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Shouldn't a pop group put on a pretty face and make it sound as if they want you to like them? That would be news to Broadcast, a quintet from Birmingham, England, whose new disc Haha Sound (on Warp, it's their second full-length studio release) starts off as if it were daring you to think it's pleasant.

Random effects that sound like industrial accidents, some backward-run instrumental noises, and a gratingly repetitive, wiry guitar pattern don't exactly spread out a picnic on the lawn for singer Trish Keenan's distant vocals. By the second track, a fuzzy organ drone joins Keenan to produce a decidedly Stereolab-ish vibe, but the bandmates throw in so many jarring accents that it's clear they don't want to go the way of comfortable mimicry.

By track three, though, the ice begins to melt. Rusty guitars still belch in the background, but most of the weirdness has fallen into a groove behind Keenan, whose gentle, lulling voice takes your hand and assures you that, although there's more ugliness to come, she'll be there to carry you through it. (The minute-plus instrumental "Black Umbrellas," which starts as a lopsided lumber then races out of control, is one exception.)


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Once you've grown accustomed to it, the enormous arsenal of sound at the group's disposal sounds rich and exotic but distinctly their own: The zitherish accents on "Ominous Cloud" are accomplished with what could be a set of carefully chosen pieces of scrap metal; when the band uses samples, they sound plucked from a universe not known to humans. By comparison, Stereolab's exoticism was distinctly Earth-bound - the French lyrics and Marxist philosophy, garage sale samples and '50s synth noises - and now sounds, of all things, cozy.

Broadcast is joined on their Austin tour stop by Manitoba, a one-man studio alchemist whose real name is Dan Snaith. (Snaith hails from Toronto, which is not located in Manitoba - that name just jumped out at him.) On his latest, Up in Flames (Domino), Manitoba's music is paradoxically both more impersonal and more user-friendly than that of Broadcast.

"I've Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life," for instance, features vocals so studio-processed that they feel less like a person talking to you than another synthesizer line (Keenan may occasionally be buried in the mix and sound like she's on Quaaludes, but she's always singing to someone). Still, the song's varied elements are all tailored to get your blood rushing; those weird vocal ruminations taper off midway through to make way for a super-heavy drum solo that retreats and returns at strategic points throughout the rest of the song.

"You may have found this CD in the 'Electronica' section,'" those drums say, "but don't think that means these sounds were all born in a computer." Many of the tracks have such a live feel, in fact, that it's disappointing to picture them being produced at a live show by one guy sitting behind a laptop; in fact, Snaith has recently expanded his touring setup to include two additional musicians, both percussionists. (Allegedly, his live show also includes live puppetry.) Throughout, Up in Flames pairs the expected beats and routines of dance music with wholly organic elements like a wailing free-jazz saxophone, multi-tracked acoustic guitar, and wind-up alarm clocks.

Then there are the frogs. According to a recent interview, Snaith obtained the croaking chorus for one tune by taping seven frogs to a long board and miking each of them. When their croaks weren't trippy enough, he placed tabs of LSD on their skin.

That story might be baloney, but it's a good image to accompany a record crammed with ideas from all over the place, a dance club disc that exists far from the sterility of so much electronic music. The man from Manitoba may be a psychedelic kook, but his Technicolor aural pastiche provides so much sensory input that listeners (unlike those unfortunate frogs) won't need chemical enhancement to be moved by it. •

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