Sunday, October 30, 2005

Broken Social Scene: Part 1

If your ecumenical tent encompasses the likes of Metric’s Emily Haines and James Shaw, Evan Cranley and Amy Millan of the Stars, and Leslie Feist of Let it Die fame, among others, then the company you keep and the music you create has to be thoroughly layered and unflinchingly collaborative. This is to say nothing of the music’s originality. So, as it happens, there is such a thing, and said music is put together by the Toronto collective-cum-network of indie rockers dubed Broken Social Scene -- who manage to allay our fears about the psychological pathologies of communes. The Utopia hasn’t yet faltered. Since they’re a diverse outfit, they have the flexibility to pursue side projects while still maintaining the ethos of Broken Social Scene the idea. (It doesn't hurt that most of these side projects are in some way affliated with Arts and Crafts records, a boutique label created by the band's doyen, Kevin Drew.)

And this idea has been received with near universal praise. (Fawning reviews in all the major trade publications, the 2003 Juno for Best Alternative album, etc.) Taken literally, the group is a pastiche of each individual’s particular aesthetic bent -- Metric’s tightly shorn arrangements and acerbic lyricism; the lush yet literate extravagance of Stars; and (not a comprehensive list) Leslie Feist and Jason Collett’s soul and sincerity and earnest. (And yet the list goes on.) The ‘supergroup’ -- as they’ve been flatteringly referred to; as if this write up weren’t itself obsequious -- took its initial material form in 1997, fronted by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. It was only in about 2002 that I was caught up to speed on Feel Good Lost(2001) and You Forgot it in People(2003), which were both phenomenal if not epiphenomenal and subsequently seared into my indispensable hippocampus.

All this is just to say that I picked up Broken Social Scene’s eponymous new LP. To begin with, the art that adorns the cd’s packaging cover is a winsomely contrived cityscape back-dropped by a vermillion, almost fiery, sky. A three section fold-out stores two disc; the main disc and a bonus (i.e. limited edition) disc featuring songs equally up to rigor to appear on the first. The booklet, like the casing, is similarly artful, with the faux-jejune scribblings of a ten-year old boy and the epigrammatic tags of the unabashedly guileless -- for instance, the wry declaration “We hate your hate” can be read on the inside jacket. Though now we should turn to the music, lest this devolve into a tedious account of the all particulars.

The current LP is in many ways, both stylistically and tonally (atonally as well) akin to Feel Good Lost, mostly instrumental and atmospheric in tone. Case in point is the track ‘Feel Good Lost Reprise’ on the bonus cd. But where it departs from Feel Good Lost, it collides with You Forgot it in People (YFIIP) in its reflexive meandering. The acoustics, horns and base line -- as well as tambourines -- that open ‘Our faces split the coast in half’ harkens back to ‘Pacific Theme’ off YFIIP, albeit in a less sleepy and more enthused way. In plosive restraint, Feist’s fixed vocals turn out to punctuate a palimpsest of a song -- that may or may not feature the aural yawn of a cello. Feist’s lilting accompaniments are once again prominent in ‘7/4 (shoreline)’ as Brendan and Kevin et al. warm over the track with endearing falsettos. Lead guitars duel with frenetic drums while late arriving horns portend an impending collapse.

The rest album is an untidy and unstudied mash of experientialism, a bric-a-brac of orchestral cacophony; ponderously frustrating, but not too much so, yet axiomatic and ephemeral at once. The sound is decidedly arty and pop and abides to a sensibility producer Dave Newfeld also brought to YFIIP. Newfeld has show peerless technical proficiency in making blunt, disparate parts reflect light while intergrating recondite instrumentals and melodies into serviceable coherence. It's a creative match with serious fecundity.

‘Superconnected’, with its distorted and majestic keys and angst-laden, bleating vocals, ‘Hotel’, a clavicle jutting trip with nascent pretensions of Synth and Soul, and ‘It’s all gonna break’, a conventional though extend (as in nine minutes) indie-rock narrative that may be trying to say something, count as other notable mentions on this canonical opus.

The ironically titled ‘Major label debut’ is by leap and bounds my favorite of the whole lot. And that is no small feat. It begins ethereally enough with deliberately strummed acoustic guitars (and possibly a harpsichord) foreground by a paradoxically soft snare drum and heavy bass drums that mimic heartbeats but don’t overwhelm the ambience. Kevin Drew’s voice emerges -- along with the sliding atonal shiver of the cymbal -- filled with the insouciance of an autumnal night still kind enough to permit Bermudas. It’s positively weightless. An incantatory tone is struck: ‘I’m just coming here to come down / I can be here / and I can move town / Put my suits onto the guest lists / summer passport became weightless.’ Then the expletive chorus ‘I’m all fucked up’ is reverentially, and all-too-hypnotically, sung as the drums pick-up in a mannered and incremental cadence, the strings dovetailing into a fitting denouement. (Actually, the chorus could be as benign as "I'm all hooked-up"but it's too inaudible to tell, and beside the point anyway.)

The song, pastoral and unambitious, is the high-art equivalent of an early Matisse: not exactly challenging, but thoughtfully and artistically scrupulous with due respect to color, space, mood, and intellect. And this, I think, can describe one of Broken Social Scene’s aesthetic virtues. The other, of course, is the primary unintelligibility of some of their work, as if challenging the listener to engage the morass. Unfortunately this does lead to frustration and is even liable to alienate the listener. Though like any challenging piece of art, the pleasure is in accessing the implicit emotive aspect of the work, thus framing it with the coherence you see fit. Each song offers something new on each successive hearing.

Having moved from the more melancholic and aimless pessimism of Feel Good Lost, and keenly incorporating the technique of chaotic polish from YFIIP, their third album -- despite not being as virtuosic-ally competent as YFIIP -- places itself well in the Broken Social Scene oeuvre.

But critical praise always brings along her ugly, fraternal twin. When critics hoist artists onto a vaunted pedestal, it is usually them who double back and commit a punitive revisionism.


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