IT’S JUST A ROCK RECORD Broken Social Scene

Sporting a downsized lineup and a new producer, Broken
Social Scene “fixes” itself.

 

BY
JOHN SCHACHT

 

To
enjoy Broken Social Scene’s new release, Forgiveness
Rock Record
, you just need to play it. But to really embrace its ethos –
picture a musically eclectic (and sometimes incestuous) travelling commune
whose ashrams include various watering holes, recording studios, stages, and
the occasional bedroom – you must first track back to their previous album for
big-picture context. That’s because 2005’s Broken
Social Scene
, the band’s previous release, turned out to be an epitaph as
much as an eponym, a monument to the way things used to get done.

 

The
Toronto-based collective, founded by Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew in 1999,
didn’t disband in the years following Broken
Social Scene
, though that option was on the table. Despite the album’s
critical acclaim, as well as BSS’s blossoming profile as one of indie rock’s
brightest lights, the making of the eponymous record was an agonizing, Heart of Darkness ordeal for the musical
kibbutz, whose semi-official roster ballooned to 17 members on certain tracks.

 

Intramural
band turmoil and musical prolificacy fired that record’s tumultuous music,
helping earn Broken Social Scene its second Juno (the Canadian equivalent of a
Grammy) for Alternative Album of the Year. But post-release, the post-mortem
signaled that Broken Social Scene was
the end of one era and the beginning of some unknown future entity.

 

“It’s
time to revamp the program,” Brendan Canning said before a 2006 show in Asheville, N.C.
“It’s hard to grow as a unit when the unit is not consistent. It can be
exciting, but I think it’s reached its limitation in that regard.”

 

Today,
the self-titled record still engenders mixed emotions from band members. “That
was tough times,” says Charles Spearin, also a founding member of Do Make Say
Think, one of a host of Broken Social Scene offshoots. “I think the music
turned out great but I can’t listen to it without being thrown back to some of
the relationship troubles in the band at the time.”

 

But
with Forgiveness, the band’s fourth
full-length of all-original material, the mood is decidedly sunnier in the BSS
camp, and you can trace a lot of that euphoria to a couple of transformative
developments. For one, the core roster has been trimmed to a manageable septet
— though of course the guest turns include former regulars Leslie Feist, Jason
Collett, Amy Millan of Stars, Metric’s Emily Haines and seven other BSS vets,
as well as cameos from The Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop, Tortoise’s Doug McCombs,
Pavement’s Spiral Stairs, and Poi Dog Pondering’s Susan Voelz, among others.
And, just as significantly, the presence of co-producer John McEntire
(Tortoise, Gastr del Sol) has made for a more relaxed recording in every
imaginable way, though the band’s eclectic sprawl still defines these 14 new
songs.

 

The
contrast between McEntire and David Newfeld, the Toronto-based producer on
2002’s breakthrough You Forgot It In
People
and Broken Social Scene,
couldn’t have been greater, say some of the band members. Andrew Whiteman, who
leads his own BSS side project, Apostle of Hustle, compares recording with
Newfeld to “working with Sun Ra,” whose notorious Arkestra practically required
blood oaths and first-borns.  

 

“Your commitment to him and his way has to be
total,” Whiteman says of the man they call “Newf.” “Because he knows only one
way, and his way is mystical and practical at the same time. It’s also energetic
in a way that you’re not used to – nobody’s used to being in his energy. And
submitting yourself to Newf’s energy, in the way that he submits his energy to
your music – it’s bonding at a genetic level.”

 

McEntire, on the other hand, was “cool like a cucumber,”
Whiteman says. Working in the Tortoise drummer’s Soma Studios in Chicago,
Broken Social Scene – now consisting of Canning, Drew, Whiteman, Spearin,
Justin Peroff, Sam Goldberg and Lisa Lobsinger – recorded Forgiveness Rock Record‘s basic tracks with a producer who had been
a primary influence on the BSS sound when they began as a mostly instrumental
group. Spearin confessed to being “tongue-tied and star-struck” initially, his
meet-your-idol nervousness exacerbated by McEntire’s “all business” demeanor when
on the job: “He’s quiet in the studio – if you want to talk about things then
you go out afterwards and have a few drinks, and then you get the plan
happening.”

 

Whiteman says the producer’s detachment, though
disconcerting at first, proved essential in defining the band’s evolving
personality and sound. Considering the promiscuous musical palette that Broken
Social Scene employs, McEntire was a logical choice to highlight all those
individual colors. Tortoise, after all, sets a premium on the dynamic use of
open space in their eclectic blend of Krautrock, jazz, minimalism, dub and electronic.
And that spaciousness brands much of Forgiveness
Rock Record,
and also serves as the most obvious contrast with Broken Social Scene.

 

“With Broken Social
Scene
, Newf felt so strongly that what we were sitting on was a Definitely, Maybe-like Oasis record,”
Whiteman says. “He wanted it bigger and better and louder than anything he had
ever heard before. He was on a mission.

 

“So when I started hearing the mixes from John, I felt like,
‘Wow, we really have the eclecticism that we had with the first record with
Newf.’ As music fans, we know that McEntire sound – it’s like listening to the sound of a sound, the texture of a
sound, and making room for it so that you can hear what that texture is. And maybe
that’s the difference: McEntire wants us to hear individual textures of
individual little sounds, whereas Newf wants to layer the textures, like he wants
to have 14 textures at once.”

 

You don’t need to be an audiophile or studio geek to hear
McEntire’s imprint on the new album, but what impresses is how it suits Broken
Social Scene’s wildly diverse – yet notably coherent – aesthetic. The stylistic
shape-shifting, it seems, was not just a by-product of a fluid, battalion-sized
roster, and all those layered textures breathe better with the judicious
placement of open space.

 

Production differences aside, Forgiveness Rock Record, like every BSS record since You Forgot It In People, seems to come
with an internal, wandering-through-your-record-collection “random” button: classic
BSS anthemic sing-alongs like “World Sick” and the Big Star-on-steroids “Water
In Hell” segue naturally into the slinky dream pop of “Sweetest Kill” or an
impish synthesizer playground like “Ungrateful Little Father.” Even new
elements – the slow calypso island breeze “Highway Slipper Jam,” the urgent,
ELO-synths-and-Memphis-horns-spackled “Chase Scene,” the fuzzy twang-pop ditty “Texico
Bitches” – only confirm the band’s ambitious reach by blending into the
tracklist as though innate.

 

Still, McEntire’s presence can’t be downplayed; the core
members certainly can’t stop talking about his contributions, and repeat
listens reveal, onion-like, the extent of his assured touch. Spearin admires
the first two Tortoise records for what he calls their “patience,” and cites
similarities with BSS’s musical education in Toronto’s rave scene during the ‘90s, when he
and a few other members played in chill-out rooms for over-indulgers. Those
repetitive beats and phrases — with minor variations for contrast – were
assimilated into the BSS sound long ago, but here they even mark the kinetic
drive of the guitar epic “Meet Me In the Basement.”

 

“That song’s just the same four notes over and over and over
again, with a few little breaks,” Spearin says. “But if you can lasso one of
those little melodic repetitive phrases and just hold on for dear life,
sometimes you can come up with something really powerful that can pull you
through the weeds and into some glorious places. But you really have to go for
it in that situation – there are double drums and strings and horns, and it
just gets thicker and thicker and bigger and bigger. But melodically, if you
were to play that song on a piano, it would sound pretty dumb.”

 

Whiteman had a country-flavored chord progression that he’d
tried to give to Collett, a BSS regular who’s turned to country rock in his
solo career, but he didn’t want it. One night, when the other band members had
free tickets to a U2 show, Whiteman stayed behind and played McEntire the chord
progression, which somehow evolved into the hooky, horn-splashed “Art House
Director.” McEntire agreed to play drums on it, “But he said, ‘I don’t want it
to be a country beat – what if we Brazil-ed it up a bit?'” Whiteman remembers.
“So I got to watch John knock out this insane bossa beat over a country song.
Then everyone did their magic to it later – Charlie and Brendan wrote an insane
horn chart that Evan Cranely and Bryden Baird and others play on it, and it
turned into it this weird Vegas Fantasia.”

 

“Ungrateful Little Father” – which band members still call
“Four Track” for reasons about to be disclosed – was another song McEntire
influenced. The producer and Spearin were bonding over their earliest experiences
recording on old four tracks, when the latter suggested they record the song on
cassette, running the bass, drums and guitar straight onto the four track. Then
they overdubbed atop the distorted basic track, adding everything from cowbells
to melodic, with endless layers of various keyboard and synth lines painting a
playful tableau for the melody to float through. “I can’t even remember all the
instrumentation, but we just ended up piling more and more stuff on,” laughs
Spearin. “But it still sounds nice and spacious too.”

 

McEntire’s alchemy wasn’t the only new element to mark Forgiveness Rock Record. The addition of
Lobsinger and Goldberg – who’d both toured with BSS for years – naturally also
colored the new songs. Spearin calls Goldberg “a great melodic player” with a
knack for conjuring catchy guitar lines and memorable melodies “out of the
blue,” and he cites Lobsinger’s “All In All” – a lilting pop tune run through a
Euro-beat filter — as one of the record’s highlights. Her contribution over
recent tours was one of the catalysts for the band’s new configuration, and,
according to Whiteman, her official place in the band was long overdue. He says
being compared to the “three Grand Dames of Canadian Indie Rock” who preceded
her in Broken Social Scene -Haines, Feist and Millan – was tough enough, but
whenever one of them had time to tour with the collective it was Lobsinger who
was left on the sidelines.

 

“She really feels like a member of the band now as opposed
to being a ringer,” Whiteman says. “I know she’s had to deal with a lot of
unfair snarkiness from people over the years, so I’m just stoked that she’s
killing on the record. She’s amazing, and the stuff she does is her thing. She
never once got to that place where she figured she had to imitate the others.”

 

Whiteman says that “unit-wise, I don’t think we’ve ever
really felt this solid.” Spearin adds that the new blood – new, at least in the
studio – has revitalized the original members with the same playful and
spontaneous spirit they had in KC Accidental, the band he started with Drew in
1998 that eventually birthed Broken Social Scene.

 

“Having new people is really healthy, and very exciting,”
says Spearin. “Working with the same people, you project onto them too quickly
sometimes. You think, ‘Oh, he’s just saying that again,’ or ‘He’s going to play
that again,’ or ‘He’s going to do this again,’ because you’ve worked with them
so much. You trust that they have great ideas but you know their pitfalls and
their habits. But when you’re working with somebody new, it’s like a new
relationship – you’re exploring, you’re learning, it’s playful, and you’re a
lot more trusting.”

 

In Spearin’s comments you can sniff out some of the familiarity-breeds-contempt
tensions that led to the roster reconfiguration, as well as pressure-drop outlets
in the interim like the Broken Social
Series Presents
series (both Canning and Drew have releases). Those events
also inform the title of the new album, but in keeping with the band’s
long-standing communal aesthetic, the Forgiveness is meant to include us all in the collective.

 

“I went to the wall for that title,” Whiteman laughs.
“People weren’t feeling that title in the extended family, let’s say. But it’s
like sympathetic magic, where the mere mention of something is enough to enact
it in some way. So I think that it’s important that Kevin – whether it’s
attached to specific things for him or not – would be delighted to have you,
the listener, the receiver, attach it to things in your own life. The ultimate
thing is that the word is just there, and he thinks the more times that people
just say that word, there’s going to be some kind of beneficial effect.”

 

As for the remaining Rock
Record
part?

 

“Here we are with the master, John McEntire, one of the
progenitors of the major sounds of the ‘90s, and it’s like, ‘We’re making a
rock record, Johnny, whaddya think?! It’s gonna go on Double-A and Triple-A
radio!’ So it’s kind of funny that way. You gotta be able to take the piss, you
know? You just have to in the constant re-tooling of cool. Let’s just jump
ahead of ourselves – the non-ironic position. It’s just a rock record.”

 

And despite all the stylistic twists, Broken Social Scene,
whether jumbo- or economy-sized, is also still just a rock band – a point
Spearin is emphatic about.

 

“Maybe we wave our flag a little too much about our
collaborativeness, because really we’re just a band. We just happen to have a
little more ventilation than other bands in that we let people come and go. But
I’ve said the same thing before, there really isn’t any such thing as a band – you
give yourself a name basically because you have to. We’re just people making
music together. The band is just so that you can talk about it, so you can sell
it, so you can project it out there, and you can market it. But the name is pretty
much bullshit.

 

“It’s just people playing music because they love to play
music together.”

 

 

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