[21 June 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
B-sides compilations are always dicey at best, especially when they’re right on the heels of a highly acclaimed, breakthrough album. When a band scores big with a spectacular, painstakingly assembled record, there’s always pressure to cash in on their newfound notoriety, and every so often you get force-fed a hastily thrown together collection of outtakes, B-sides, new recordings of studio self-indulgence, and album rejects. Some of these compilations work relatively well (Nirvana’s Incesticide, System of a Down’s Steal This Album!, for instance), and some even come close to topping the artists’ previous albums (Oasis’s The Masterplan), but more often than not, such compilations are best suited for completists only, giving the casual fan little reason to spend his or her money.
Toronto, Ontario artistic collective Broken Social Scene have done pretty darn well for themselves over the past eighteen months, their great sophomore album You Forgot it in People first hitting it big among Canadian critics and indie rock fans in late 2001, then wowing even more critics and indie rock fans in America, landing a record dead with Rough Trade in the UK, crossing North America several times, establishing themselves as one of Canada’s foremost live acts, and this spring, capping it all off by landing a slot on the revamped Lollapalooza tour. Couple that with the fact that several of their large number of rotating members moonlight in other superb Canadian bands (Metric, Feist, Raising the Fawn, By Divine Right), and you can understand how it will take some time before the band’s leaders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning get around to putting together a proper follow-up. So, in the meantime, why not put out that tired cliché of a throwaway record, The Odds ‘n’ Sods Album?
Bee Hives is what Broken Social Scene have come up with to tide over their growing legion of devoted fans, and as you’d expect, it’s a bit of a bumpy ride. That said, it’s not that bad an album at all. First off, it should probably be made clear that there are no snappy, buoyant songs on this CD, nothing that compares to such live favorites as “Stars and Sons”, “Cause=Time”, “Almost Crimes”, or “Anthems For a Seventeen Year Old Girl”. Even the brilliant UK B-side “Do the 95” isn’t on the album, which will befuddle many fans. Instead, Bee Hives, like that beautiful, languid latter half of You Forgot it in People, shifts its focus from the loud rockers to the more languid, nocturnal, ambient side of the band’s music. If you’ve ever seen Broken Social Scene live, you’ll know that nearly all the members spend an inordinate amount of time onstage crouched over their effects pedals, creating waves of guitar drones and feedback, and this album sounds like an extension of that style. Yeah, it can get tiresome, but more often than not, it’s actually quite beautiful.
Says Kevin Drew, “We chose these songs because of the calm nature that seemed to thread it all together,” and it’s that kind of fluidity this compilation possesses that makes it enjoyable, not to mention quite different from the charming schizophrenia of You Forgot It in People. Featuring songs recorded between their first two albums, some UK B-sides, a radio session, and several new tracks recorded in the past year, Bee Hives’ sound is warm, enveloping, and gentle. “Market Fresh” is just that, a light, sunny bit of studio experimentation that blends acoustic pop, shoegazer-style drones, and psychedelic rock, while the hushed instrumental “Weddings” resembles the mellower music that Yo La Tengo has been recording in recent years. The bizarre “Time=Cause” sounds darker and more cryptic than you’d expect from the band, with its blend of strings, strange harmonies, and haunting vocals, while the vibrant suite “da da da da” is the disc’s most immediately charming, and ambitious, instrumental.
Two songs on the album stand out above everything else, and both feature two of Broken Social Scene’s more well known female vocalists. “Backyards”, recorded by the band in 2001 for a friend’s art school project, is absolutely beautiful, as singer (and leader of Metric) Emily Haines provides some very beguiling vocals over a lush arrangement that includes banjo, synths, more of those guitar drones, and a bouncing drum beat, before dissolving into a coda of dreamy, distorted waves of sound. It’s shocking that a song this great took so long to make it on a CD; some might find it’s better than several tracks on You Forgot it in People. The band’s great ballad “Lover’s Spit” is the only re-worked album track, and instead of the majestic, grandiose treatment the song gets when performed live, this 2003 session for Britain’s XFM radio is much more subtle, as it’s reduced to a stark piano ballad, with Leslie Feist handling the vocals this time. The result is even more powerful than the original version, Feist’s stunning voice adding more emotion than four loud guitars could ever manage.
Not everything on Bee Hives works as well (“Ambulance For the Ambience” and “hHallmark” get a bit tedious), but on the songs that do succeed, it reminds you just how special a band Broken Social Scene is. Rarely does experimental, lo-fi wanking sound as soulful as this. Drew gives fans this advice: “If you like it-that’s good. If you don’t, then try to give it to someone that will.” Despite its minor flaws, you’ll be wanting to hang on to this one.