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Review: Public Service Broadcasting, 'Every Valley'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Public Service Broadcasting, <em>Every Valley.</em>
/ Courtesy of artist
Courtesy of artist
Public Service Broadcasting, Every Valley.

At first, Public Service Broadcasting's music scans as a lighthearted gimmick: A stripped-down band — led by a guy billed as "J. Willgoose, Esq." — performs dramatic instrumentals over voiceovers from old newsreels, documentaries, propaganda and public-service materials. But as the U.K. group prepares to release its third album, it's striking how sturdy and versatile that sound has become.

Every Valley isn't Public Service Broadcasting's first concept album; that would be 2015's The Race For Space, which revisits in stirring fashion the historical saga referenced in its title. But the band's thematic palette has grown dramatically on Every Valley, which uses the collapse of the coal-mining industry in South Wales as a backdrop for a poignant and sweeping statement on automation, as well as the vulnerability of workers and the communities they support. The story feels universal — and far more current than some of the old-timey voiceovers might suggest.

Best of all, the band's sound has expanded to match its artistic ambitions. In "Progress," Kraftwerkian rhythms, processed vocals and archival samples — "You owe much to these machines" — are set against choruses in which Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell coos, "I believe in progress!" In "Turn No More," Public Service Broadcasting enlists the guest vocals of Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield, who gives Every Valley a jolt of seething protest music. "All Out," on the other hand, bypasses the singing in favor of a few dramatic samples, which sit atop a bed of stormy post-rock drama; the song powerfully evokes the labor unrest at its heart, while also pummeling as hard as the band has ever pummeled before.

Public Service Broadcasting has been fun since the beginning — especially live, when the band performs in the shadows of evocative old filmed footage. On Every Valley, it achieves something even richer and harder to accomplish: relevance.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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