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Reviews: National Skyline's Broadcasting, Vol. 1 EP (Adventure Broadcasting, 2011)

National Skyline's Broadcasting, Vol. 1 EP

After clearing the decks in 2009 with National Skyline’s first full-length (Bliss & Death) since 2001’s This Equals Everything and two companion EPs (Look into My Eyes and Bloom), Jeff Garber laid low in 2010. His only releases were the digital singles “Ashes” and “Do You.” Garber slinks back into the spotlight with the unannounced Broadcasting, Vol. 1 EP, picking up where Bliss & Death’s more languid tracks left off.

Opening track “When I’m Alone” showcases Broadcasting’s bag of tricks: acoustic guitar, gossamer guitar overdubs, distant drum machines, and Jeff Garber’s weary vocals. It’s lyrically thin, repeating lines like “When I’m alone / I get so lost / When I’m alone / I get so tired of my life” as breadcrumbs to make it out of the instrumental mist.

Here’s the rub: “When I’m Alone” showcases all of Broadcasting’s bag of tricks. Granted, live drums replace the drum machines on the final three songs and “Walk Away” adds simple piano, but Garber seems glued to mellow acoustic balladry. If the songs were compelling, perhaps I could overlook the sonic similarities, but that’s not the case. The lazy song titles (“When I’m Alone,” “I’ll Be Allright” [sic], “Stay with Me,” “Walk Away,” “I’ll Stay with You”), trite lyrics, and numbing lack of energy turns Broadcasting, Vol. 1 into sentimental mush.

Garber’s been here before. The Joy Circuit’s EP1 and National Skyline’s The Last Day EP both suffer from thin lyrics and generic aesthetics. I’ve previously cited the lyric “Hey you / I know you / This is not where you belong” from The Joy Circuit’s “They Know Where You Live” as a painfully a propos reading of Garber’s output since This Equals Everything and his residency in Los Angeles. Yet Bliss & Death revived most of my faith in Garber and National Skyline. There’s a “fooled me twice—shame on me” quality to Broadcasting, Vol. 1, one that I take no pleasure in relaying.

Here’s my theory. Broadcasting, Vol. 1 is a dumping ground EP for Garber’s latest batch of TV placement songs. The soupy melodrama of “The Last Day” wasn’t a great follow-up to “A Million Circles,” but it did appear in a key scene of the third season of Veronica Mars. (An ironically appropriate placement, given that season’s infuriating lack of direction and inspiration.) At least four of National Skyline’s tracks have appeared on MTV’s cultural touchstone Jersey Shore: “Do You,” Bliss & Death’s “Edge of the World” and “Revenge,” and “Look into My Eyes.” If digital single sales are way up and album sales are way down, it’s likely that Garber gains more fans and earns more money by getting those songs on Jersey Shore than releasing an album of them like Bliss & Death.

My issue isn’t with Garber’s decision to monetize his music via MTV reality series. The man has to eat. My issue is that the songs on Broadcasting, Vol. 1 are tailor-made for that purpose. I know Garber can write an affecting lyric—“Five Hours Later,” “Tracking Sounds Alone,” “Miss Atlantic,” “This Is Not a Test,” and “Kandles” all qualify—but the on-the-nose emotions of “I’ll Be Allright” are all surface, no depth. How easy would it be to fit lines like “I’m going to be all right, you’ll see / No need to worry about me” and “I won’t call you anymore / And I won’t be there when you’re alone” into a tender post-break-up scene? Is there any other context for it? It’s admittedly not that far off from the pained semi-yodels of “Tracking Sounds Alone”—“I looked you up in the telephone book / I took my phone off the hook” and “I wish you rang / And I wish I sang”—but there’s a complexity (not to mention a genuineness) to the emotion in “Tracking Sounds Alone” as Garber careens between regret, pride, self-doubt, and optimism. Nothing on Broadcasting offers that complexity or rings so true. (Nor can I imagine “Tracking Sounds Alone” being used as background music.)

Does this mean that the proper follow-up to Bliss & Death will be a similar disappointment? Not necessarily. Only “When I’m Alone” seems like a candidate for inclusion, and it sounds more like a good b-side than a deep album cut. With more energy, more guitar overdubs, and better lyrics—i.e. the things that made Bliss & Death worth hearing—Garber’s back on track. But once you’ve gotten used to the on-the-nose lyrical approach, is it difficult to stop? That’s the big question. If Broadcasting, Vol. 1 is, as I suspect, a dumping ground for Garber’s potential TV placements, let’s hope it doesn’t pollute the groundwater of his main base.

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