Broken Social Scene
by Erick Trickey
Some songs by Broken Social Scene are mood music, edgy yet soothing, atmospheric postrock. Then the Canadian indie-rock collective hits you with cacophonies that are so packed with dueling sounds, so boisterous and brash, you're sure you can hear all seventeen-plus members of the band on one track, and you can imagine a bunch of indie-rock cheerleaders jumping around the studio waving dirty pom-poms.
Broken Social Scene's last two major albums, both of which won Canada's Juno Award for alternative album of the year, are a mix of instrumentals and tweaked vocals, with the words used for sonic effect or buried in the mix. On "Our Faces Split the Coast in Half," the first track on the band's self-titled 2005 CD, vocals appear briefly, but they're just another instrument. Lazy 1950s horns, hinting at bossa nova, give way to complex drum rhythms shouting back and forth from the left and right speakers. Rough guitars hang in the background, their strings struck percussively. Backward guitars swirl between the horns. The song rides away to the clomp of horses' hooves. That all happens in three minutes and forty-two seconds.
Listening for literal meaning in Broken Social Scene's music is often beside the point. The clearest-sounding vocal on its 2005 CD is built on the refrain "If you always get up late, you'll never be on time." Better to give in to the happy, driving beat and the singer's sharp, feminine coolness. Close listening or lyric-Googling reveals a darkness in other songs. On "Lover's Spit," the spare sound leaves the singer (a man on a 2002 album version, a woman on a rarities collection) at the center, singing such literally confusing but poetically clear lyrics as "They listen to teeth to learn how to quit," evoking lonely dread after too many temporary encounters. Most often, the sound's emotions overwhelm the lyrics. "It's All Gonna Break," the latest album's closer, starts with vulgar anger you might miss because
the song sounds so joyous. It's over-the-top climactic, so bombastic they can't be serious, but still great, ten minutes of pure thrill.
Since I haven't seen Broken Social Scene live, I'm curious how clearly their humor comes across onstage. It's most obvious in the videos on their website, such as the one for "7/4 (Shoreline)," a song built on histrionic female vocals and male accompaniment. The band members are shown in theatrical half shadow, and the two vocalists sing to each other as in a cheesy 1970s duet, then pumping their hands in the air, totally aware of how much they're overdoing it.
Broken Social Scene headlines a show at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, November 11.
[Review published November 2006]