Broken Social Scene. I’ve worshipped the ground they walk on since my senior year of high school.
If you haven’t heard of BSS, it’s time you spend some money on their music and get to know what they’ve produced.
Formed in 1999 by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, the original duo has since expanded to include a revolving cast of 19 members. Playing six degrees of separation with members of Canada’s best indie rock artists — think Metric, Stars and Feist — inevitably leads you back to BSS.
Not only have they firmly placed Toronto on the alternative music map, they have created a poignant image of the city for their listeners. The disjointed chords, chaotic drumbeats and epic choruses that define their songs also capture the soul, seasons and flavors of this completely underrated town. They are the musical geographers of my favorite city on this continent.
Let me provide some context for this love affair of mine. I went to boarding school right outside of Toronto for four years. Senior year, my first, lost love gave me a copy of BSS’ legendary “You Forgot It In People.” I devoured each song, but could not, and still cannot, remove her presence from my interpretation of the album. How can I hear lines like “Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me” and not feel the initial rush of emotion of my romantic chase? I revisit the lyric, “You know it’s time / That we grow old and do some shit,” and am again confronted by my misguided rationality, that we needed to break up before college.
Part of the power of music is its ability to firmly anchor us in the past. I’ve never been able to divorce music from experience. Songs, seemingly forgotten, will come up on my iTunes and trigger my memory, bringing me back to specific times, people and places. I spent many nights during my freshman year at Yale trying to conjure up these flashbacks, listening to BSS and hoping to find myself wandering the streets of Toronto, surrounded by familiar haunts and faces. It always worked. The music beckoned me northward and a year after graduating from high school, I was back in Toronto, sitting on the outcrop in Yorkville.
The music hadn’t changed, but I had. There was no triumphant return. There was no rekindling of lost love. BSS could not bring me back to who I was, it could only lure me into an idealized landscape that had started to forget me.
It was unsettling.
When I saw BSS perform in New York City in the fall of my sophomore year, I tried to focus on the songs and not on the memories that I associated them with. It didn’t work, and for a couple of hours I was in high school again, getting into shit and falling in love. But that was fine. When I left Brooklyn Masonic Temple, I could not help but feel that I had engaged in a necessary, periodical revisiting of my past. I felt grounded in the now, but also completely appreciative of the then.
When I heard BSS was playing at Toad’s this past Sunday, I was interested to see how I would react to their music, two years after the concert in New York. Far removed from my high school self, I wondered which memories would surface on the Toad’s dance floor? How would BSS’ newest album, “Forgiveness Rock Record,” completely unrelated to my high school days, affect me?
The band’s alternating set, sampling albums of the old and the new, bounced me from past to present. It was no longer a simple retrospective exercise. Recent songs, like “World Sick” and “All to All,” were followed by “Lover’s Spit” and “Cause = Time.” Canning, the bespectacled, bass guitar-wielding rock nerd, and Drew, the consummate badass drama queen and driving force behind the emotional pulse of the band, delivered incredible performances. Lisa Lobsinger, who is currently touring with BSS, remained completely faithful to Metric standout and seasonal BSSer Emily Haine’s rendition of “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year Old Girl,” one of the band’s most haunting songs.
It was not a comfortable concert experience, as BSS’ jumped between epic, orchestral rock and slow, introspective ballads that made the audience want to curl up with a knit blanket and a photo album. But Drew managed to corral the audience into a comfortable space in which these conflicting sounds could symbiotically relate. When they played their final song, “It’s All Gonna Break” — a cathartic proclamation of guilt, hope and forgiveness — no one was getting ready to leave. Not until that last crescendo and gradual release.
After the concert, I approached Justin Peroff, one of the founding members of the band. I told him how their music helped keep me connected to Toronto. He told me they were heading back up to the city next week for a few days before heading to Ann Arbor.
My eyes immediately lit up.
“Can you do me a favor?” I asked him. “Walk down Queen West for me.”
“I will,” he promised.