Friday, November 04, 2005

Broken Social Scene: United and Ready To Make You Head Bang to Art Rock


By Evan Ferstenfeld

If there's anything that can be grudgingly agreed upon by red and blue states alike after a marathon of Michael Moore movies, it might be that Canada seems to be a pretty keen place to live indeed. After all, the "little country that could" boasts ample examples of unlocked doors and unterrified citizens, a national sport that does not try to re-enact a Roman battlefield siege every Monday night, babbling streams flowing with the freshest of ginger ales, and a medical system where having your spleen replaced will not cost you a literal arm and a leg extra. In a land that has relegated many of America's most pressing social open sores to mere kindergarten scissor cuts, it is no wonder that our wacky neighbors to the North might also be pointing a stiff maple leaf in the right direction for taking rock music to a better place.

Instead of continually slashing music program funding, Canada has sanctioned several federal programs to foster musicians through their band's formative and gawky years, making Canada one of the few governments around the world that has actually paid to make sure its music doesn't suck. Of Canada's many talented musical confections, The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene have arguably emerged as the two most arty but still huggable noise makers in Pabst country. While The Arcade Fire dabble in David Bowie textures and wondrously update styles of eras past, Broken Social Scene harness the power of an orchestral free-for-all approach, sounding like the Polyphonic Spree thrown out of an airplane on an overcast day.

The peaceful, hip-but-not-glib gathering of people at BSS's sold-out October 24th performance in Philadelphia's Theatre of the Living Arts started out quite calmly for a band which continues to edge further into instrumental overload with every new note that escapes from them. On a stage smaller than a third-grade spelling bee platform, BSS quickly dispatched its four guitarists, two drummers, keyboardist, and other assorted sonic twiddlers, finding anywhere to stand within the two square feet each member had been allotted. Bobbing their heads in unison like a bunch of rock'n'roll Rockettes, Broken Social Scene waded into the first song of the evening by playing their latest single "Major Label Debut," a brilliant electro-country ditty that proves upscaling your band's recording studios and war-torn drum kits doesn't always facilitate cashing in your band's soul. The song is as good example as any to see Broken Social Scene's predictably unpredictable stylings: start with a simple guitar hook that immediately grinds itself into your mind's rhythm section, and then steadily adding a jigsaw puzzle-esque arrangement of scattered soundwaves, sounding like a musical magnet clinging on to more and more objects as the power is increased.

In the studio, BSS has sometimes struggled with the problem of being a tad overzealous in how tall they've stacked their wall of sound, overwhelming the simple ingredients of what made the tunes so special to begin with. Not being able to create the musical equivalent of an elephant stampede live proved to be Broken's best ally, as each sweet layer of mounting instrumental mayhem strung together at the TLA held back the force of the previous one just enough to swiftly weave into one another. Highlights from the non-stop noise fest included "A Better Day," a raucous sonic step-child to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," which had several Social members drop whatever they were playing to quickly form a row of trumpets, blasting the audience with the force of a Civil War firing line; the hypnotic beats and strums of the political "Cause = Time;" "KC Accidental" giving the propulsive jolt of a runaway train that jumps the tracks only to sprout wings and fly away.

A band with this many sounds vying for the listener's attention needs some human voices calling out amongst the cacophony. Leslie Feist, who doubled as the opening act with her own alt-country entry Feist, stamped her wonderfully elegant touch on the haunting "Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl," conjuring up an intensity all her own as the song becomes soaked in yearning violin strings and delicate banjo plucks. New gal on the Scene Amy Millan took center stage with Leslie asking the audience to give "Bandwitched" its vocal backbone, effectively morphing the crowd’s sound into what can best be described as a school of excited orca whales. Co-founder and ringleader Kevin Drew took the role of the laid-back father who exerts just enough musical authority to keep everyone in line, engaging in some slightly foggy banter with the audience before dousing them with the punk-rock fuzz opera "Almost Crimes." Perhaps the biggest sonic surprise of the night was when Kevin informed the crowd that this was his band's sixth gig in as many nights, a statement that cleared up any frustration with the band's lethargic stage presence that evening.

Before the rousing encore, Kevin opened up the floor to his concert-going delegates for any questions, and issued several shout-outs to the City of Brotherly Love through an off-kilter ode to the Phillies, our plentiful cheese steak supply, and his sincere fondness for the Flyers, thereby opening himself up for a barrage of Canadian hockey-related taunting. Luckily, no one took the bait.

BSS capped its fantastic showing at the TLA with an instrumental from its overlooked and underrated B-Sides and rarities package Bee Hives. As each piece of the band gunned itself towards the final expected sonic trajectory, the song violently halted nearly all extraneous tinkering, exposing a pounding military drum march and a few guitar surges following its lead. It was as if Broken Social Scene had suddenly spotted its enemies across the horizon (Disturbed, Nickelodeon rock stars, any rapper with a "Lil'" moniker before their name) and decided to charge them head-on, despite being ridiculously outnumbered and victory a near impossibility. But oh man, what a racket they will make going down against them.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!