Normally the words "Concept Album" are enough to make everyone at Contact Towers' blood run cold - we're thinking full on Jeff Wayne, chances of anything coming from Mars here - but for Public Service Broadcasting, it seems the most accurate term to apply to both their slightly awkward premise and, equally, the music which it spawns.
PSB are as a result something of an acquired taste; one person's University Challenge whilst being another's Top of The Pops. The duo (J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth - yes, we know) emerged in 2013 with their début album 'Inform-Educate-Entertain', a title which doubled up as their mission statement, one that in these less than cerebral times for music was at least an ambitious rallying call.
Its successor, 'The Race For Space', you will be unsurprised to know is made up of a series of their retro-sample heavy instrumentals, focussed around the pivotal 20th century milestones in man's attempts to escape the Earth's benign hug. Given that it's a contest of which we already know the results, this is a much braver choice than it looks; as a species, our fascination with space appears to have waned in the last 50 years, our pre-occupations since in line with more parochial concerns such as blowing each other up.
It was always, therefore, going to take a major effort to breathe life into these dusty oral statues and, to the duo's credit, they reinvigorate the subject matter in their idiosyncratic style. Lacking the visual ticks of their live show (delivered by vintage black and white newsreels on a mock, huge old TV), 'The Race For Space' is still, however, rich in atmosphere (sorry) and musically panoramic. On Sputnik, for example, they mix ominous satellite bleeps and meandering keys to subtly conjure up the wonder of hearing the first extra-planetary sounds. It's in archaic company: more than one eulogy has been written, for example, to the first human extraterrestrial Yuri Gagarin, but whilst the jazz funk background might not quite sit with the subject, on the so-named track it demurs whilst the newsreel helps capture an aspect not widely reported at the time; the belief that the Cosmonaut's heroics might unite the whole planet under the banner of hope.
Perhaps the pair's wisest decisions are A) Not to mess too much with their standard modus operandi, and B) Resisting the urge to extend beyond the obvious boundaries of A). On 'EVA', they let the voice-over largely encapsulate the awe of the first ever space walk, filling in the at the edges with underscored strings and guitar, letting the "Ten minutes that shook the world" reset itself in the imagination. Although not particularly nuanced, the reedy interjections they use as a focal point are even used as instrumentation on 'Go', spliced together and time-sequenced to give momentum and kinetic energy to the now distant past.
In places, the formula is too slight to carry itself. 'The Smoke Faeries' try unsuccessfully to add more delicate touches on 'Valentina', a tribute to the predictably severe looking in real life first woman to join the club, whilst 'Fire In The Cockpit' lacks the sufficient poignancy to deal with the deaths related to the Apollo 8 tragedy. Like the space race itself, however, these remain isolated setbacks in comparison to arriving at the stated destination, the over arching theme here being man's almost forgotten ability to overcome any problem. Whilst this grandiose vision is far too big for this project to tackle adequately, The Space Race is more than a quirky BBC4 documentary soundtrack waiting to happen. Its evocations rarely conjure up the exhilarating feeling of dealing with the unknown, but by making sure their patterns are successfully repeated, the duo have turned dreams into music. And at that point, we have lift off.
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