In the early 2000s, it seemed like there was a competition between Canadian bands over who had the most members. The New Pornographers consisted of virtually everyone in Vancouver who could strum a guitar, and Arcade Fire collected nearly every band geek from between Ottawa and Texas. I think that in order to join Godspeed You! Black Emperor, you just had to show up with food. So when Broken Social Scene arrived with their sprawling lineup of 11+ shaggy Torontonians, it seemed like the latest sign of a trend gone too far.
But one listen to their breakthrough album, You Forgot It In People, made it clear that BSS were unlike anything else out there. They were sort of post rock, sort of jazz, sort of pop, but really not any of those things at all. They had layer upon layer of guitars, synths, horns, and vocals, and avoided traditional song structures, but somehow it was all undeniably catchy. Songs like "Almost Crimes" and "Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl" got into your head, despite all their bizarre noises and weird turns. There was something fresh about the whole thing, like you were experiencing songs right as they were written, with no filter between you and the band's wild ideas.
While BSS drew members from some of Toronto's best indie bands, like By Divine Right, Stars, and Do Make Say Think, it took a while for You Forgot It In People to break beyond their home city. The album got reviewed on Pitchfork when one of their writers made a new year's resolution to listen back over every CD sent to the office in 2002. This one stood out, and earned a 9.2/10, though the reviewer couldn't quite explain why. This is what happens with BSS: it's hard to explain why they stand out, but they just do.
By most standards, You Forgot It In People shouldn't work. It's all over the map stylistically, jumping between ambient drone ("Capture the Flag"), jam rock ("KC Accidental"), light bossa nova ("Looks Just Like The Sun"), piano crooning ("Lover's Spit"), and straight up pop ("Almost Crimes"). There's no discernible lead singer, as various members take turns on the mic, making it hard to for listeners to form a connection with anyone. There's endless jamming and background noise, nonstop guitar noodling, and only the occasional hook. And yet, there's a certain energy keeping the whole chaotic mess together.
A lot of that energy comes from co-founder Kevin Drew, who brings rockstar charisma to a band that could easily play while staring at their shoes. As much as he likes to hide his presence on record and blend in with the collective, when you see them live, it's clear that he is their frontman and spiritual leader. He's the one who can take a weird noise, a two-chord jam, or a simple vocal melody and sell it as a pop song.
Despite all the layers of sound, the real secret behind You Forgot It In People is its pop minimalism. "KC Accidental" comes off at first as cacophony of guitars, but when you really listen, there are maybe five notes in the whole song. Emily Haines' vocal line in "Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" has a measly three notes. It's their ability to make huge, airy, energetic songs out of so few elements that separates them from the pack. When you have a band with 20 people on stage at a time, it's really hard keeping things simple, but BSS manage to channel everyone's energy while avoiding clutter. Most bands try to do more with less, but BSS turn it around, like some grinning punks, and say "Why not do less with more?"
Greg Bouchard is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.