the palpable emotion, their internal engines exposed more than on record. And songs already built for lift off, most notably the irresistible Go and the accumulating energy of Night Mail, were set off into the low ceiling at some pace.
In an age when the forces of evil and destruction set against public good – and hello to you News Ltd and the corporatist man-boys of the IPA – are in the ascendant, anyone calling themselves Public Service Broadcasting may be the silliest insular bedsit dreamers of all.
But here was another night of body punches, moving feet and brain pulses to prove there’s always more to that story than what you see. Yes, even with a bowtie.