Broken Social Scene

Broken Social Scene

(Arts and Crafts; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 6 October 2006

It’s hard sometimes to explain to people that don’t get it why Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People is such a great album. Point out that it’s full of the sort of huge, soaring indie anthems that the likes of the Arcade Fire could only hope for and you get people griping that it also has four instrumentals and a few tracks that go nowhere at all (yeah, I’m talking about you “Looks Just Like the Sun”). Try the avant-pop argument and you get some guy stubbornly arguing that "pop music should be dumbed down." I often resort to just putting “Cause=Time,” “Almost Crimes,” or “Lover’s Spit” on repeat and then gesticulating wildly in the general direction of the stereo.

Thing is, that approach isn’t really gonna work with the band's eponymous follow-up. While still an impressive record in its own right, Broken Social Scene never reaches those same heights nor has that same immediate emotional pull of YFIIP.

But it's unrealistic to expect BSS to either be able to or want to follow up YFIIP with something as equally beautiful and innovative. Why not stake out and better define this sort of post-rock take on pop which they spearheaded on YFIIP? Get the whole gang together (hell, why not add a few more members) and just settle back and make a record for yourselves. This isn’t all just a totally crack-pot theory, by the way; talking to MTV, BSS co-founder Kevin Drew said: "It's not a record that's going to the masses. We're not going to the 'next level.' We made a dirty-sounding, right/wrong record. We [eliminated] the catchiest singles from the record. We don't live up to what label and promotion people want us to be — we're not about that." Which is fine, but it also leaves BSS pretty far short of the great record status that YFIIP so richly deserved.

Two problems emerge with BSS: Dave Newfeld's over-thought production and Drew/Brendan Canning's lyrics. Newfeld, a relative unknown at the time of release of YFIIP and also very much a member of the band, was in some ways the deciding factor on that last album. He was able to take the influences of all those members and make them work, flow together, and, on occasion, push them further and integrate some gorgeous little flourishes of his own into the mix (just listen to the backing vocals on “Shampoo Suicide”). The production on BSS is nothing short of overwhelming; Newfeld is mixing more tracks than ever, reportedly one song involved as many as 170, and he also clearly chose to take on a more involved role. YFIIP b-side collection Bee Hives showed his interest in expanding his role and exploring new production territory with the band, and BSS sees that impulse moving forward.

The glitchy tone piece “Hotel” seems about one layer short of a Four Tet track (the real mystery is why Leslie Feist is playing the guitar line from “One Evening” at the end of the track), while the underdeveloped instrumental “Finish Your Collapse and Stay for Breakfast” sees him even more clearly exerting his production role on the band’s sound. There are plenty of songs on BSS that benefit from this: the absolutely stunning “Major Label Debut” wouldn’t be the same without the delicate wash of guitar and cymbals, while “Bandwitch” would grow stale pretty fast if not for the phenomenal percussive element to Newfeld’s approach. Still, it feels like the uptempo rockers that BSS originally succeeded with (and which are somewhat lacking here) work just as well with a somewhat more hands-off approach.

This brings us to the second problem: the lyrics. The band splits the album between three-line chanters (“Fire Eye’d Boy,” “Hotel,” and the rather painful “Windsurfing Nation”) and underwritten tracks that just don’t come together (“Bandwitch” and “Handjobs for the Holidays” both stand out in this respect). The one song where they really do make it work is “Major Label Debut,” turning on the beautiful couplet of, “forced to live like it’s a curfew / translation: it means I love you.” “Swimmers” is the antithesis, leaving Emily Haines drifting along blathering (albeit in her typically pleasant tone) about the dangers of waking up late. Lyrics were by no means the most important part of YFIIP half the time you could barely even make out what the guys were saying but they were integral with tracks like “I’m Still Your Fag,” “Lover’s Spit,” and “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl.” There’s nothing here, aside from “Major Label Debut” that produces the same visceral reaction as those three songs.

Still, BSS are still doing a lot of things right. “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” lets Andrew Whiteman work out a Malkmus wet dream of a guitar line while Drew absolutely wails his lungs out. The oblique lyrical references to Pavement (hard not to connect “I got shot / riding the rails” back to “Summer Babe”) and the hugely triumphant atmosphere of the song do signal a sort of new take on the up-tempo rocker for BSS. Justin Peroff’s characteristically great drumming and Feist’s impassioned wails throw “7/4 (Shoreline)” over the top while the caterwauling “Superconnected” connects with its pure brunt force (helped along by one of Canning’s expansive bass lines).

“It’s All Gonna Break” is perhaps the most impressive track here, with Drew alternately crooning, teasing, and screaming his way through the 10-minute epic. The band switches it up every few minutes, leaving behind the not-fit-for-your-parents-yet-still-somewhat-touching first portion of the song (“when I was a kid / they fucked me in the ass / but I took my pen to paper / and I passed you”) for a huge, horn-section climax before concluding with a finale that needs to be heard to be believed.

As far as winning songs, EP to be You and Me, the bonus disc included along with the first pressing of BSS, has a few of its own. While the overblown “Canada vs. America” doesn’t haven’t much going for it, the stately acoustic “All my Friends” shows that Drew can still write an impassioned little song given the chance. The alternate take of “Major Label Debut” gives the original a run for its money, letting Peroff shine as he shifts the song from a slow, melancholy love song to a huge rocker that could well serve as a better single than anything from BSS.

There are albums that just make you want to go and listen to them, in their entirety, on a regular basis; not necessarily critically heralded, but just albums with a sense of continuity and purpose. YFIIP was one of those albums for me; BSS isn’t. The disc is disjointed, lacks much in the way of cohesive musical character, and ultimately never really reaches to be anything more than a bunch of decent songs held together in the semblance of an album. When Drew is talking about how the band preferred newer sessions with Do May Say Think’s Ohad Benchetrit but that “ultimately we felt a responsibility to release the Dave Newfeld experience,” it’s hard to get too excited about what sounds a hell of a lot like a one-off album. We have to take what we get dealt, but you still can’t help wishing it had been put together with a bit more care.