Listening to a Broken Social Scene album is like watching The Last Waltz and pretending you’ve never heard of any of these people. When Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison amble onstage to take their turn at the mike, you just pretend it’s a stoned friend of the band who was in town that night, sleeping on his ex-girlfriend’s couch, and begged his way into the show. (“Fiiiine, Bob, you can sing ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ if it makes you happy, but lose the wool hat, okay?”) Part of the appeal of this Canadian indie-rock collective is the way they keep this open-mike spirit going from album to album, whether it’s a proper BSS record, or a solo project that features all the band members anyway, or an album by one of their friends and collaborators (most famously Feist). They usually make a point of sounding like they’re just a bunch of guitarists hanging out, trading licks, not taking the end results too seriously. So the jolting thing about their fantastic new Forgiveness Rock Record is how focused it is — they’re sweating over these songs, and the cheerful energy is contagious.
Broken Social Scene really bring that Last Waltz vibe to the live show. It’s an old-school hippie revue where everybody takes a turn to sing or play a guitar solo. Last Friday at New York’s Webster Hall, they had up to 12 musicians onstage at a time, including a horn section and God knows how many lead guitarists, occasionally wandering from instrument to instrument mid-song. At one point, guitarist Brendan Canning slipped away for a bathroom break, and nobody even noticed until he came back. They beckoned Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw from Metric out from backstage to do “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” the punk rave “Almost Crimes” and the new lullaby “Sentimental X’s.” (The last time I saw BSS at this club, it was officially Kevin Drew’s solo tour, yet they had the same revolving-door cast of musicians onstage — including Pavement’s Scott Kannberg on guitar, and they even had him sing the Wowie Zowie chestnut “Kennel District.”) They coasted from oldies (the always-awesome “Cause = Time,” with an explosive guitar break from Sam Goldberg) to newies (the pissed-off eco rant “Texico Bitches”). Drew polled the crowd to pick the final song — when the nominee that got the most applause turned out to be “Lovers’ Spit,” he mused, “It sounds like there’s some lovers in the room.” Damn straight.
This band built up so much good will with their first breakthrough album, nobody really needed them to make another one. You Forgot It In People, from 2002, already had too many memorable tunes to pack into a live set, so who needed more? But apparently Broken Social Scene did, so Forgiveness has sloppy guitar jams and mellow ballads and angry political screeds, shaped into actual songs for the first time in years. I love Broken Social Scene in lazy-ass ramble mode (especially Kevin Drew’s excellent 2007 solo joint Spirit If…, a guitar album with barely any interest in songcraft) but if they want to make a song album this sharp every six years, all the better.