Broken Social Scene
Live at Third Man Records
Third Man Records
Broken Social Scene are a massive music collaboration that emerged out of the Toronto indie scene nearly 20 years ago, their first album, Feel Good Lost, came out in 2001. For me, their second album, You Forgot It in People, from 2002, might be one of the greatest albums of the 21st century. BSS are a collective, centred around Kevin Drew and Brandon Canning, and have, over the years, featured members of Stars, Metric, Do Make Say Think, as well as Feist and the rapper k-os, and a whole host of Canadian musicians, mostly from Toronto, but some from Montréal (like Stars). I’ve seen them a few times, one time, in Montréal, there were something like 12 or 13 of them on stage. Another time, also in Montréal, there was 5 of them. And one time in New York City, there was 10. Membership rotates, obviously, and, to be honest, at this point, I can’t even tell or know at any given time who BSS are. It doesn’t really matter.
And then there’s Third Man Records of Nashville, TN. Jack White owns the place, you know, the guy from the White Stripes? It’s too bad what’s happened to him. Kinda like Sickboy’s theory of life in Trainspotting, ‘Well, first you have it, then you lose it.’ He hasn’t made a good album in any of his iterations or bands in a good long time, maybe the first Dead Weather album. But. Third Man does some good stuff, including collaborations like this. BSS are the latest in a long line of artists to come through the Third Man Studios in Nashville.
This is a five song ep, culled from throughout BSS’ long and storied career. BSS have a clear message with this ep, and that’s centred on the clusterfuck the world is right now. BSS make music to make you feel better about the world, You Forgot It In People, for example, got me through a messy breakup. There’s something warm and comforting about their sound, the way they make their music, the way they sing it. At the end of the album, they tell us (I can never tell which voice is Drew’s and which is Canning’s, so I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out who is who), ‘It’s about this, it’s about life, it’s about living, it’s about creating moments and this is what you need to keep going. So let’s hear you scream! Go! Scream! [Audience screams and keeps screaming] That’s it! Go! Go! Go! We’re still recording. [Screaming] On the count of three, say We Are Alive [crowd complies]. I love you, we love you, thank you.’
The kick off with ‘Cause = Time,’ from that seminal You Forgot It in People. This is a song driven by a Peter Hookey-bass, for the most part, though, like most of their ouevre, this is also a rather orchestral feel to it. Like Hallelujah the Hills, BSS are masters at lush, sweeping rock songs. I love this song. This is a pretty straight-forward rendition of the song, at one of those Montréal shows, the one with a small village on stage, there was a plethora of guitars, and so the guitar solo in this track was played by at least two guitarists and ended in a squall of feedback. I like this faithful rendition a lot, despite how much I love feedback.
‘Stay Happy’ from 2017’s Hug of Thunder comes next. This one is sung by Ariel Engel, a long-time member of the band, who also happens to be married to the long-time guitarist, Andrew Whiteman. Whiteman used to be the leader of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, one of the most legendary of Toronto’s underground bands of the late 80s/early 90s. This song almost perfectly follows the BSS formula, with trumpets, more horns, perky basslines, and stuttering drums. In other words, it’s almost perfection. Engels has a beautiful voice, too, which had traditionally been used live to fill in for Feist, Amy Millan, and Emily Haines, who appeared on the earlier albums. She made her début on record with Hug of Thunder, in fact.
Canning and Drew spent a lot of their limited banter with the crowd talking about the difficult and dark times we live in, and it’s as if they’ve curated their massive catalogue of songs to cater to this. ‘There’s a lot of people struggling, a lot of people leaving. And some of them, um, chose wrong exits’ they tell us before launching into ‘Superconnected,’ from their 2005 eponymous album (this is the one I always overlook when I go to play BSS, for reasons that I don’t get, it’s brilliant).
Hug of Thunder‘s ‘Gonna Get Better’ continues in this same theme, of the difficulty of the world around us, ‘It’s a struggle out there, and this is an anthem for the struggle, we love you!’ the band tell us, and, well, the song is pretty self-explanatory. Drew once explained the album title, Hug of Thunder as what they sought to do, what their sound is. And this track encapsulates that, it’s a warm song, with Engels telling us ‘things will get better/because they can’t get worse.’ Perhaps not the most heartening feeling, but the mixture of her sweet voice and that hug of thunder, here more muted and gentle, give me the warm and fuzzies and always have.
The short ep, culled from a longer show, ends with one of the greatest songs of the BSS pantheon, ‘It’s All Gonna Break,’ which is the epic closer from that eponymous album. On album, it’s over 9 minutes long. I’ve seen versions that reach into 15 minutes, and I swear at one of those Montréal shows it was over 20 minutes, but I’m probably wrong. Anyway, here it runs to over 11 minutes. An apocalyptic title, a sweeping, massive song. The band tell us they’ve ‘got to play this one for you.’ And they do. A song about expectations, broken relationships, and the clusterfuck of life, I have loved this song for a long time. This song also came out of internal combustions and clashes within the band arising out of the breakup of two members of BSS who had been dating. The song encapsulates the unstructured, shambolic mess and beauty of the eponymous album and life in general.
And if Drew describe the band’s sound as a hug of thunder, that’s exactly what we get here. This ep is glorious in part because the sweeping, epic, orchestral, crashing sound of Broken Social Scene is a challenge to get right live, as I’ve learned in the times I’ve seen them (the NYC show was crashingly bad due to sound issues), and here, the engineers and sound guys get it right, somehow taking a band that has, at the very least, the basic guitars/drums/bass set up, plus horns and strings on stage there, and making it sound cohesive and glorious, and slightly dangerous, especially on ‘It’s All Gonna Break,’ as BSS are always on the verge of breaking, and yet, never do.