Broken Social Scene is, sometimes, my favorite band. It is definitely my favorite band name - it looks cool on a T-shirt and rolls off the tongue. Their sound can be described as "perfect" - they hit that sweet spot on the crossroads of infectious rhythm and moving melodies. Their songs can space you out, break you down or have you dancing. Everything is wrapped up in this supreme, collaborative, sweeping style and flavor. It pulls from everywhere to come up with something unique.
There are rousing, powerful anthems that will have you pounding the desk like "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)" or quiet, thoughtful pieces like, "All My Friends." There are poetic moments captured in music like "Lover's Spit (Redux)" and "Anthems for a Seventeen-year-old Girl." There are crisp beat-centric masterpieces like "Stars and Sons" and "Cause = Time." They are often, according to my specific needs, perfect.
So something was bound to go wrong. With something like Fifty-Threeve band members, the odds are that some personal conflicts would come up. There were reports of arguments on stage that cut off songs, creative differences, and general dissatisfaction among the main heads. It became clear that they would stay together, in some form, but that the formula needed reworking. They might not collaborate as they had in the past.
Apparently the answer to that is to let everyone have a turn at the wheel. So "Broken Social Scene" became "Broken Social Scene Presents: _____" with the leading band member's name where the blank is. Kevin Drew had his turn with "Spirit If..." and it was rightfully regarded as a stripped down Broken Social Scene album. Not bad, just less. Less instruments, less punch. It really sounded to me like half of what made BSS amazing. Brendan Canning is next up at bat with "Something For All Of Us" by "Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning," and I'm eager to see what he brings to the table. To see if I can identify the elements he brings to the BSS DNA.
1. Something For All of Us - The title track starts with dissonant, distorted guitar noise until the bass, drums and vocals ambush the guitar player into shape. The difference between Canning and Drew's vocals is readily apparent: Drew usually sings lyrics, Canning uses his voice as another addition to the wall of sound. The vocals are another instrument, as the words are all heavily filtered and often nonsensical. It's not something you sing along to, but something you play along with. The music here is bad ass, by the way. Shades of "Stars and Sons" with the catchy bass line underlining everything and the relentless, fun beat. It ends on some kind of dismantling.
2. Chameleon - Ambience, shoegaze, etc. This is what was missing from Spirit If. It's all very desolate, a droning guitar, tiny, perceptible hints of acoustic guitar and even a triangle. When it picks up with the drum corps beat, even that is distant and hallowed. It's warm and brings my mind to the way the ocean would drain away from the beach for miles in the Philippines. Vocals and trumpets come in, but it doesn't change the mood established early on. Shades of "Looks Just Like the Sun." This stuff is soft rock for cool people. It is bad ass elevator music. It is easy listening adult contemporary with curiosity and a leather jacket.
3. Hit The Wall - This was the single and I don't know why. It has a dark, edgy, guitar-driven beat. Not nearly as infectious or resembling earlier BSS as the previous two tracks, but maybe that was the point in spotlighting it. I think I might like this more if it rocked harder. If the beat was faster, if the vocals had this raw energy and attitude to them, if everything was a little less clean. It does bring to attention something I really missed: The thick wall of sound that BSS did so well, building a completely solid structure of melody and jam forces.
4. Snowballs and Icicles - Nearly-acoustic singin' song. Canning's voice is still multi-tracked more than Elliot Smith and there's a very subtle electronic feedback noise in the background, like birds chirping. For a second, it sounds like a Grizzly Bear song. It's reads like an enjoyable, though inconsequential, ethereal cooldown song. It's good padding, but still padding.
5. Churches Under the Stairs - Beats and distorted, reverberated guitar riffs and an awesome bass line make this a solid attempt at that still-malleable BSS sound. Fifty people sing at once: "Cause we want to love / want to sit through the creation time at night / With your thoughts / You know I am just so literary," and it is like an exhilarating maelstrom of voice. With BSS, voice is just another instrument and noise and texture and evocative sound. By the time this song about everything is over you are thoroughly whooped.
6. Love Is New - Psuedo reggae beat. This is a left turn for them. It's a little bit of funk, a little bit of reggae, and then that weird special ingredient that BSS has. I doubt this will be one of the songs that will inspire craving, but for what it is, it's a nice sidestep. Must be fun for them to play, at least.
7. Antique Bull - This needs to be heard with headphones. It is a shining piece of work, this one. The drums tumble over stairs while the piano and vocals are like smooth jazz. It is the combination of the two that make them into a great listening experience. I can't understand a word the girl is singing and I don't care. Every little piano flourish would be cheesy in less experienced hands, but here they work. It fades out pleasantly into a soft hum.
8. All The Best Wooden Toys Come From Germany - The long, oddball titles were missed. Like any good post-rock title, it tells the story and the music just takes off from that premise but the rest is up to your imagination. Canning really knows how to make you feel the bass. Or whoever he got to play it, does. There are a nearly illegal amount of instruments in play here, and when the strings come, it might even get a bit too beautiful. This should be on the soundtrack to something. The drums remind me of hummingbirds - that fast/slow contrast is what really makes a lot of these songs.
9. Possible Grenade - Another guitar-centric piece. Dark in tone with mysterious vocals: "Why are you still running? / Why did you disappear?" I don't know, man, I don't know. There are nice peaks here, where the "musical drama" amps up into nice crescendos of urgency before dropping off into another verse. About three minutes into it, there's a solo of what people have been calling 90's guitar riffs. I was much smaller in the 1990s, so I don't yet have a handle on how that's defined. It seems to me that it's a label for catchy, simple guitar tunes.
10. Been At It So Long - Distinctly electronic in atmosphere, except for a softly fingered acoustic guitar far far far far in the back. It's another soothing, ambient, trance-inducing track. It is simply built on the idea of slowly filling up with good noise. "If we're not careful, we'll bring you down / If we're not careful, light isn't much." I think that was Feist. This whole song feels like that cool down phase slow jog after you've been running for miles on a treadmill. It's a decline, you tumble a little bit, your mind is a bit spaced as things draw to an end. But it's not quite over.
11. Take Care, Look Up - The final intro riff is loud and sharp downward spiral. The vocals are appropriately melancholy. It doesn't really build from there. The percussions get a jazz brush, there are tiny flourishes of guitar that pop up and disappear, and the picking grows more forceful. But the vocals still meander, the riff doesn't change. It all meditates on this one point until the very last minute where the tempo picks up, when someone buys a theremin and the singer goes to pour himself a cup of water. Just as quickly as it picks up, it drops off again, leaving the listener in that weird spot right between a valley and a peak, and we wonder if that's on purpose.
I started this album judging it from the single, "Hit The Wall." I was expecting a weird tangent of dark electro rock or something that sounds like music played in a futuristic swamp (What?) But as the album ends, it became clear that this is more of a Broken Social Scene record than Kevin Drew's offering. It is very much like their early instrumental and experimental EPs as well as selected parts of the album, "You Forgot It In People."
It still doesn't touch the two full length Broken Social Scene albums, but it's great to satiate some of the hunger. Nothing has that powerful intimacy like "Anthems..." or "Lover's Spit." Nothing even attempts to scale the riotous mountains of "KC Accidental" or "It's All Gonna Break." Nothing has the rapid fire, bouncy, guiltless pop infections of "Fire Eye'd Boy." But it's still a delicious meal for the music hungry soul, full of heartening melodies and seas of sound to get lost in. We can only hope that one day, the band will come together again for that perfect storm of creativity.