(SXSW 2015 flavoured!) Album Review: Public Service Broadcasting – The Race for Space

By on Tuesday, 17th February 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

In case you’ve been living under a rock (I mean, really?) and have no idea who or what Public Service Broadcasting are, here’s the short version of their story so far: well heeled with the humourous yet ever so English pseudonyms J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth (how do those strike you?), the London-based duo have been giving new life to the voice recordings from historical newsreels. Their well-received 2012 EP ‘The War Room’ was followed a year later with their first album, 2013’s ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, which gives three verbs that accurately describe the pair’s efforts. With both releases, they were able to successfully dust off heroic tales and bloaty, floaty propanganda alike, adding to them both traditional and electronic instrumentation to produce something entirely fresh and inventive. And you have to give it to them: who would ever pair a public service announcement with a banjo and make it catchy?

On their debut LP, the subject matter Public Service Broadcasting chose to reinvent was all over the place: among other topics, their tunes paid respect to the British-made fighter jet ‘Spitfire’, the advent of colour television in ‘ROYGBIV’ and the human triumph of climbing a treacherous behemoth of a mountain in ‘Everest’. In 2015, the well-appointed men in tweed waistcoats are wearing tweed no longer. Now donning full body astronaut suits, ‘The Race for Space’ is, unequivocally, a collection of paeans to the heroics and glory but also sometimes sadness and crushing defeat that has accompanied key events in the storied history of manned spaceflight. The journey begins on a solemn but inspirational note as the words of then American President of the United States John F. Kennedy, talking about the potential future of spaceflight in September 1962, are accompanied by an angelic chorus.

‘Gagarin’, receiving its first radio play in November on Radcliffe and Maconie’s BBC 6music programme, is of course named in honour of and for Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian astronaut who successfully travelled in outer space the spring of 1961. The song for him is suitably grand, with an anticipatory drum roll flourish to begin. The single follows ‘Spitfire’ in fine fashion, being its louder, wilder brother: bright horns continuing throughout as if a nod to ’70s powerhouses like Chicago, but with an irresistible funky rhythm described as “Afrobeat-with-balalaikas tribute” sure to get some tail feathers in the air at festivals this year.

‘Sputnik’ is more atmospheric, showing remarkable restraint with a gently pulsating synth line, like a more moderate ‘Pump Up the Volume’, and chords to reflect the hopefulness yet mystery of the future of spaceflight, with the first rocket of this series having been launched 4 years prior to Gagarin’s achievement. The first woman in space, Russia’s ‘Valentina’ Tereshkova, is also honoured with a Sigur Ros-influenced song of her own. While the song is notable for the absence of obvious archival recordings, it fittingly features beautiful guest vocals from the also female Smoke Fairies. The accomplishment of ‘E.V.A.’, or extravehicular activity, also gets a nod, as does the Apollo 8 mission that saw American astronauts to see the far side of the moon, as well as that now famous shot of Earth rise. Both of these are rhythmically interesting and different, with the former sounding like it could have been an outtake from ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’.

Public Service Broadcasting would have been remiss if they did not include in this cataloguing of our endeavours to boldly go where no man has gone before a tragic moment in its history. ‘Fire in the Cockpit’ chronicles the Apollo 1 training disaster in 1967 that killed three American astronauts, and PSB pays tribute to the fallen heroes with a sombre but remarkably not heavy-handed string underscore. It’s then left to the glory of the Apollo 11 (‘Go!’) and 17 (‘Tomorrow’) missions to close out the album on two upbeat, inspiring notes. It may seem a bit strange for them to have ended here, as if the Race to Space became frozen in time from 7 December 1972, when the last manned Moon landing took place.

As a child of a NASA scientist, I reckon perhaps Public Service Broadcasting made a good choice of when to terminate their walk down memory lane. I didn’t realise until I looked it up to confirm that it’s been over 3 years since the American Space Shuttle programmed ended. Going into outer space had once been an impossible and fanciful notion. And then it was made possible. All of the risks, all of the triumphs, all of the aeronautics and aerospace research undertaken by these pioneers of our past: these are things we don’t acknowledge often enough in our daily lives. While ‘The Race for Space’ focuses primarily on the most prominent and overwhelmingly positive moments of the space age, it’s an engaging listen as well as a moving tribute. I’m sure it’s getting a thumbs-up from my dad up in heaven.

8.5/10

‘The Race for Space’, Public Service Broadcasting‘s sophomore album, will be released next Tuesday, the 23rd of February, on Test Card Recordings. As to not be biased towards either the Americans or the Russians, PSB has designed special packaging that will allow purchasers to choose between a vinyl gatefold sleeve with either USA or CCCP insignia. The band are scheduled to showcase next month in Austin, Texas, at SXSW 2015, then tour the UK and Ireland in April and May.

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