Review Summary: The biggest band on the planet: too big for an EP
If nothing else, Broken Social Scene are a larger-than-life presence. Their gargantuan line-up of musicians is so well established at this point that they might as well be known as everyone’s favourite, most wholesome music cult, and the scope of their distinctive brand of indie anthems by way of post rock jams is too wide to be defined by any individual one of their songs. Put it this way: they’re at their best when their combined strength as a collective is most clearly evidenced, and this takes the best part of a whole album given how evenly they spread their talent. That is to say, they are not exactly an EP band.
Let’s Try The After Vol. 1
, their follow-up EP to 2017’s Hug of Thunder
, is a pleasant addition to the Broken Social Scene’s discography but it does foreground all the issues associated with their sound on short-form releases. To its credit, it does spotlight a fair range of their roster for a release with only four proper tracks (and one short ambient intro). We’re treated to a pseudo-instrumental (featuring lyricless vocals) followed by respective lead vocal performances from Kevin Drew, relative newcomer Ariel Engle and Andrew Whiteman. This variety is very much welcome, but it doesn’t go much further than vocal performances - despite the polyinstrumental nature of these songs, they rarely deviate from the band’s well-established indie rock blueprint.
As such, the whole EP maintains a fairly similar tone from track to track, which is hardly surprising given how adept at sustaining mood and sequencing tracklists Broken Social Scene have continually proven themselves to be. What surprised me, however, was how much closer the mood in question sits to their 2010 release Forgiveness Rock Record
than Hug of Thunder
. I mean this in somewhat ambivalent terms; Forgiveness
for the most part lived up to the second word in its title with some of the band’s most successfully straightforward writing and arrangements to date, but it also held slightly more than its fair share of languid moments. ‘Languid’ is probably the second most important descriptor for Broken Social Scene, after ‘maximalist’. Generally, the two are traded off against each other with great success, but just as the central section of Forgiveness Rock Record
went too far off the mark and trimmed down the band’s gloriously over-the-top approach, so too does much of Let’s Try The After Vol. 1
The clearest example of this and a convenient indicator of almost all Forgiveness’
flaws is the album’s middle track, Boyfriends
. Kevin Drew’s voice has been well-suited to some downbeat songs in the past (Major Label Debut
and Lover’s Spit
spring to mind) but it has also had its share of missteps when taken south of its usual anthemic territory (I’m Still Your Fag
and Ungrateful Little Father
stand as apparent lowlights on their respective albums). Boyfriends
is unfortunately one of the latter category, with its listless drawl and lyricism that sits ambiguously between tongue-in-cheek commentary and smug virtue signalling. It’s not a write-off; the kind of BSS fan who considered Sweetest Kill
an album highlight and prefer things at half-speed will likely enjoy this, and the song does boast a deceptively busy mix beyond its dreary hook, with a range of tasteful yet unextravagent synth and guitar licks lurking under the verses. Unfortunately, Boyfriends
still comes across as overlong, repetitive and more than a little stagnant.
This doesn’t mar things too much considering that the following song is also the freshest and most surprising, and the definite standout. 1972
is instantly loveable; it oozes indie infectiousness from its opening notes and develops into a series of absolutely fantastic vocal hooks. It’s poppy, even more so than the band’s much loved classic, Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl
from You Forgot It In People
. It’s been seventeen years (!!!) since this album, but you would never know it from Ariel Engle’s performance. Strangely, many of her melodies and voicings evoke Lorde circa Pure Heroine
in the full strength of her bittersweet apprehension and knowingly melodramatic lyricism, which feels neatly ironic given how Broken Social Scene’s Lover’s Spit
earned itself a prominent namedrop on that album’s standout track. Things aren’t quite so straightforward, however, with the final minute pulling a surprise chord change and dipping into a morose instrumental considerably darker than the note of indie nostalgia the song set out on. In many ways, the entire sequencing of Hug of Thunder
is mapped out on this song alone, with its saccharine opening, strident mid section and sobering final moments. Whether or not this intentional is beyond me, but 1972
certainly feels appropriate and essential to the state of Broken Social Scene in 2019.
The other two songs fall somewhere in the middle of the road. While it’s definitely in a poppier vein, it’s very surprising to consider that All I Want
was released as the single rather than 1972
. It’s a neat song that starts out with a catchy beat and distorted bass groove, but it never quite hits its stride in the way the dynamic tradeoff between its rising verses and pared back choruses suggests it might; at the moment the song seems it’s about to take off, it comes to a sudden end and takes the EP with it. Remember Me Young
has a little more to it, showing off the band’s knack for well-arranged instrumental jams. It’s hard to pin down any single performer that stands out here, but that’s to its credit; it feels like the most overtly collaborative track here. However, its execution isn’t quite enough to make up for its lack of strong motifs, and so it ends up as a pleasant but somewhat immemorable exercise in atmosphere and arrangement.
In their review of this EP, Pitchfork remarked that Remember Me Young
felt like an inversion of You Forgot it In People
’s KC Accidental
. I have to agree; the song takes its predecessor’s derelict nostalgia and turns it into something less angular, less raw and somewhat more relaxing. Where KC
lurched and mused, Remember Me
cruises and croons. However, one quality that KC Accidental
showed off particularly well is lacking on this EP: Justin Peroff’s drumming, which has always been perhaps the most prominent of Broken Social Scene’s many, many secret weapons, is disappointingly unremarkable here. His performance is certainly tasteful and competent, but I cannot think of a single moment at which the drums momentarily stole the show for me in the way that they so often did on past releases. This is an accurate refection on Let’s Try The After Vol. 1
in general: it’s predominantly downbeat and not exactly disappointing, but far from a good indicator of Broken Social Scene’s full strengths. In any case, let’s stay tuned for Vol. 2…