Feel good lost

Crowded sound mars Broken Social Scene

October 27, 2005
Broken Social Scene are ready to rumble.
  • Broken Social Scene are ready to rumble.

Could it be that nobody in the realm of smarty-pants indie rock has heard the one about too many chefs spoiling the broth? Consider some of the current stars of the genre: The Arcade Fire's eight members pack a stage tighter than a Tokyo subway car. Belle and Sebastian's shifting lineup could run a smallish liberal arts college (and quite capably, too). And there may be more members of Architecture in Helsinki than notable buildings in the Finnish capital.

There's certainly something refreshing about all this multiplicity. For one thing, it's something different. Big rock gangs break up the tedium of all those quintets, quartets, trios and the occasional daring duo. The notion of a band as a sprawling collective whose members come and go has something charmingly communal about it, and offers an antidote to the cheap rock clich of four angry men united against the world.

But there's not always strength in numbers, as evidenced by the new Broken Social Scene record. It's clear that BSS really does consider itself a scene: The Toronto group counts itself as having a ludicrous 17 members. Even if some actually belong full-time to other bands or play only bit parts, the crowdedness shows.

It wasn't always so. The band's debut long-player, 2001's Feel Good Lost, was a mostly instrumental exercise in postrock ambience. A year later, the group leapt forward with You Forgot It in People, which enhanced its blas, arty vibe with sharper instrumentation, catchy songwriting and indelible lyrics ("All these people drinking lover's spit / They sit around and clean their face with it").

BSS' self-titled follow-up adds an unwelcome new element to its sound -- something jittery and neurotic, a nagging shrillness, a restiveness that suggests the band may never get into a groove again. It hits you right away, in the album-opening "Our Faces Split the Coast in Half," which features impatient, scattered drumming, horns that come and go, and a repetitive falsetto from frontman Kevin Drew, whose screechy voice -- strained harder than it was on most of People -- does unrelenting damage to this album. But the biggest problem here is the gratuitous noise.

The same goes for the semiorchestral "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)," which is reminiscent of the Arcade Fire's near-chaotic rancor but lacks that band's dash of sweetness. "Windsurfing Nation" oscillates wildly while putting no new spin on the neo-postpunk that was all the rage in New York a few years ago, and "7/4 (Shoreline)," sung mostly by BSS breakout Leslie Feist, is tough-chick rock of the kind ready-made for inspirational soundtrack appearances.

Even the smoother and slower songs -- the ones rooted in the band's earlier ambience -- now bear an unsettling, nail-biting quality. "Major Label Debut" turns a slow and simple acoustic guitar refrain into chaos, piling on the rapid-fire percussion, synth bursts, stabbing strings and even a recurring human squeal.

One respite is the laid-back "Swimmers," featuring a welcome appearance by the chilly-voiced Emily Haines of Metric. "If you always get up late, you'll never be on time," she sings, not scolding, but with a hushed detachment.

Still, like most of this record, it's not as good as anything on People. Perhaps the only track worthy of that album is the rumbling bass- and toms-driven "Superconnected," which, despite Drew's electronically warped vocals, is one of the album's more streamlined tracks. In other words, it actually sounds like something that could have been made by fewer than 10 people.

-- Michael Crowley

capsule

Broken Social Scene with Feist

Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder

Tuesday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $18.50, all ages; visit bouldertheater.com.

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