A Problem Of Plenty
When three bands that you like release their new albums on the same day, you have a problem of plenty and a difficult choice to make. So, on May 4, when The Hold Steady released Heaven is Whenever, The New Pornographers put out Together and Broken Social Scene popped out the curiously named Forgiveness Rock Record, their first album in five years, I went and bought digital versions of all three online. After some fretting over which one to listen to first, I chose Broken Social Scene. I was glad I did that.
Broken Social Scene (like The New Pornographers) is a Canadian band that started over 10 years ago in Toronto but calling them a band may not exactly be accurate. They’re more of a collective, a loose federation of musicians that play together, and, depending on the project, may have as few as six members or as many as 19. Several of the band members have their own side projects or solo careers. Some of them, such as Leslie Feist (who performs as Feist), for instance, have thriving solo careers. The band, led by Kevin Drew, has an amorphous kind of existence—members come and go—and a sound that is big, drawing on many orchestral instruments.
I’d heard a couple of Broken Social Scene albums, notably 2002’s You Forgot It in People, which got rave reviews from even the most skeptical critics. It was an ambitious album, very high on multi-layered sound but low on words. It was what you’d call a ‘grower’ of an album. You heard it over a period of time and grew to like it. In parts it reminded me of other indie bands and even lo-fi acts such as Yo La Tengo. It wasn’t an easy record to get into but once you did, you could fall in love with it.
I had no such trouble falling for Forgiveness. It’s probably the most chart-friendly album that Broken Social Scene has made. It is catchy and full of hooks. And yet (and this makes it amazing), it has lyrics and complex instrumentation that don’t compromise on the band’s inherent indie-ness. Feist is on the album but, as far as I could make out, lending only backing vocals. But Emily Haines, who also is a great solo performer with a deep contralto voice, sings on one track. The most striking characteristic of the Broken Social Scene’s sound is the wall of sound that they create—with string instruments, woodwinds, violins, guitars and more, all complementing each other and turning into a splendid orchestra.
I got so caught up listening to Forgiveness Rock Record—repeating it thrice—that I nearly forgot about The Hold Steady. Frontman Craig Finn ranks in the upper end of my list of favourite rockers. His bar-soaked voice and the grittiness of the band’s sound and the edgy subjects of their songs–street stories about kids partying and running out of booze or just love songs with a twist—are what makes them a great band. Finn puts his vocal stamp on anything he sings. In fact, you could say the bespectacled frontman with non-rocker looks doesn’t sing at all, delivering his words more like he’s narrating a story in an understated conversational manner.
Yet, Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady have grown from a modest bar band to a huge act. Loyal audiences that are growing bigger every time shout out every word that Finn sings and there is something magnetic about their very classic (and very unlike Broken Social Scene) sound that could easily make you a fan once you hear them. I got hooked to them with Separation Sunday (2005). That was followed by Boys And Girls in America and then Stay Positive, which came out two years back. I have all of these and a few live gig recordings and could spend an entire evening listening to them.
So why was I underwhelmed by Heaven is Whenever? I don’t know really. Was it because the songs seemed to lack a bit of something? Finn’s narratives always have an eye-witness or even a gonzo-like insider’s view about them and that’s probably what makes them appealing, giving the listener an up-close view of what’s going on. On Heaven is Whenever, he seems just a tad detached and that probably left me a bit cold. But then, I think The Hold Steady’s new album requires a few more runs on my iPod.
And what about The New Pornographers’ Together? To tell you the truth, I’ve just got around to start listening to the album by these compatriots of the Broken Social Scene and it won’t be fair to say anything yet. That’s the problem when three of your favourite bands decide to release new albums on the same day!
Three to Tango:
- Mama Tried: I was writing this around Mother’s Day so I thought that’s a good enough excuse to link Grateful Dead’s remastered version of Merle Haggard’s original song!
- Babelonia: New York band, School of Seven Bells has a second album on the way. This track is from it.
- Communist Friends: From singer-guitarist Kaki King’s new album, Junior.