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The Lead Review

Luke Turner On Public Service Broadcasting's Every Valley
Luke Turner , July 6th, 2017 07:32

The nostalgia merchants remember the miners with turgid, insipid, bizarrely misjudged pap. Luke Turner is righteously appalled.

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In 1960, the BBC broadcast a documentary called Borrowed Pasture. Narrated by Richard Burton, it told the story of Eugenius Okolowicz and Vlodek Bulaj, two Polish soldiers who, unable to return to their homeland after the second world war, eked out a living working the land around a dilapidated Welsh farm. It's an incredible work, evocative and poignant, vividly capturing the loneliness of two men who parted each evening with a "goodnight Mr Okolowicz" and "goodnight Mr Bulaj" before kneeling by their beds in prayer.

I bring this up because Public Service Broadcasting have long given me the impression that they're attempting to use music to achieve something similarly profound, with their use of archive footage and samples from old films a kind of cut-up approach to developing a new documentary form. In other hands it might well and does work, for the past is rich and vivid, full of tragedy and joy, love and sorrow, lust and destruction. It ought to and can be a rich resource for artists who wish to show us truths about our present by exploring these grey areas, troubled narratives, and forgotten lives. Since their first release, 2012's The War Room EP, Public Service Broadcasting have got this spectacularly wrong, with clumsy and obvious lifts from audio archives lumped on top of music that sounds little better than offcuts from dire late 00s trip-hop act Lemon Jelly. Shockingly, they've rather thrived, despite being the musical equivalent of one of those dreadful Blitz-themed club nights where people who work in advertising get drunk while dressed in 40s garb before going home to clean up the gin sick with a Keep Calm & Carry On tea towel.

This is probably not their intention. I am sure that their third studio album Every Valley was meant to be a meaningful comment on the decline of the Welsh mining industry and the destruction wrought to so many communities during the 1970s and 80s. But therein lies the problem with this forgettable record. It was only when I read the accompanying PR that I had any idea what Public Service Broadcasting are trying to say. The general atmosphere on Every Valley is "the mines closed sad emoji", but aside from that? For a start, vocal samples don't work like lyrics. They paint a two dimensional picture, speak a stilted narrative. Worse, they start to grate on repeated listens, at best diluting the impact of the speaker's words and intent. Even the aforementioned Richard Burton, whose line "Every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner... They were the kings of the underworld" opens the record, starts to sound rather tired. It's curious that by the fifth or sixth listen to a Welsh miner's voice speaking about their vanishing livelihood, the Public Service Broadcasting gimmick has become distasteful appropriation.

An album about the decline of an industry that employed millions and irrevocably altered the landscape of these islands ought to have a sense of gravitas and poignancy. There's none here. The burbling 'They Gave Me A Lamp', with its jolly brass and "ooo ooo" backing vocals is far too sunlit uplands, as if it were the music playing over a future utopian Pathé film of former miners cheerfully flocking through the doors of the bright new call centre, eagerly anticipating a day of fielding irate Public Sector Broadcasting fans complaining about their gas bill. 'Progress' has an insipid chorus vocal of "I believe in progress" and might be found in the sort of modern Christian chorus book that just can't stand up to the great days when the chapels of the valleys resounded with proper hymns. And after all, the men who closed the mines did so in the name of progress too. On the flipside they borrow the title from 1975 miner recruitment film People Will Always Need Coal for a song that tinkles jauntily along. What's the comment here, underneath this most-inappropriately lighthearted music? That the would-be recruits were duped? That we should have kept the mines going? In the face of climate catastrophe this would be a nonsensical stance. The fact that on Friday 21st of April Britain managed its first day in centuries without burning any coal should be celebrated, not mourned. From an environmental viewpoint closing the mines was not so much the tragedy as the way in which the miners were abandoned after it had been done. That track sets the blueprint for the record as a whole, all irritating guitar tap tics, clip-clopping drums, an attempt at brassy poignance in crescendo that merely breaks wind. 'All Out' is Mogwai blandly reimagined for a drive from Merthyr Tydfil to Aberdare. If you can imagine James Corden at the wheel you'll get the general idea of how cosily tedious this is. One wonders why James Dean Bradfield agreed to appear on 'Turn No More', given the psychic traumas inflected on Wales during the 1980s have been such a key inspiration over the years, especially so given that the band have essentially written a backing track that sounds like it might have appeared on That's What We Call Manic Street Preachers Karaoke Vol. 3. Even the presence (finally!) of some Welsh language lyricism from Lisa Jen Brown cannot rescue 'You + Me' from twee monstrosity as it builds and builds, conflating solidarity and love: "if we stand as one we'll have something they'll never break".

It has long perplexed me that British Sea Power get written off as fusty rock Scouts whereas Public Service Broadcasting have got all the public love. BSP channel deranged psychedelic intoxication into stratospheric rock belters in ode to European freedom of movement, the tragedy of melting ice sheets, and attempts to counter the algorithmic age. The crucial difference is that where the music of British Sea Power is elegiac in tone, or that of Kemper Norton, Laura Cannell, Darren Hayman, I Like Trains, Grumbling Fur and English Heretic taps into uncanny ancient histories, Public Service Broadcasting peddle comfortable, easily digested nostalgia. The n-word is the only driving force, both here and across the rest of Public Service Broadcasting's risible output. It perhaps explains their bizarre popularity, both in the UK (where nostalgia is our national disease) and abroad (where it fits with the tourist image of a Britain that nobody who lives here has ever been to) and also makes them sound quite Brexit. Indeed, Public Service Broadcasting's aesthetic shares an accidental conservatism with the skaggy Albion dreamt up by Pete'n'Carl in The Libertines, who are soon to embark on the gormlessly named Tiddeley Om Pom Pom Tour of British seaside towns.

Despite the insufferable smugness of their songs, this was just about tolerable when they were composing odes to fighter planes and the space race. Here though it leaves an acrid taste. There is much to be furious about when it comes to what happened to our mining industry, in the Welsh valleys and far beyond. The government will still not open a public inquiry into the actions of the police against striking miners at Orgreave. Hundreds of thousands live in former pit towns and villages where unemployment is rife and the traditional bulwarks of the community - societies, chapel, pub - have decayed or been destroyed. Instead, this merely posits the question of whether it is possible to be radical while making music that might as well be library stock purchased to soundtrack an ad for boating holidays on the River Bure, voiceover by Alan Partridge.

Back in 2014, Test Dept created an installation on the derelict Dunston Coal Staithes on the River Tyne, just outside Newcastle and Gateshead, where 140,000 tonnes of coal a week were once loaded onto ships for export. The work used a collage of projected footage of pits, strikes, speeches and Thatcher combined with sound and lights to make a highly emotional, angry comment on what had been done to the mining industry. The collage of sound finished with just the murmur of the river as 'Take Me Home' sung by the South Wales Striking Miners Choir floated across the dark waves: "I remember the face of my father / as he walked back home from the mine," they sang and I looked around the audience on that night and saw that nobody was watching with dry eyes. It was one of the most profound musical experiences of my life, an example of how traditional communal singing and contemporary art might provoke a righteous anger for restitution and change. Public Service Broadcasting use the same song to close this album. It sounds, as it did then, like a haunting. Yet here it also shows up the rest of Every Valley to be an exercise in thin superficiality, a trite memorial to the herculean efforts of those unknown men who toiled beneath the damp hillsides of this land.

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Bin Giggin
Jul 7, 2017 10:26am

I actually think the review could stand for any PSB album. Totally overrated across all their music. Apart from 'Go' which stands as a good novelty record but will not stretch beyond that.

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Jul 7, 2017 11:21am

Nothing like giving a review to someone who approaches it with an open mind, huh?

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Video Dave
Jul 7, 2017 12:00pm

Couldn't get past their first record. Sounded like Harry Enfield's Mr Cholmondley Warner had joined a shit Neu! tribute act.

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kelly loughlin
Jul 7, 2017 12:13pm

This reads like a blast at something much bigger than PSB - the nostalgia industry, which many see as the cultural equivalent of embalming fluid. Not sure PSB should be made to carry all the ire for this. I manage to go through my life without ever encountering their output. Just have a proper go at the self-consuming dragon that is global capital and be done with it.

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John Anderson
Jul 7, 2017 9:33pm

The most self righteous review I've ever had the waste of time to read. Ok you don't like the band...That's your issue but trying to justify it like this is the worst kind of review. Next time have the guts to do a real review.

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Jul 8, 2017 6:38am

I agree about the criminal underrating of Briish Sea Power but disagree with everything else in this review Grown men cry at Public Service Broadcasting gigs - me included. And as for I Like Trains and Test Departnent - chortle.

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Peter Smith
Jul 8, 2017 9:01am

Hmm. An interesting review.

Is everything ok at home?

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A different Nick
Jul 8, 2017 11:54am

This review left me quite emotional. I LOVE PSB and to compare them 'unfavourably' to another band I love, Lemon Jelly, confirmed to me that this review is a positioned, subjective, hatchet job. The reviewer should try to understand that PSB write accessible, popular music that tries to go beyond the trite and vulgar. They're trying to be something more that Ed Sheeran, but equally aren't attempting to usurp Steve Reich or Michael Tippet. Like Michael - a grown man, I am reduced to tears whenever I play The Other Side - a genius use of archival sound. Furthermore, I have used London Can Take It, Spitfire and Go! in the primary classroom to engage and inspire 10 and 11 year-olds. Having said all this - my unopened, clear vinyl copy of Every Valley awaits its fist spin at home. Whether it compares favourably or not to their previous work will not diminish the high regard in which I hold these guys. And Finally - being aboard a Mersey Ferry with 6 inches of headroom when British Sea Power kicked off with Remember Me, is a cherished visceral, rather than intellectual memory. Luke, I guess my point is that music is more than an artform for many of us.

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Its Dave
Jul 8, 2017 4:59pm

A lot of great stuff out lately, Public Service, British Sea Power, Baltic Fleet etc. Luke, tidy your room when you're quite finished!

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Jul 9, 2017 8:55am

This review is an excellent and necessary dismantling of an awful, patronising record which diminishes and sanitises the issues it claims to explore, much like the rest of PSB's trite (albeit catchy) output.

Some of the people claiming bad faith or immaturity here need to have a word with themselves, given the substantive and careful criticisms you've made. But then I guess thoughtful, self-aware responses to complex issues are somewhat at odds with the paint-by-numbers thinking PSB themselves embody, so maybe it's unfair to expect more from their fans.

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Jul 9, 2017 2:06pm

This review confirms everything I ever thought about this appalling band. Thank you Luke Turner.

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Jul 9, 2017 3:39pm

In reply to John Anderson:

The album is shite though.

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Jul 9, 2017 3:41pm

In reply to Ed:

Well put.

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Peter Giffin
Jul 9, 2017 6:33pm

Any review of any album based on a hatred of the band is only ever going to be of limited utility.

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Jul 9, 2017 6:46pm

In reply to Ed:

Also, as someone who rather liked Lemon Jelly back in the day (though their records certainly have aged poorly) I think they actually suffer from comparisons to PSB: both produce whimsical fluff made for feeling nice and not thinking too hard about things, but at least Lemon Jelly recognise that about themselves and are essentially honest about the way in which their music functions.

The problem is not that PSB make trip-hop, it's that they think making trip-hop suddenly becomes a radical act if you do it while half-heartedly cosplaying as Jonathan Meades or whoever.

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Jul 10, 2017 12:22am

But did you actually like it?

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Jul 10, 2017 10:54am

Having listened to the album, and looked at other reviews, do you think you're the only man in the regiment who is marching in time?

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Tony in NC
Jul 11, 2017 6:17pm

I am sorry that you don't like it, but you could at least attempt to type the name of the band correctly each time you spit it out. Irate fans of Public Sector Broadcasting? I don't see any of those either.

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Jul 12, 2017 7:14am

Nice to see someone go in hard on PSB. I've found their inoffensiveness quite offensive, and their style of composition quite lazy - anyone with some archive footage, a breaks library and a banjo could reproduce their schtick. Take the samples away and the music is super bland. Fair play to them for finding a simple idea people love I suppose.

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Jul 12, 2017 7:54pm

I approached this record prepared to hate. What on earth were posh boys doing presenting a concept album about the mines generally and the strike and its shattering aftermath specifically? Class tourism at its worst - urgh.

I can only assume the Luke Turner did the same and this explains how wide of the mark the review is.

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Jul 12, 2017 8:03pm

In reply to Paul:

For those not jaundiced by a preconceived notion of what this record is and isn't you'll find a rare thing in modern music - an album that educates and has something important to say, and something to say directly from those directly involved.

You'll hear directly about the pride, respect, solidarity and sense of self worth that work provided. You'll be made to think about how the working class went from the salt of the earth - who Britain relied on to grow it's economy and fight its wars - to the scum of the earth. You'll discover the anger and changed perception of people as a result of the strike and fight to save jobs and communities. Even the coldest heart will momentarily stop as the sound of a shatters silence across the valleys replaces a once bustling and vibrant area. You will reflect how rare it is to hear working class women talk about how their lives, assumed place in society and sense of self was utterly changed by the events of the 1980's.

Most of all you will be glad that you've listened to something that has got something to say and does it well.

Yes, there are clanging missteps, yes there are some noodling annoyances and yes I am sure the high art set will continue to sneer - but don't listen to them. Listen to this record and think and make your own mind up

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Jul 15, 2017 10:50pm

Not listened to this yet, but listened to previous PSB and found it a shame their execution doesn't match their intent. I *really* want to like them, but could only bring myself to like a couple of tracks while the rest were at best dull or worst a bit irritating.

Still, TQ really seem to have a chip on their shoulder about PSB? The stuff about them getting more love than British Sea Power I swear I've read more than once on here before, and not sure what it's based on. Anecdotally, hardly anyone I've met knows of PSB which is not the case for BSP; who also seem to (rightly) get bigger gigs and higher billing.

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Jul 16, 2017 6:23pm

In reply to Ed:

I don't want to cause conflict, but could it be that you're over-analysing a piece of music that - even if you don't enjoy it - nobly attempts to raise awareness of an issue that remains raw and devisive. If you feel the need compare this album to a piece of high art or serious literature, then of course it's not going to stand up to scrutiny. Could you give the name of another mainstream music album that ticks all of your necessary boxes? Also, check out Jeremy Deller's Battle of Orgreave project for another approach.

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Wayside & Woodland Recordings
Jul 23, 2017 9:57am

Thanks for this article... it really stands out from the sea of ingratiation that most of the (print) media seem to have adopted on PSB.

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Dudley Sutton
Jul 23, 2017 11:23pm

In reply to Wayside & Woodland Recordings:

MAN this band get on me nips. I can't stand Gareth Malone at the best of times, but having the nerve to front and dabble with this audacious approach to sensitive subjects that Gareth or the rest of his backing band have absolutely nothing to do with is just not cricket

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G Dansk
Oct 14, 2017 9:02pm

I've got the Test Dept album "Shoulder to Shoulder" & the maligned P.S.B. album and I enjoy both. I remembered this criticism of Test Dept: "They've frequently been accused of romanticising hard labour, affecting an industrial 'chic'. This is sometimes true: their art occasionally (but far from always) emphasises machinery, work and toil in a rather shallow aestheticism"-Brian Duguid & I noticed a generous reading & research list from the P.S.B mainman connected with Every Valley: But I accept that you may feel underwhelmed by the album inspired by his research.

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