We all love a concept album, don’t we? Except they tend to be desperately uncool. Would you really admit to having Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” double album nestling gently up against your alt-J LPs? No genre of music can boast more bad ideas and dubious thinking than the world of the concept album. For a start, they’re all so pretentious, aren’t they? I mean all that stuff about deaf dumb and blind boys that turn into spiritual leaders and “Tales From Topographic Oceans” and “Pentateuch of the Cosmogony”. (That last one is a real thing – honestly. Go on – Google it. On second thought – don’t). What we need is a proper, working class concept album about actual, real-life, relatable stuff.
“Ta-da” say Public Service Broadcasting
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PSB were obviously traumatised by those public information films you were shown at school about road safety, World War II planes and “the miracle of space exploration”. So while other boys were dreaming about being the next Kurt Cobain, lead PSB-er J. Willgoose (possibly not his real name) was collecting black and white documentaries on sheep farming in the Hebrides, narrated by long deceased BBC announcers. He may have been bullied every day at school, but guess who’s got the last laugh?
“Every Valley”, is a bold, cinematic, Ken Loach film for the ears. If you thought that a concept album about the rise and fall of the South Wales mining industry, constructed using narration sampled from documentaries from at least thirty years ago would be a disaster, then hang your head in shame. On paper this album should not work. But it does. Beautifully.
Fans of their previous albums “Inform-Educate-Entertain” and “The Race For Space” will know what to expect – beautifully crafted instrumental backdrops for snippets of long forgotten TV and Radio programmes. Imagine “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” but made by the BBC with music by the Durutti Column. The first two tracks, “Every Valley” and “The Pit” concentrate on the dignity of mining. Richard Burton (obviously keen to follow up his success as narrator on “War of The Worlds”….) among others tells us, almost poetically, how important the pits were and the status of the humble miner. These two tracks are a rather muted opening to the album – they set the scene, but neither track is an attention grabber, at least, on first listen. “People Will Always Need Coal” steps up a gear and rather like “The Wizard of Oz”, we go from black and white to technicolor. It’s incredibly poignant to hear learned voices confidently stating that the mines would power our country for the next 400 years. Hindsight, eh? “Progress” featuring Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell is as close to pop as PSB are likely to get. A killer chorus of “believe in progress” and an almost Krautrock beat make for three minutes of loveliness.
We know the story doesn’t end well. As the industry is quietly terminated by Downing Street, the voices change. Received Pronunciation gives way to the voices of the valleys and the mining community go from concern to despair in “Go to the Road” and the harsh, discordant “All Out”. On “Turn No More” they’re joined by James Dean Bradfield whose strident lead vocal gives the track real bite. It’s a subject close to his heart and his passion is evident.
The real surprise on “Every Valley” is tucked away at track nine. “You + Me” is a gorgeous duet by Lisa Jen Brown of 9Bach and, making his vocal debut, Mr Willgoose himself. Over a minimal backing, we get a kitchen sink love story that’s up there with “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. We’ve gone from the massive themes of industry and progress to a story of two people clinging to each other out of hope and desperation in just a few short pieces of music.
The album finishes exactly as it should – with “Take Me Home” – a miners song, performed by Ebbw Vale’s own Beaufort Male Voice Choir. You may think that sounds corny, but if you listen to this entire album and not get a lump in your throat when you hear those voices…
This is an album for listening to properly. No dipping in and out. No skipping tracks. It demands you make time for it and immerse yourself in it, just like your parents did when they listened to “Dark Side of the Moon”. Headphones on. Lights out.
Public Service Broadcasting have achieved the (almost) impossible. They’ve taken a terminally unglamorous subject matter and made a concept album out of it that works. And the icing on the cake is that the approach they take for most of this album is dangerously close to (whisper it…) progressive rock. And yet…it’s a bit of a masterpiece
“Every Valley” is out on July 7th 2017 via Play It again Sam
1. Every Valley
2. The Pit
3. People Will Always Need Coal
4. Progress (ft. Tracyanne Campbell)
5. Go To The Road
6. All Out
7. Turn No More (ft. James Dean Bradfield)
8. They Gave Me A Lamp (ft. Haiku Salut)
9. You + Me (ft. Lisa Jên Brown)
10. Mother Of The Village
11. Take Me Home