Photo credit: Paula Wilson
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: In the new millennium, nothing is better for rock ‘n’ roll than large numbers of Canadians. Case in point: Toronto band (sorry—“music collective”) Broken Social Scene, whose 2002 Canadian alternative smash You Forgot It in People is only now gaining momentum in the States.
Ten band members (not including guests) are credited on You Forgot It in People, so it was a little surprising when only six took the stage on a Thursday night at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. Veterans of the Toronto art-rock scene come together for the explicit purpose of making good, smart, pop music, Broken Social Scene seemed genuinely surprised and bemused to see a packed crowd of Americans before them. Kevin Drew, one of the band’s four lead vocalists, its keyboardist, and sometime guitarist, announced that they “own way too many records from Chicago,” and this show was to be a tribute to Chicago music. He later explained that he had intended, in response to a review that called BSS “a copycat band,” to dedicate each song to a Chicago band that influenced him. Caught up in the rockin’ good time that followed, it seems that Drew completely forgot about the bad review.
They started out with quiet number (it could have been a wacked-out version of You Forgot It in People‘s first track, “Capture the Flag”), which saw Drew lifting lyrics from New Order’s “Love Vigilantes”, turning the story of a lonely soldier into the story of a touring family man: “I want to see / my family / my wife and child / waiting for me.” It was without a doubt the evening’s most “arty” moment, and, despite whatever criticisms have been leveled against them, the only time Broken Social Scene “copied” anything.
After that initial lull, the band launched into a surprisingly raucous version of “Cause=Time”. A happily subdued song on wax, “Cause=Time” became an all-out rocker live, with everyone on the crowded stage breaking out their best rock star moves (I was momentarily afraid one would trip and they would fall like dominoes). I have yet to read a review of You Forgot It in People that hasn’t compared Drew’s vocals on “Cause=Time” to J Mascis, but live, four band members contributed to the chorus of “They all want to fuck the cause,” creating a strange, gritty, energetic meld that has little in common with J Mascis’ bored drawl.
Throughout the evening, the louder, faster, more rockin’ numbers fared best under a live treatment, as did the songs featuring Drew on vocals. Brendan Canning’s vocals on “Stars and Sons” seemed a touch forced, and “Looks Just Like the Sun”, while offering a counterpoint on record, only sapped momentum live. “Looks Just Like the Sun” seems to only require the efforts of half the bandmembers (while the others watched and had a beer). When you’re in a club late at night, and you’ve just heard a string of amazing songs each featuring three or four guitars, a one-guitar song can sound a little thin.
The undeniable highlights, though, came when the band brought singer Emily Haines on stage to sing “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”, a slow-moving, monotonous, and excruciatingly brilliant song, and to contribute her vocals to the loud, focused, and layered “Almost Crimes”. Haines was especially impressive on “Anthem”, as her electronically altered, cutesy-little-girl whisper of “Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me” repeated itself until it had turned into a desperate shout.
Broken Social Scene’s one tip-of-the-hat to the city of Chicago came during the encore, where they performed a, presumably new, instrumental song Drew identified as “Interlude for Billy Corgan” (This assertion was returned with several shouts from the crowd of “No! He’s not from here!” Wishful thinking). A pretty single-guitar song in the mode of the old standard “Sleepwalk”, “Interlude for Billy Corgan” was followed by the remorseful “Lover’s Spit”. Easily the “poppiest” song from You Forgot It in People, “Lover’s Spit” is also one of the most original lyrically, espousing a decidedly un-rock sentiment of disillusionment with the folly and wastefulness of youth.
The most striking thing about this show was simply how much fun the band was having on stage. In their separate avant-rock bands, this bunch of Canadians would have never had the opportunity to “rock out” in front a big American crowd. It’s hard not to feel happy for a band like Broken Social Scene, whose members surely deserve whatever success they get. They bring a high-art sensibility to pop music, and, yes, that’s happened before. What hasn’t happened before is the combination of avant-garde, pop, intense artistic collaboration, knowledgeability, and just plain fun that Broken Social Scene displayed on stage.