Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record Review

When Broken Social Scene first climbs onto stage, you think, “There’s no way this is going to work.” Best is when you spot them on a late night talk show, some dozen or so musicians huddled in the cramped little stage area trying to play their latest crisp but crashing indie rock tune. Short of gospel choirs or big band orchestras, pop music should never be this cluttered with mammals. Then Broken Social Scene starts playing and all niggling complaints and restrictions float away (or get a vicious backhand if the song explodes out of the gate). Then you wonder why they can’t throw in another drumkit for more clatter or an extra flutist or saxophonist for a more divine melody. Give me another arresting guitar line or two. Have someone else sing off-brand harmony. This group needs more trumpets, more trumpets! Hell, I’d forgive three or four folks just shimmying carefree, on the sidelines or right through the musician maze. Well, now I’m just getting all worked up. This outfit kinda does that to me.

There have been power trios around that played bigger and louder, but at their most arresting, no group sounds busier than Broken Social Scene. That restless urgency makes most of their songs immediate but offer rewards upon revisiting, uncovering each little element that works in alarming unity. Even when the crackling bits seem to resist one another, that struggle creates a frantic new spirit to wind up the listener. It’s been five years since their last proper record, and though they’ve kept busy with all their assorted side projects and solo endeavors, it is with some great relief that they’ve returned. Their series of “Broken Social Scenes Presents…” discs, while far more reliable than the connotation of “Quentin Tarantino Presents…”, have yielded mixed results, and only the occasional stretch to be cherished with the same enthusiasm as the last two LPs from this Canadian collective/supergroup/free-for-all. The new core group has shrunk a bit this time, but there’s still plenty of room for the occasional improvisation from the odd returning member or guest star (thirty-one credited contributions in all).

Even if they work too hard to make anything seem too improvisational, the band’s latest, Forgiveness Rock Record, is actually their tightest and most efficient to date despite their usual fondness for loose structures and the occasional ambient sprawl. Already deemed by some to be the group’s “pop record,” the old question of accessibility surrounds this album even while it unfolds. Truthfully, I’ve found them to be accessible since 2002’s masterwork You Forgot It in People was unleashed to raves. Even if you couldn’t embrace every tangent or nuance, there was more than enough on there that took hold immediately to give you reason to return again and again—particularly helpful for their eponymous third effort, which clashed sublimity with diverging violence and offered frustration and affection in intermittent bursts. Forgiveness Rock Record is at least on par with that one (which I find to be an underrated near-masterpiece) and frequently even matches the gorgeous and dizzying heights of YFIIP. I sense some of you already turning away in doubt, but I dare say that it matches up song-for-song almost perfectly (even if it lacks the communal energy). Yes, it really is that thrilling.

It begins by gradually building a spell on “World Sick,” with the group’s usual elliptical ruminations (“We got a minefield of crippled affection/All for the borrowed mirror connection/That's why I'm leaving this spoken detention/I'm a romance addict so that I can confess”) that make little concrete sense to outsiders but are still intoxicating solely because of the language used. Then the chorus explodes exultantly and frontmen Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning deliver the drama like fresh-ripened slogan: “I get world sick every time I take a stand/Well, I get world sick, my love is for my man.” And before you get too worked up (and they too grand for the elusive charms that made them musical heroes), they fade away on a hundred second outro that glides and chatters towards a full-blown pop song called “Chase Scene.” That one has the serpentine melody and witchy vocal harmonies of Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, but with a synth pattern molded from the 80s and the beats, circular strings and intrusive horns of modern dance. Suddenly, you don’t know what to expect next.

What does come next is one rich delight after another. Instead of drifting through one textural territory after another as has been their wont since the mostly wordless ambient sprawl of Feel Good Lost, they instead choose to hit the listener upside the head with one potent gem after the next. The first half is dominated by jaw-cracking pop tunes that deliver wave after wave of hooks. First single “Forced to Love” is reminiscent in some ways of when My Morning Jacket debuted “Anytime”—no matter how much you loved the Louisville band before that, you never realized they could pull of such simple tricks with epic and sure-footed aplomb. Over crashing drums and interwoven guitar figures, Drew packs in oblique references to “masculine hug[s]” and “word[s] of the knife” while managing another meaty couplet of universal appeal—“And if we think about it, well, is it true yet?/‘Cause there’s no line that reminds whether we are enough.” “Texico Bitches” springs to life with a jangly trot eerily similar to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” and the wonky frills that fill out the song later (“whoo”’s and all) sound more appropriate in the hands of, say, Super Furry Animals. And the horn fanfares that stab the sky in “Art House Director” deliver one of many triumphant pillars of sound that can actually make your heart sing.

Being Broken Social Scene, it’s clear that not every cut is going to be an extravagant, arena-worthy powerhouse. But while a dusty, low-key tune like “Highway Slipper Jam,” with acoustic guitars and xylophone plinks quietly bubbling over soft fuzz, might have fit in on the second half of You Forgot It in People, being laid in the center of this album creates a hiccup—when you urgently desire it to move ahead full, the group slows to dawdle on a murmur. It doesn’t help that its quality is more “atmospheric” than “sweeping,” but luckily, quieter numbers manage to triumph elsewhere. “Sentimental XXs” brings together Emily Haines, Amy Millan and Feist, but their warbles are more tremulous and muted than one would expect from that trio; it’s the slowly engulfing melody that locks in its claws, moving from spacious hum to skittery beats and back before erupting during the final minute-and-a-half. For most, it proceeds with such wanton disregard for easy melodic assemblage that it might seem to border on neglect, but for BSS, just another faux-casual masterstroke. Drew’s phased, plateau-tuned vocals on “Sweetest Kill” almost opposes the tender melancholy at the song’s heart, but because of the steady drum pattern, lush guitars and mellotron bleed, it serves less as counterpoint than heartbroken steerage, emphasizing its doleful nature.

Most impressive of the quainter tunes, though, is “All to All,” with vocalist Lisa Lobsinger bringing a woodsy firmament to the indie-friendly feyness all the rage. “Call of forgiveness,” she sighs, “I'm like the heal of the hurt. I'm like the only one you tried to save when you fell out.” Rippling over staccato electric guitar and oscillating drum machines and synths, it’s one of the group’s most divergent maneuvers, and could prove controversial among the stalwarts less forgiving of such trespasses. Right in the middle of the composition appears Julie Penner’s violin, coming to the fore for only a few moments, but it reads like tribute to fellow Canadian new-millennium heroes, the Arcade Fire. The notes could have been plucked straight from “Neighborhood #4” (or half of Funeral’s tracks, for that matter), but it almost goes unnoticed. Less difficult to discover is how the gusto and grandeur of Arcade Fire plays into the stunning instrumental “Meet Me in the Basement.” That one demands a stadium.

A more focused group than we’ve come to expect, with a firm pursuit for real songs and real feeling (melding joy and gravity is never an easy task, but even when one frequently find the words elusive in their meaning, the music pantomimes with rich detail), results in their most mature and polished work to date. It’s not as rampantly, breathlessly alive as YFIIP nor as thrillingly messy and deliciously schizophrenic as BSS, but the Broken Social Scene of Forgiveness Rock Record sounds more like a real band with real intentions than ever before. Their idiosyncratic lack of economy presents a fault for the disc’s momentum—“Ungrateful Little Father”’s coda is overextended, two slower tunes in precession results in a sluggish opening for the otherwise rousing “Romance to the Grave,” the two-minute closer “Me and My Hand” is a B-side needlessly tacked on at the end—but these little flaws are hardly noteworthy when the rest is so thoroughly engaging that only impatience would drive someone towards the skip button. Besides, even on the group’s best days, they’re guilty of a sin of abundance. If it’s a sin to marvel, these Canucks are going straight to hell.

"Forgiveness Rock Record" is on sale May 4, 2010 from Arts & Crafts.

Matt Medlock


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