“Let’s hear it for friendship,” Broken Social Scene bandleader Kevin Drew requested during a recent performance in Los Angeles, surrounded by a dozen of his buds who have turned a loosely formed artistic collective into an enduring indie rock supergroup. Some of its members have even eclipsed the group’s own popularity (Feist, Metric) while others make up the bones of a very particular moment in the aughts of indie history where sights were set above the Canadian border and projects like Do Say Make Think, Stars and Apostle of Hustle all were treated with a particular reverence.
As Metric’s Emily Haines told the New York Times in 2006, Broken Social Scene is “somewhere between a tribe and a cult”. Some of them met in school, others on tours. But by 1999, BSS was on its way to being a literal project before it coalesced into a figurative concept. There are 17 members now — not all of them active and touring — and when they are not involved in the BSS process, each has their own distinct musical endeavors that they pursue. “People thought it was not going to work out from an ego perspective,” Drew recently told Pitchfork, “but the reason it has comes down to the relationships.”
And another milestone reached by the band: the release of their fifth full-length album and first in seven years, Hug of Thunder. It’s the first time where you can see pictures of the group and realize that they are no longer a collective of young people. Performances now run the risk of a child storming the stage and refusing to leave until her parents acknowledge her. The concept of Broken Social Scene remains fluid, but the music is something that’s always been built to last. Ahead of this record is a perfect time to look back at the best works the band’s members have offered until now.
The album that started it all. Sure, it wasn’t the first Broken Social Scene record — that honor goes to the mostly instrumental 2001 debut Feel Good Lost — but You Forgot It in People was certainly the record that began the band’s mythic stature. Interestingly, the record gets a smooth transition from their more ambient beginnings, taking its time before Kevin Drew’s vocals appear midway through the album’s second song. But once the record starts to reveal its pop undertones, the specialness of the band also becomes apparent. As a collective, it’s in the numbers of voices and sounds that the album finds its success. Brendan Canning’s “Stars and Sons” sleeks around the corner like a guilty dog; Feist’s vocals a barely recognizable as she goes full rocker on “Almost Crimes”; Emily Haines is tasked with turning a tender and delicate repetition into an genuine all-timer on “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl”; and Andrew Whiteman croons convincingly on the nuanced “Looks Just Like the Sun.” The parts are all great on their own, but the sum adds up to something so much more. And at the center is Drew, surrounding himself with dense, lush arrangements and singing straight from the heart on the holy “Lover’s Spit” and the whispered guitar-rock opus “Cause = Time.” Years later, when Lorde would shout them out on her own song “Ribs,” it was a heartening confirmation that the BSS sounds were just as relevant to a new generation of teens as they were to the last one.
Kevin Drew co-founded his own label, Arts & Crafts, to put out Broken Social Scene albums and, eventually, it became one of Canada’s preeminent independent labels. Interestingly, though, not all of his BSS bandmates used the label for their own releases. By the late aughts, Metric would experiment with self-release, while Do Make Say Think stuck with Constellation Records for their albums. For Do Make Say Think, whose Charles Spearin has played guitar for BSS for their whole run, Constellation fit their post-rock experiments, where they could sit comfortably with Constellation’s most esteemed act, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. On 2003’s Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn, Spearin and co. mix extended, guitar-driven compositions with subtle orchestration and plenty of room for noisy textures and sonic explosions. With songs often running well over the five-minute mark, what’s remarkable about the album is just how deliberate everything is. Rarely do the songs meander and a highlight like “Auberge Le Mouton Noir” feels so precise that it stops on a dime. It’s a record just as suited for undivided attention as it is to be placed in the background. And for mid-aughts post rock, that’s about as good as it gets.
They say lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, but Broken Social Scene’s follow-up to You Forgot It in People begs to differ. Yes, the band got even bigger, with contributions coming from the likes of k-os and Jason Tait of the Weakerthans, but maybe a more impressive element was that they managed to keep so many players in the band. Many moments follow a tried-and-true formula, like when “7/4 (Shoreline)” finds Feist chiming in with hook as effectively as she did on “Almost Crimes.” Emily Haines also gets another standout moment, with “Swimmers” allowing the singer to use her charisma and relaxed delivery to sell the song as bigger than its deep groove. But, again, Drew saves the biggest moments for himself. “Superconnected” hides its fist-pumping hooks under layers of distortion and a busy arrangement, while “It’s All Gonna Break” turns an anthem into an epic of nearly 10 minutes. Even “Major Label Debut” is slowed down to obscure its shout-along chorus, as if Drew was making a conscious choice to keep Broken Social Scene from hitting the mainstream too easily. But the decisions wind up making the album all the more loveable, portraying a band that couldn’t help crafting melodies and jams to draw in fans by the masses (and don’t worry, most pressings included a bonus EP with the faster, and better, “Major Label Debut”).
If Broken Social Scene has a single breakout star, it is Leslie Feist. Following the band’s breakthrough album in 2002, Feist offered up 2004’s Let It Die and saw it become a surprise hit, earning two Juno awards and going platinum in her native Canada. This was followed up by the second BSS album and then The Reminder, an album that made Feist a household name. Thanks for an ubiquitous iPod commercial that features her single “1234,” the song snuck into the top 10 on the Billboard 200. But the album is more than a surprise crossover. The Reminder is a confident step forward from a songwriter unafraid to embrace her pop sensibilities, bending them to suit her own idiosyncratic tendencies. Her voice lilts and chirps with untrained charm, a style that the release would solidify as distinctly her own. And whether it’s the rollicking boisterousness of “I Feel It All” or the lurking tension of “The Limit to Your Love” — a song made more famous by a later James Blake cover — Feist seized an opportunity with The Reminder. With attention already turned toward her, Feist answered with an all-time classic.
The mid-aughts found Kevin Drew not only mastering his abilities as a songwriter, but becoming prolific at it as well. This resulted in the need to release music between BSS albums, and the idea of the “Broken Social Scene Presents” series, which would offer up solo albums for the BSS members under the greater banner of the band. It’s fitting, then, that Spirit If… is hardly distinguishable from the BSS albums that came before it, bouncing between propulsive rockers (album highlight “Lucky Ones,” the J Mascis-featuring “Backed Out on the...”), acoustic songwriter fare (“When It Begins,” “Safety Bricks”), and ambitious, atmospheric soundscapes (“Farewell to the Pressure Kids,” “Gang Bang Suicide”). At the heart of the music is a certain lyrical charm of Drew’s, where he embraces crass and blunt concepts under a sort of hedonistic guise. In his mind he’s just saying what we’re all thinking, resulting in an even more unfiltered of the songwriter than is present in his group collaborations. But Spirit If… is at its best when Drew isn’t falling into his own habits, displaying a musician who’s capable at succeeding at both his most straight-faced and his most playful. With Broken Social Scene, Drew was a faithful leader. On his own, he proved nothing less than a master.
Three of the members of Stars have been members of Broken Social Scene, including current touring members and romantic partners Amy Millan and Evan Cranley, and singer Torquil Campbell. Sonically, though, the two bands have little in common aside from Millan’s soothing vocals. Stars skews towards the theatrically twee, Campbell selling his vocals with showtune panache and Millan often serving as a force to ground the songs in reality. This worked the best on 2007’s In Our Bedroom After the War, where the group could scrounge up the bold singles “Take Me to the Riot” and “The Night Starts Here” with marry it with moments of glowing perfection, like the Millan-sung “Windows Bird.” Their previous record, Set Yourself on Fire, might have established them as a cult success, but it was this album that solidified Stars' place in a Canadian music scene that was drawing international attention.
Since its inception, the heart of Broken Social Scene has been Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. Though Drew is often the frontman and almost always the band’s mouthpiece, his co-writer Canning is just as integral to the band’s direction, even if he only takes lead on occasion. But hearing his “Broken Social Scene Presents” solo offering in 2008 demonstrates just how much BSS is indebted to their bass player. Unlike Drew’s often direct and signature songwriting, Canning showcases his mutability on Something for All of Us. “Chameleon” layers in atmospheric horns for a slow build that’s at home with BSS’ previous material while “Snowballs and Icicles” sounds like an Elliott Smith outtake. Canning isn’t shy about his straight ahead rockers, be it the title track or “Hit the Wall,” but the album balances it with ambient experiments like “All the Best Wooden Toys Come From Germany.” The resulting record is a necessary insight into Canning’s BSS contributions, and a vision of just how capable he is of guiding a project without Drew. Of course the two are often better together, but with the “Broken Social Scene Presents” albums, an alternate timeline where the pair exist separately doesn’t look too bleak.
“Who’d you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” Emily Haines asks on “Gimme Sympathy,” one of the many standouts on Metric’s most successful album, Fantasies. It might seem like a reaching question from the humble Canadians of BSS, but if anyone of the associated projects had the capability to engage fans on the arena scale, it was Metric. Hell, they even named a song on this album “Stadium Love.” Building off the success of Live It Out, Fantasies was the realization of potential, earning a shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno award for Best Alternative Album. Along with the aforementioned “Gimme Sympathy,” Fantasies packed a trio of singles that became regulars on radio, TV, and movie spots, particularly the anthemic lead track “Help, I’m Alive.” But maybe best about Fantasies is how confident lead Emily Haines struts into the spotlight on the record. Whether moody and delicate on “Collect Call,” muscular and tense on “Front Row,” or lofty and inspired on “Blindness,” Haines fronts Metric like a genuine rock star. After this album, it was somewhat surprising when Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw would return to perform and record with BSS (which they are back to doing on Hug of Thunder). Fantasies solidified Metric’s ability to stand firmly on their own.
While the previous Broken Social Scene records didn’t shy away from grandiosity, Forgiveness Rock Record felt like a step for the band toward rock and roll’s capacity to heal. With Drew delivering his musical sermons from the pulpit, 2010 found the band in position to back up big ideas with big songs. Take on U.S. oil companies with a song called “Texico Bitches”? Sure. A seven-minute treatise on the oppressive magnitude of the world’s problems on “World Sick?” Yup. An album-closing track directly about masturbation? Yeah, but I guess that’s neither a big idea nor a big song. Still, there is something about Forgiveness Rock Record that finds BSS most at peace with what they are. “Meet Me in the Basement” sounds like a dozen friends rocking out together in too small of a space, preserving the energy of a live show right smack in the middle on an LP. And when Drew turns over the lead to his pals — Canning on the focused “Forced to Love,” Haines on the lyrically sharp “Sentimental X’s,” Whiteman on the peppy “Art House Director” — all are ready and willing to shine in their spotlight moments. Horn sections pop as vibrantly as ever. Guitars are left to ring loudly. Songs drift from precise to sprawling. After a five-year absence, Broken Social Scene sounded as alive as ever.
Feist didn’t rush into the follow-up for her crossover into the mainstream. Released in 2011, Metals failed to offer up a single capable of reaching pop radio (or landing her on Sesame Street like “1234” did), nor did it prove as instantly accessible as her previous couple of albums. Still, there is an argument to be made that Metals is her best record. It’s certainly her most ambitious and, in turn, riskiest. The release offered up a series of compositions that took their time to reveal their direction. Both “Graveyard” and “Caught a Long Wind” deliver late-song changeups that reward the patient, displaying a vision for the payoffs of slow burns. “Commercialism isn't challenging creatively,” she told The Independent ahead of Metals' release, instead putting out an album that could both feed her need for a challenge and prove nourishing to those that gave it the time. If you look of “grower” in the dictionary, you might just see the Metals album art as its definition.
Philip Cosores is Executive Editor for Consequence of Sound. His writing and photography has been featured at The Orange County Register, The AV Club, Stereogum, Red Bull, Bandcamp, LA Times, LA Weekly, and more. He lives in Los Angeles.