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Public Service Broadcasting turns the sounds of old newsreels into new emotions

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of our great SXSW party on Friday, we’re highlighting tracks from some of the artists playing the show.

There’s something oddly arresting about old film dialogue sampled and recontextualized over new music, an incongruity that lends even the most irrelevant or inane of non sequitur new meaning—and the music it’s grafted to a borrowed import. British multimedia act Public Service Broadcasting hedges its bets on this last part. It sticks exclusively to repurposing WWII-era instructional and propaganda films—newsreels steeped in “Keep Calm And Carry On” sentiment and stirring tales of British imperialist glory—from an age when everything carried an air of dramatic portent, then layers these with propulsive music that blurs krautrock rhythms, sci-fi movie synths, and banjo-driven folktronica.

Unlike forebears such as Colourbox, Negativland, Emergency Broadcast Network, or The Books, PSB doesn’t play with found sounds for satirical or surreal purposes. And unlike Boards Of Canada’s sampling of old children’s programs, it doesn’t play off the pure, woozy heartsickness of nostalgia. (Surely no one who was actually around in the ’30s and ’40s is turning up at its shows anyway.) Instead, PSB has a lecturer’s reverence for the material—zeal to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the present,” according to its mission statement—that’s reflected in its working relationship with the British Film Institute, as well as the thoroughly bureaucratic title of its 2013 album, Inform-Educate-Entertain.

Granted, there’s also a certain kitsch factor: Its members don tweed suits and bowties; give themselves the mockingly posh, professorial stage names J. Willgoose Esq. and Wrigglesworth; and perform in front of a bank of vintage TV sets. But listen to a track like “Lit Up.” While its source is an infamous 1937 news report from naval officer Thomas Woodrooffe—who drunkenly slurred his way through a radio description of a fleet until he was yanked from the air—when surrounded by PSB’s soaring synth pads and motorik churn, Woodroofe’s rambles take on an air of accidental, awestruck poetry. Even if the idea that we’re meant to be learning from PSB is obviously a bit cheeky, it’s still conjuring new, surprisingly genuine feelings out of long-dead air. After decades of ironic sampling, PSB’s sincerity may be the most subversive thing about it.