Broken Social Scene Reunite, Star in Film
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Broken Social Scene
You Forgot It in People
[Arts & Crafts / Paper Bag; 2002]
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It's a bit late to be talking about New Year's Resolutions, but mine was to dig through the boxes upon boxes of promos that arrive at the Pitchfork mailbox each month, and listen intently to hundreds of them in one sitting, in an attempt to discover those rare, impossibly great bands that would otherwise slip through the cracks. It's been an absolute bitch so far, and awfully disheartening, but I've hit paydirt a couple of times, and in those moments of glory, it's been worth wading through every cut-up Cuban big beat record, every generic Midwestern rock record, every bar band, every swing band. See, the problem is, it's impossible to know what's what; you have to just dive in and hope for the best, because sometimes the bands with the worst names and most hideous packaging are just great musicians who would make terrible image consultants.
Case in point: Broken Social Scene. No one wants to admit that they like a band that goes around calling themselves this-- a band who, judging from their artwork, stands around all day looking pensive, crouching, and feeling the music in dramatic grayscale, a band that finds its home on Arts & Crafts/Paper Bag Records, who puts the message "break all codes" above their own barcode, and who dedicates their album to their "families, friends and loves." I already had them pegged! How could they not be the most unimaginative, bleak, whiny emo bastards in the whole pile?
I don't know. But this disc is nothing like you'd imagine. Not even almost. I've been over it again and again looking for some cause, some reason, anything, that would compel a band with this much unfiltered creativity and kinetic energy-- a band without even the slightest suggestion of tear-stained poetry or bedroom catharsis-- to fall victim to the worst possible Vagrant Records clichés. I can't find it. All I know is that when I press play, and this disc whirrs to life, it inexplicably sheds its crybaby façade and becomes... sort of infinite.
I've been listening to this disc for months on repeat-- sometimes just this disc for days-- but it wasn't until I began doing research for this review that it began to make sense how a band like this could materialize from out of nowhere with such a powerful and affecting album. I knew from the liners that the group has ten members (fifteen if you include guests); what I didn't know was that all of them have been wandering from band to band within the wildly experimental Toronto music scene for years, or that they all came together from groups like Stars, Do Make Say Think, Treble Charger, A Silver Mt. Zion, and Mascott with the unified goal of making, of all things, pop music. One of its members told a Toronto weekly that "we'd already made our art-house albums... the whole ideology of trying to write an actual four-minute pop song was completely new to so many of us."
Who could have imagined it would come so easily? You Forgot It in People explodes with song after song of endlessly replayable, perfect pop. For proof, pick virtually any track: the sound barrier-bursting anthem "Almost Crimes", the subdued, gossamer "Looks Just like the Sun", the Dinosaur Jr.-tinted "Cause = Time", or the shimmering, Jeff Buckley-esque "Lover's Spit". And there's plenty more where that came from. How about the chugging guitar-pop of "Stars and Sons", which spins a distant, churning keyboard drone beneath the best moments of Spoon's Girls Can Tell and punctuates it with a barrage of percussive handclaps. Or "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl" which showcases Emily Haines' melting alto caught in a beautiful, cyclical refrain and intensely modified by vocal effects while violins float atop subtle banjo plucking and cascading toms. Or "KC Accidental", which blasts searing, super-melodic guitar, a drumkit alternately galloping and relentlessly beaten, and an impenetrable wall of accelerating orchestration, before crash-landing into a deliquescent pop lullaby.
The band's aforementioned art-house pedigree goes a long way toward making You Forgot It In People more than just another fantastic pop record: One of its foremost traits is its airy spaciousness. On many of its tracks, the sounds seem to resonate indefinitely, as if played at top volume on a Greenland hillside and recorded miles away. Simultaneously, the album is dense with the baroque instrumentation of all fifteen players, each part beautifully arranged, and all of them bleeding together in perfect harmonic unison. Chalk one up for heretofore unknown producer David Newfeld, who isolates the song's key instruments upfront in the mix, and captures all others as delicate nuances-- an expansive, pillowy bed of ethereal violins, muted trumpets and flutes to softly support the traditional guitars, bass and drums.
Rock critic Michael Goldberg recently speculated that what makes music fanatics thirst for the obscure is the desire to discover music that is "uncontaminated by the commerce machine." This, he says, is the reason we cling to the abstract and unmarketable, the outlandish and abrasive. And yet, this is also the guy whose favorite album of last year was the painfully vacuous adult-contempo masterflop by Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man. Granted, not all of us share Goldberg's taste for sub-folk cheddar, but there's something like that record in each of our collections. So, how can there be room for both challenging, forward-thinking music and straight-up accessibility?
Well, we're not total fucking assholes, right? We can kick back with Ekkehard Ehlers or Electric Light Orchestra-- there's inherent greatness in both. But the holy grail for people like us is the record that combines outright experimentation and strong hooks, something that engages us mentally while appealing to the instincts that draw us toward pop immediacy. Some of the best records ever have been ones that put these two seemingly disparate elements together-- and you can go as recent as The Notwist's Neon Golden or as far back as Sgt. Pepper's (and probably farther, if you want). This kind of music shouldn't be hard to come by; it's just that not many artists are able to perfect that balance.
Broken Social Scene have, and even made it seem effortless. I wish I could convey to you just how perfectly this record pulls off that balancing act, how incredibly catchy and hummable these songs are, despite their refusal to resort to pandering or oversimplicity. I wish I could convey how they've made just exactly the kind of pop record that stands the test of time, and how its ill-advised packaging and shudder-inducing bandname seem so infinitesimal after immersing yourself in the music. And I hate to end this saying, "You just have to hear it for yourself." But oh my god, you do. You just really, really do.