The phenomenon we call the rock `n’ roll “supergroup” is something of an oddity. It’s typically hard to know what to expect when you combine a group of musicians, all from different backgrounds, into one whole, melding all of their individual tastes, ideas, opinions and influences into one big stew of music. Sometimes it succeeds in meeting expectations, as with the Traveling Wilburys, whose superstar lineup produced some great pop if nothing quite near each members’ peak output. Sometimes it can be fun, but fleeting, as in the cases of the ad hoc “we-exist-only-to-be-on-soundtracks” bands such as The Venus in Furs, The Wylde Ratts, Ming Tea and the five-piece Beatles cover band in Back Beat.
But sometimes, and this is the interesting part, a supergroup can turn out to be a fantastic collaboration between lesser-known, humbler musicians that succeed without being hindered by hype or egos. The two best examples of this type of band are The New Pornographers, who are probably more recognizable now than in their previous bands (save for Neko Case) and Broken Social Scene, coincidentally, both from Canada.
What sets Broken Social Scene apart from most groups, “super” or not, is their chaotic nature. They’re not chaotic like the Boredoms, per se, but BSS has an element of unpredictability that’s absent from bands like The New Pornographers. The eleven-piece collective (made up of members of KC Accidental, Stars, Do Make Say Think and Metric) breaks practically every rule in the book, and yet somehow, it results in greatness. For starters, no member sticks to just one task. Positions are shifted, musical chairs-style, each person leaving his or her individually stylistic mark on no more than a handful of songs per instrument. Vocalists, as well, trade off, with Kevin Drew fronting the bulk of songs, while Brendan Canning, Leslie Feist, Emily Haines and Andrew Whiteman each step up to the mic throughout the album.
Making You Forgot It In People, the group’s second album, all the more intriguing is that the songs themselves don’t stick to one identifiable style. Songs range from ambient drones (“Capture the Flag,” “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”) to shoegazer noise rock (“KC Accidental, “Almost Crimes”) to soulful folk-rock (“Lovers’ Spit,” “Looks Just Like the Sun”). But the most compelling songs are the ones that are difficult to categorize on their own, let alone against 12 others that sound nothing like them.
“Shampoo Suicide” begins with a dub-like groove before building up into a densely layered psychedelic overload of the senses. And “Anthem for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” has a sweet melody coupled with Emily Haines’ oddly filtered vocal effects as she sweetly and eerily coos “you used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that.” Songs like these may appear to be the least immediately accessible, but the most rewarding after several listens.
While none of the members of Broken Social Scene’s other bands were A-listers prior to this collaboration, collectively they’re making quite a stir. A wide number of critics have given You Forgot it In People outstanding reviews and one song even ended up on an episode of Queer as Folk.
For a band that boasts bigger numbers than the Wu-Tang Clan, Broken Social Scene pull off an impressive second album that defies genres, expectations and rules.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.