Thursday, September 13, 2007

Community Spirit!

Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew’s ‘Spirit If…’

Proving that individualism and collectivism needn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive, it’s refreshingly ambiguous as to whether ‘Spirit If…’ is the fourth Broken Social Scene album or the first Kevin Drew solo effort. Either way, the confused billing shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given the jaded noises Drew and Brendan Canning were making upon the release of the last BSS album, expressing their frustration with the group’s creative processes. It also won’t come as any surprise to anyone that ‘Spirit If…’ sounds like, well, a Broken Social Scene album. There’s less in the way of vocal contributions (although Leslie Feist is present, and one track here recycles the central riff from ‘Past In Present’, the weakest track on her ‘Reminder’ album), but the nebulous, think stew of sound that characterised the BSS albums very much lives on here.

If the intention is to make this the first in a series of ‘Broken Social Scene Presents…’ solo projects (Canning’s is slated to follow in 2008), then there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from this new work ethic. It’s a working method that has worked well for the London Jazz Scene, catering for a small but dedicated audience, where groups such as the F-IRE and the Loop Collective, both through playing in each other’s outfits and joining forces on promotional duties, have demonstrated resilience and achieved notable success. The Canadians seem to understand the effectiveness of forming local, cross-fertilising musical communities particularly well, and it would be great to see more British rock acts operating with this level of awareness and imagination.

If there’s a useful distinction to be made, it’s that the ramshackle elements of the BSS have been amplified a little here. There’s plenty of noncommittal acoustic guitar strunmming, and more emphasis on four-square rock beats than the unconventional time signatures into which BSS often broke. The bursts into studio-assisted noise are less frequent (although Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis is apparently here adding to the sturm und drang), and there’s unsurprisingly a much greater emphasis on Drew’s wayward singing. The overall sense is a neat combination of a slightly slack, lo-fi aesthetic combined with a painstaking attention to detail.

After the rather savage initial bombast of ‘Farewell to the Pressure Kids’, a more considered template emerges. Many of the songs, particularly ‘TBTF’ (as the internet rarely seems characterised by such coyness, I can reveal it stands for ‘Too Beautiful To F*ck) and ‘Safety Bricks’ build from very basic, conventional templates into something unexpectedly magical. ‘TBTF’ develops from a skeletal strum into something almost like rock chamber music, with a brass section softly parping at the song’s conclusion. ‘Lucky Ones’ may start out in rather mundane indie rock territory, but eventually presents itself as something rather more ambitious, with infectious backing vocals and a palpable insistence at its core.

A lot of these songs are simply overlong though, and perhaps a little self-conscious too. ‘Gang Bang Suicide’ sounds like Animal Collective during a bout of serious depression. There’s certainly something of that group’s peculiar approach to vocalising, but here it’s taken at a slothful pace that becomes oppressive well before the track rambles into its seventh minute. Even the relatively concise ‘Broke Me Up’ (at four and a half minutes) seems a little meandering and directionless. Those rushing to hail this as the best BSS album have probably blinded themselves to some of its flaws.

Still, there’s still plenty of invention and ambition here, and at its most pretty and direct, it is particularly effective. Many of the tracks, particularly ‘Frightening Lives’ and ‘Lucky Ones’ are decidedly slow burning, and take time to reveal their peculiar trajectories. It’s also engaging when at its weirdest – ‘Big Love’ is really rather baffling. With some irony though, much of ‘Spirit If…’ strives to occupy a middle ground between conventional indie-pop and experimentalism and ends up being more inscrutable than any of the BSS albums in the process.

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