One day down, two left to go. The start of the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival was plagued with a light rain shower, followed by gray clouds that seemed somewhat ominous for the rest of the day. Thankfully it was a largely dry day, and the music was sunny enough that the skies didn’t matter so much. I’ll have all kinds of photos and other goodies once the weekend wraps up, but in the meantime please join me after the jump for a brief recap of everything I saw and did on Friday.
Tag: broken social scene
So you’re planning to attend the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival. Congratulations! You have made a very wise choice. It promises to be a great time in a great city with a great collection of artists. Speaking of those artists, one of the challenges with any music festival is looking over the schedule and trying to figure out who to see when. In the cases where you only like one artist performing at a particular time, the choice is easy. In the cases where you like two artists performing at the same time, the conflict can be tragic. But what about the artists you’re not familiar with? There’s always at least a few at any large festival, and even the most avid music fan has some knowledge gaps. The great news is that it’s easy to learn, and maybe just a little easier to make a crucial decision about a conflict, if you’ve got some outside help. Welcome to the first of three installments of the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival Preview Guide! Here you can find out information about every artist on the lineup, and see recommendations on who you should be seeing at any particular time. So if you wouldn’t mind, please join me after the jump to check out the comprehensive guide to who’s performing on Friday. Let’s go!
It’s somewhat funny how little most people know about Leslie Feist. Ask your average music fan these days how they know Feist, and they’ll likely make mention of her last album “The Reminder” and the hit single “1,2,3,4”, spurred in large part by an iPod/iTunes commercial. At least a wider variety of people know who she is, compared to a number of similar and in special cases better artists. Still, it’s a shame that her strong debut “Let It Die” fails to get noticed, along with her great contributions to Broken Social Scene before that. With such a step forward in the fame game and plenty of people keeping a close eye on what she does next, you’d expect Feist to go the crowd-pleasing route. After all, alienating a set of fans that just came on board with your last record would seem like the wrong move from a financial and business perspective. On the other hand, playing it safe also tends to result in a loss of musical integrity, falling under the guise of “selling out” and proclamations that your music “isn’t as good as it once was”. The good news to come from Feist’s third full length “Metals” is that she appears to make it clear that she’s sticking to her guns and continuing to explore new avenues for her particular sound. If that puts her newfound popularity at risk, so be it.
Okay, so Feist isn’t exactly rewriting her songbook or taking risks that are so obtuse your auditory gag reflex kicks in. If anything, she tries to stay cool and humble on “Metals”, pretty much keeping her head down trying not to stir the pot too much. A track like “A Commotion” causes just a little bit of one with its half-spoken chorus and male choir shouting the song title. “Anti-Pioneer” starts small and eventually swells with strings to the point of almost bursting, while “Undiscovered First” gets sharply rock and roll with some buzzsaw electric guitar work. Save for those momentary flashes of something different, there’s a remarkably even keel to the rest of the album. You can use any number of words to help describe it, such as nice, lovely, enjoyable and perhaps even somber, but those are all pretty middle-of-the-road terms. “Metals” is certainly better than a middle-of-the-road album. Those disappointed by the lack of lighthearted pop songs have only the earworm single “How Come You Never Go There” as their solace, and even that doesn’t come close to touching “1,2,3,4”. Mostly these new tracks play up Feist’s softer, slower and more ballad/torch song side, and if that’s a side of her you like, there’s so much to be pleased about. “Cicadas and Gulls” is acoustically perfect for a quiet ride through some pastoral countryside, shortly before it takes off into something bigger and more glorious and gorgeous. If you need sweet and simple, “Bittersweet Melodies” should suit you perfectly with its light touches of flute and xylophone for added spice. Feist goes nightclub cabaret on “Caught A Long Wind”, a slowly rolling acoustic and piano number that throws in some light strings for an extra dose of dramatic effect.
Sweeping drama doesn’t exclusively show itself in the instrumentals though. Right from opening track “The Bad in Each Other”, Feist is talking about relationships that are doomed to fail. At least it has the courage to do so in a brass section of glory. But “Metals” is really less of a romantic relationship-themed record than her last couple, instead choosing to shift focus a little bit to the sheer grandiosity of nature itself. You can catch those themes first and foremost by examining the song titles, which make references to wind and pioneers and cicadas/gulls and undiscovered things. The lyrics often espouse a respect and compassion for the natural world, primarily as a solace from the everyday issues we as human beings face. This movement away from more intimate moments and towards bigger and broader themes surprisingly doesn’t take much away from each track’s overall impact. That’s likely because while a sunset is very much a massive event in nature, a quieter song about it brings a certain personalization and the feeling of a day winding down towards an end rather than building up towards a beginning. If Feist is pandering to her extended fan base, it comes through almost entirely with her lyrics because of how generalized they are compared to what she’s done before.
The thing that made the first two Feist records so damn great was how free-flowing and charming they were. She could go from the sparse acoustics of “Gatekeeper” to a funkier, synth-laden “One Evening” and back around to a bright, handclap-infused pop single in “Mushaboom”. On “The Reminder”, toe-tappers like “I Feel It All” and “Sea Lion Woman” made for some serious thrills amid the more somber, lounge-inspired numbers. Such diversity is not really present on “Metals”, and it really could have used some. If she had crafted an entire record of fanciful pop songs that lack of diversity would still remain, though the music itself would be far easier to digest. Here is an album that feels like the end of a long day. It’s not necessarily tired or depressed, just a bit worn down and in need of some serious relaxation. Sit on your couch with some dim lighting and the alcoholic beverage of your choice and put this record on as your soundtrack. It should engage your mind as it relaxes your body. At least it’s still moderately effective in that way. Despite its flaws, one of the best things that can be said about “Metals” is that it is true to Feist’s uncompromising vision. It may not be what everybody else had in mind, but it’s probably better as a result.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Stars before, they’re the main band of Amy Millan, who is both a former full-time member of Broken Social Scene as well as a solo artist herself. In Stars, Millan has the added benefit of Torquil Campbell, a guy who more shares the spotlight than tries to steal it. This allows for plenty of back-and-forth singing and harmonizing, all while backed by friendly and often beautiful indie pop instrumentation. What escalated Stars’ popularity amongst the indie community was their 2005 album “Set Yourself on Fire”, a sharp and gorgeous record that featured smartly written songs and just the right degree of production to make the album sound small when it was anything but. Quietly anthemic is a great way to describe tracks like “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty”, two highlights on an album packed with them. A couple years later Stars would return again with “In Our Bedroom After the War”, which attempted to push their sound to the “next level” mostly by going big or going home. The compositions swelled in size, and suddenly this small band was playing second fiddle to huge orchestral movements and choruses as wide as Canada itself. For a band that had earned their reputation on the idea that big things come in small packages, many long-time fans had adverse reactions to that last album. After yet another sojourn into solo album territory, Millan returned to Stars a few months ago and they officially return this week with their fifth album, “The Five Ghosts”.
The good thing about Stars is that they seem to know that they screwed up with their last record. Whether that was a function of fans telling them so or simply poorer album sales, somewhere along the line they must have realized “In Our Bedroom After the War” wasn’t their best work. To try and get back the magic of “Set Yourself on Fire”, the band brought Tom McFall, who produced that album, back for “The Five Ghosts”. In a similar fashion to your average movie sequel, McFall’s efforts this time aren’t as effective this time around, and in some ways it’s almost like he forgot how to properly produce this band. Much of the new album sounds muddy and clumsily put together, with the vocals shoved to the forefront above all else. It takes away the power that many of these songs might have had otherwise, when you can barely tell there are strings in the background on a track like “Winter Bones” or the synths on “Fixed” get relegated to wallpaper rather than allowing them to shimmer and shake. You listen to these new songs and then go back to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” to hear the swells of horns and strings and wonder exactly what happened to that band.
Of course some of the problems with “The Five Ghosts” rest on the band too, not just their producer. To their credit, Stars smartly pulled back on the bombastic anthems of their last album, but did they pull back too far? Even compared to the densely layered indie pop of “Set Yourself on Fire”, “The Five Ghosts” feels small. Perhaps that has a lot to do with the somber melodies that populate this new record. This is by far the darkest and most depressing Stars album to date, and the lack of peppy pop songs isn’t helping anyone. But in addition to the dark clouds overhead, many of the songs are similar to one another and relatively pedestrian as far as melodies are concerned. “Coffee house bland” seems to be the name of the game here, where the idea is to keep the sound broad and avoiding risk wherever possible. In other words, Stars aren’t taking any chances towards furthering their sound, and instead they’ve regressed worse than a former alcoholic picking up the bottle again. It’s tragic to hear a band that was once so fascinating and full of life come off as bland and practically neutered.
Believe it or not, there are some good things about “The Five Ghosts”. First off, none of the songs are terrible. There may not be any surprisingly great moments, but there aren’t any abhorrently bad ones either. And secondly, the Amy Millan-centered songs turn out the best in this case mostly due to her vocal performance. Her breathy vocal style lends itself well to the balladry many of these songs contain. Not only that, but she lends a fair deal of weight and emotion to these songs through her voice, something that hasn’t always come across in anything she’s done previously. So really though many of the songs may not be the best Stars have to offer, Millan’s star does particularly shine in this instance, while Torquil Campbell takes a little more of a backseat and lackadaisical approach to his singing than he normally does. Like the tone of the album though, your general impression of it might come off as somewhat gray. To put it another way, a good review quote for the album cover might be, “Eh, it’s alright.” So Stars won’t be making any new friends with this spirit-themed album. A couple highlights do come in the form of tracks like “Changes” and “I Died So I Could Haunt You”, but for the most part results are sketchy at best. Here’s to hoping that yet again Stars can keep their ears to the ground and find a fresher, more adventurous path to take next time around. If not, their visibility as a good Canadian indie pop band might just disappear like the spirits in their album title.
When it comes to Broken Social Scene, I’ll confess to being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Asking me for my simplest opinion of the band, I’d say that I love them and that they’re one of my favorite bands. But lately things have become complicated. Specifically, since 2005’s self-titled album, which eventually turned into a “hiatus” of sorts for the band. The word hiatus is in quotes because while many of the loose members went their separate ways for a time, there was still a series of “Broken Social Scene Presents…” albums from main guys Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning to keep the name somewhat alive during that time. Those records were decent (not not amazing), and largely stuck to the same sound the full Broken Social Scene collective had established on previous albums. It was late last year that Kevin Drew announced the official reformation of Broken Social Scene, and their new album “Forgiveness Rock Record” arrives tomorrow.
On the surface, I should be leaping with excitement at the prospect of a new Broken Social Scene album. “You Forgot It In People” is among my Top 10 Albums of the 00s, and the last official BSS record was pretty damn good too. My excitement, however, has been tempered by the fact that little to nothing has really changed since the “Broken Social Scene Presents” days aside from the word “Presents”. Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning still lead a motley group of people, while former female powerhouses such as Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, and Amy Millan can scarcely be counted upon to make even a single track guest appearance anymore. Of course they’re all off doing their own things, what with Feist having two popular records under her belt, Haines gaining more press than ever for the last Metric record, and Millan’s band Stars preparing to release yet another album of delicious indie pop. Translation: I went into “Forgiveness Rock Record” under the belief that despite boasting a roster of nine “core” members and 22 “guest” musicians and vocalists, this was not nearly the same band as before. Or, to put it a different way, there seems to be no way any of us are ever going to hear “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” performed live again, unless band members past and present all just “happen” to be in the same place at the same time. To help take away some of that pain and handle some of those older songs with female parts, new member Lisa Lobsinger is on board. I can’t help but think the way she does a “7/4 Shoreline” or a “Cause=Time” will be poor in comparison to the Feist versions. All these things being said, among a host of other concerns, let me dive in to talking about the actual content on “Forgiveness Rock Record,” and whether or not it lives up to the glory of the other albums under the Broken Social Scene name.
Things get off to a grand start with the 7-minute opener “World Sick”, a song that contains most of the Broken Social Scene trademarks, including a cool instrumental intro and outro along with a chorus that makes you want to shout from the rooftops. It’d make for a great single, except, you know, it’s 7 minutes. “Chase Scene” follows the high of the epic opening cut with a speedy, noisy adventure that’s in and out before you can catch up to it. “Texico Bitches” could be considered another highlight, a fast-paced anti-oil corporation rager that three tracks in seems to indicate that this might be a very revitalized, energized and more accessible (but still angry) version of the band than ever before. Honestly, I was expecting more quieter, or at least slower tracks that dominated past releases, instead of this propulsive and stadium-sized stuff. “All to All” is interesting as Lisa Lobsinger’s first lead vocal turn. It’s not a hugely remarkable track aside from its ethereal beauty, though I can’t help but think that Feist or even Amy Millan could have done more with it. “Art House Director” gets things all moody and atmospheric and features the classic BSS horn section with great aplomb. The album’s only instrumental, “Meet Me in the Basement,” might actually be the best instrumental they’ve ever done, and that’s saying something. I’m also offered quite a bit of relief in the form of “Sentimental X’s”, an Emily Haines-fronted tune with backing vocals from none other than Feist and Millan. I guess only the faster, louder jams are reserved for the guys, but the fact is lyrically and emotionally, “Sentimental X’s” hits all the right notes and really pushed my excitement about this band back into the red. At the end of the album are two interesting songs. “Water In Hell” sounds less like your typical Broken Social Scene song and more like a guitar jam that Dinosaur Jr. might put out. Given that band members are not only fans of J. Mascis & Co., but have played with them for a gig or two, the soundalike isn’t so much a surprise as it is impressive that they can pull it off so well. Then there’s “Me and My Hand”, Kevin Drew’s 2-minute quiet opus to masturbation. I don’t have anything to say about the song other than I’m glad that oddity closes the album out.
So if you can’t figure it out by now, I’m pretty pleased with “Forgiveness Rock Record”. I’m still a little unsure as to where it stands among the stellar Broken Social Scene catalogue, but it’s definitely better than both of the “Presents” albums that were released during the hiatus days. It’s nice to have the “band” back together, even if the lineup does continue to fluctuate and the chances of the full collective playing a live show become increasingly slim. Lisa Lobsinger is an okay addition to the group as their lone “full time” female member, though I still prefer the ladies of old. Mainly though, I’m just glad this band is still hitting their hallmarks while continuing to push their own boundaries at the same time. There’s a certain degree of new excitement and renewed strength among the BSS core that’s also refreshing. My concern now is how these songs will translate into their live show. The first half of the record seems especially built for the size and scope of venues that the band plays, so that could provide some increased potency to their performance. I’ve seen Broken Social Scene live a total of 3 times, once with the entire collective in tow (which was far and away the best time). Their massive celebrations and love-fests, which often include Kevin Drew commanding the crowd to yell as loud as they can, are cathartic and heartfelt. “Forgiveness Rock Record” looks to keep that spirit intact, and I think this marks the first time that similar spirit has really come through on one of their recorded albums. You bet your ass I think you should pick up a copy of the record. It’s no “You Forgot It In People”, but it does what only Broken Social Scene does best, and that’s about all any of us can truly hope for.