News to no one: A lot’s happened since Broken Social Scene released that self-titled career-shifting third album five years ago: There were tours and one-offs (together and apart), solo albums, the “Broken Social Scene Presents…” series. All of that, and someone sorta became a household name (thanks to Steve Jobs). Yes, Feist made it to Sesame Street, but nearly everyone associated with the band’s raised their profile to some degree or other. (Kevin Drew’s collaborated with a diverse cast, from Fucked Up to Spiral Stairs to Dinosaur to…) For all the networking, on the John McEntire-helmed Forgiveness Rock Record, the ever expanding and contracting group’s been whittled to the (relatively) spare sextet of Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Justin Peroff, Charles Spearin, Andrew Whiteman, Sam Goldberg, and Lisa Lobsinger. Feist, Emily Haines, some Stars, Spiral Stairs, and members of Do Make Say Think, Sea & Cake and Tortoise “guest.” Surprisingly, it’s the latter two who leave the biggest mark. Those guys, and all the horns.
You’ve had a couple of months to listen to the uplifting (even if world-weary) opener “World Sick.” It sets the collection’s tone, but the band continues drifting across the map stylistically — as suggested by other by-now-familiar tracks, the rollicking “Forced To Love” (another uplifting song with a sorta downer of a name) and the spacier, swoonier “All To All.”
Outside those complete tracks, the band paired snippets of “Ungrateful Little Father,” “Sweetest Kill,” “Art House Director,” and “Chase Scene” with visuals from various iconic films. But how does “Ungrateful Father” in its 7-minute entirety work with Ghost? Not so well: The songs move through so many different sounds and textures you’ll need to hear them in their entirety to get anywhere.
After listening to “Chase Scene,” you’ll understand why they opted for the cinematic reference points: Dramatically scissoring strings, piano, horns, buzzing drum machines (then actual drums), and windswept vocal choruses push forward, growing increasingly frantic without losing their chill. It has the feel of a climax — less a chase scene, though, and more your trek from the locker room to the ring for your first professional wrestling match (as depicted on Broadway). The tension loosens on the playful “Texico Bitches” and its spry tempo, backing “whoa!”‘s (they go off like firecrackers), synth squiggles/zaps. It’s a silly (but fun) detour followed by two familiar gems “Forced To Love” and “All To All,” appearing in the same order we heard them originally. “Art House Director”‘s another upbeat, playful track with smooth/soulful horn parts and swoony tempo shifts that give a kind of ’60s pop vibe. The Kinks backed by the Max Weinberg & The Tonight Show Band.
“Highway Slipper Jam” is the most hollowed-out moment on the first half of the album, offering a Western feel in its Canadian twang, slide guitar, harmonica atmospherics, and whistling. As well as something different with its breathy boy/gal vocals, pleasingly cheap drum machine clicks, the way it opens up spaciously toward the end. That’s the thing: Broken Social Scene features a number of well-known vocalists, but they can be just as compelling when they keep their mouths shut.
For instance, the excellent instrumental “Meet Me In The Basement” starts with a shouted “here we go” then moves into pulsing rock anthemics, strings, etc. You think it’s going to be a big Arcade Fire-style shout-along anthem; when those vocal choruses never come, it doesn’t actually matter. (See how it went down last year in Toronto.) The band’s creating a rich set of textures. As hinted at earlier, some are especially evocative of Tortoise/Sea & Cake: “Ungrateful Little Father,” has a full-on McIntyre drum pattern. It also has a load of different sounds: something like a sitar, a jawharp, steel drum, theremin (?), etc., and they all blend into a 3-minute ambient stretch at track’s end that sounds like something from Silver Apples On The Moon.
Things mellow out some more toward the end. “Sentimental X”‘s is bubbling, escalating female-fronted breathiness with pulsations that might make you want to reach for a Stereolab (or Stars) record. Again, that locked-in drum groove is pure McIntyre. (Or Can.) Things slow down and deepen with the mellow late-night echo-chamber of “Sweetest Kill.” The noir Western thing returns on “Romance To The Grave” — this time complete with horses cantering into the sunset and ghostly female choirs.
The album could end with “Water In Hell.” It doesn’t reach the heights of “Meet Me In The Basement,” but it’s a raucous, playful indie anthem (“The shuck and jive is over / The shuck and jive is over”) that might make you think of Yo La Tengo until its background laughter, weird smeary breakdown, and eventual transformation into some kind of a shambling square dance/hoedown. The album could very well end that way, but instead we get “Me & My Hand,” a 2-minute Kevin Drew solo acoustic ode to self-pleasure. Maybe it’s all about anti-climax.
Whatever the case, Forgiveness Rock Record is a good rock record. It isn’t as ragged or shaggy as the band’s last outing. Things don’t spiral so much. Or feel like they’re going to fall apart. There’s a focused honing and at first listen less curveballs. So keep listening: They are still there. The band’s continued experimenting with textures and weirdness, they’ve just found a way to make it smoother. Basically, these new tracks showcase a sleeker version of the band you loved five years later. A band that still arrives armed with a million ideas … and songs about masturbation.
Forgiveness Rock Record is out 5/4 via Arts & Crafts.