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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Broken Social Scene: Feel Good Lost


1) I Slept With Bonhomme At The CBC; 2) Guilty Cubicles; 3) Love And Mathematics; 4) Passport Radio; 5) Alive In 85; 6) Prison Province; 7) Blues For Uncle Gibb; 8) Stomach Song; 9) Mossbraker; 10) Feel Good Lost; 11) Last Place; 12) Cranley's Gonna Make It.

The way Canada's huge landmass kinda stretches out all the way from modern civilization into the vast reaches of ice cold nothing, it might explain this odd propensity of its citizens for super­ficially grandi­ose, but essentially rather simple sonic landscapes — the construction of which in­volves so many people that sometimes it feels like some of them are only there to cast their mind­waves into the air, to emphasize the production.

Even before Arcade Fire, in particular, there was Broken Social Scene, a wandering, blundering troop of loosely connected artists revolving around the core elements of Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. The music they play is sometimes called «post-rock», but since this term holds my per­sonal record for «dumbest genre designation ever created» (do we ever talk about «post-jazz»? «post-classical»? «post-pop»? «post-flamenco»?), I prefer to broadly refer to these exercises as «mood music». For a narrower way of pigeonholing, something like «rhythmic ambient ins­tru­mental folk-pop» might do, at least for this debut album.

The title is quite appropriate. This is an album in which it is very easy to get lost — in fact, I got lost in it somewhere around the third track, and have not found a proper way out since then — but just as easy to feel good about it. What Drew, Canning, and their team write and record are, for the most part, «pleasant dream sequences»: mid-length folk-pop compositions, usually based on guitar interplay, less frequently on keyboards or violins, that establish their groove very quickly, develop it very slowly or do not develop it at all, and hunt for a gradual subconscious effect rather than a quick open blow to the brain.

The response is not «psychedelic» or anything — for the most part, the band avoids indulging in spe­cial sonic effects; their chief weapon is the density of sound, achieved by cramming the studio with people, some of whom, as I already said, seem only to be there in order to be more «felt» than heard. But the response can be hypnotic, after a short while: they take all those nice, soo­thing, well-polished folksy chord sequences, shuffle them around, add some old-school pop, and then run this approach into the ground to the point where, at first, you might hate it for the mono­tonousness, but then acknowledge that there is really no objective way of criticizing this stuff. Be­cause the guitars sound gorgeous and tasteful, the sound density is achieved professionally, and the songs are all similar, but different enough to vary the mood ever so slightly.

If there is a direct old precursor to this style, it would be something like Fleetwood Mac's ʽAlba­trossʼ (strong echoes of which you will experience, in particular, on ʽBlues For Uncle Gibbʼ) — except that, naturally, with the passing of time the «one strong simple hook» approach has been replaced with an intellectualist passion for more complexity, even at the expense of memorability (according to what my brain tells me, ʽAlbatrossʼ is more «hummable» than all of these tunes put together). Not all of the compositions are slow — ʽI Slept With Bonhommeʼ opens the album on a steady toe-tappy note, and only a few numbers are genuinely «somnambulant» — but I feel as if the oddly accelerated tempos are only there to give the band a little bit more of an individual fla­vor — with these dreamscapes, you would normally expect super-slow all of the time, yet there are tunes here explicitly set to danceable rhythms. (One actual flaw is the use of drum machines on some of the tracks — you'd think that with so many people in the studio, they could have easily done with live drums everywhere, but no, there is still this goddamn oh-so-2000s nostalgic fondness for the pssht-pssht sound rearing its ugly head from time to time, as if it were «artsy» or something. It is not — it's just ugly).

Repeated listens do bring out molecules of individual charm — ʽGuilty Cubiclesʼ is all about cross-weaving arpeggios from multiple guitars (and mandolins), ʽPassport Radioʼ is about ma­king your violins sound like Mellotrons (or is that vice versa?), ʽAlive In 85ʼ is about how a mer­ry, swinging, looped jazz guitar riff feels in the company of Depeche Mode-style rhythmics (not very well), ʽLast Placeʼ is like a Brian Eno / Harold Budd minimalist piano collaboration set to metronomic rhythms, and ʽCranley's Gonna Make Itʼ gradually transforms into a sunset-style soft jazz mood piece, capped off with an atmospheric horn part. The feelings they generate are all quite similar (peace, warmth, serenity, and an inescapable urge to join the local Eco-watch), but the ways of generating them are different enough to lay off objective accusations of Broken So­cial Scene being a «one-trick» band.

That said, this is still a very modest thumbs up: for the most part, Feel Good Lost works as high quality back­ground music (muzak?), which is a bit inadequate in relation to the amount of human resources expended on it (I mean, Brian Eno at his best could achieve much the same effect with two fingers as this band achieves with a small army). Pleasant, positive, and tasteful indeed, but it is hard for me to imagine anybody capable of being «bowled over» with this sort of music.

Check "Feel Good Lost (CD)" on Amazon
Check "Feel Good Lost" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. According to Wikipedia post-classical music is a synonym for romantic music. But then classical is derived from classicism, ie the music of Mozart and Haydn.
    Here is an essay on post-classical music in another meaning:

    Quite irrelevant, so I guess your point stands.
    The problem with ambient for me is stagnation. Nothing happens, resulting in me losing attention. A positive exception is Steve Hillage with his two Musick Suites.

  2. I've heard lots of good things about BSS and have listened to several of their records (though not this one), but they have never done much for me at all. They have always sounded like generic-post-Radiohead-"experimental"-indie-00s-group to me. Almost nothing they've done has grabbed me in any significant way, which has made me wonder why they often get so much critical praise. Curious as to what your views will end up being.

  3. The best thing ever associated with BSS is Leslie Feist, whose pleasant lounge debut (Let It Die) is beautiful, soothing & sounds like a completely tamed-down Fiona Apple. Hope she'll earn some reviews in this blog.