Indie rock romance with Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers and The Hold Steady

When you stop to think about it, relationships with bands are not that different from relationships with people. You find each other at just the right point in your lives, when what they’re offering lines up exactly with what you’re looking for. There are growing pains as you both start to change and try and figure out if you still fit together. Sometimes you forgive the differences and stay. Sometimes you cut your losses and move on.

In my case, I kind of feel like I’m having a lot more one-album or one-song stands these days. The constant rush of trying to keep up with new records combined with the accelerating zeitgeist means that my sonic romances feel quick and fleeting rather than the long, complicated courtships of my past. I’ve always wondered why older people seem to cling to the records of their youth; maybe it’s just that, at a certain point, many people just reach their capacity for how many bands they can bring into their life.

So in this climate, there’s something wonderful about a day like today, when the buzz bands trying to flirt their way into my headphones have to wait their turn as a few long-term affairs show up at my doorstep with something to prove, fighting to remind me why I fell for them in the first place. That’s not to say that the most recent albums from Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers and the Hold Steady have pushed me away, but there’s no question that all three bands are a record or two removed from their career highs, from the moments that sparked our initial affair. But here they are with new albums, all on the same day, trying to win my affection once again.

So in honor of their renewed courtship, let’s review each of my relationships with these bands, assess where they’re headed, and judge their sonic gestures by the ultimate measure of heart-on-sleeve romance: the Lloyd Dobbler scale (out of five).

Broken Social Scene

 

First love:I discovered“Stars and Sons” while watching The Wedge on MuchMusic some quiet Friday evening. (Remember The Wedge?) There was something otherworldly yet inviting about that bass line, and something unbelievably compelling about that tweet-filled outro. You Forgot it In People was pretty much love at first listen.

 

Rough patch:Despite containing some of the band’s best songs – “It’s All Gonna Break,” “7/4 (Shoreline),” “Major Label Debut” – their self-titled second record felt tinkered with in the studio to the point of aimlessness. And while I had a soft spot for Kevin Drew’s “solo” record, forgive me for considering the “BSS Presents” records as a detour on the way to the collective’s next proper release.

 

Future prospects:BSS has never disappointed me as a live act, and much of the thrill of Forgiveness Rock Record is how it feels like one of the group’s concerts. In part, this is because the core of the band has largely remained the same during their “off” years, so the machine feels well-oiled. Mostly, though, it’s that Forgiveness never feels overthought: it’s loose, playful and natural. The anthems are big and loud – maybe the most U2-y the band has ever been (and I mean that as a compliment) – and the ballads regain the weight that they had on You Forgot. It’s not another masterpiece at the level of that record, but at this point a great BSS album is more than enough to be satisfied with.

Dobbler Score: 4/5 Lloyd Dobblers

The New Pornographers

 

First love:The blistering joy of “Letter from an Occupant” still sounds like a revelation a decade later. In my opinion, the Pornographers have become a better band since – Twin Cinema, to my ears, is a more interesting, varied and ultimately superior record to Mass Romantic – but there’s no question that their debut’s mixing of massive riffs and even more massive harmonies was something special.

Rough patch: I liked Challengers well enough, but it felt like an experiment in how low the band could drop its energy level while still keeping their sensibilities intact. While Dan Bejar put together some of his best Pornographers songs yet, Carl Newman’s contributions felt lacking in his trademark euphoric highs. With his second solo record fitting the same pattern, one could be forgiven for worrying that Newman was becoming a noble balladeer instead of a pop hero.

Future prospects: “These things get louder,” sing the band on “Moves,” Together‘s opening track that immediately sets the mood: in a word, exhilarating. This is the biggest and boldest the Pornographers have sounded since Mass Romantic, with even the ballads in fighting form – and joy of joys, Neko Case gets an up-tempo song again! (the blissful “Crash Years”). And lest you think they’re retracing their steps, the entire album is dominated by a string section that is not only novel, but manages to somehow make the band’s sound even larger. Twin Cinema probably still claims the title of the best Pornographers record, but Together isdamn close and shows that there’s plenty of life left in their power-pop crusade.

Dobbler score: 4.5/5 Lloyd Dobblers

The Hold Steady

First love: Having missed the Separation Sunday boat, I didn’t stumble upon the band until their Springsteenian impulses kicked into full gear on the glorious Boys and Girls in America. Full of sex, drugs and rock and roll, it sounded like the party and the hangover all at once, with Craig Finn’s “scene-of-the-crime” storytelling holding the entire hot mess together.

Rough patch: It wasn’t really that rough, but there’s little question that Stay Positive was a step down from Boys and Girls. Its best songs relied on familiar strengths, and the album’s more adventuresome songs were easily its weakest links. But even then, those big choruses and tall tales still sounded like something special.

Future prospects: The day’s biggest disappointment, Heaven wears the loss of keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who left the band last year) harder than expected. Were his piano and organ rolls really that key to the band’s sound? Apparently so – without it, much of the material feels dead on arrival, or at the very least gasping for breath. Again, it’s the most familiar songs that leave a lasting impression, most notably “Hurricane J” and “The Weekenders.” The songs that stretch the band are more noble efforts than those on Stay Positive but no better, and the record is bookended by two slow, meandering efforts that just sap the energy out of the whole operation. There’s echoes of greatness here, but mostly it leaves me worried that perhaps the Hold Steady are a band for a particular moment in time, and that moment is quickly passing.

Dobbler score: 2.5/5 Lloyd Dobblers


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3 responses to “Indie rock romance with Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers and The Hold Steady

  1. Seems about right after a first listen to both.

    I’m mildly disappointed with Forgiveness Rock Record, mostly because of sky high expectations, but also because it leans more to their mellower side at times, when I’ve always been most interested in their more propulsive, ‘8+ musicians rocking your face’ tracks. The lack of Feist also hurts it a bit.

    I’m relieved to hear some relative assent about my feelings on the NP’s discography…most of the reviews I see for Together keep bringing up how awesome Mass Romantic (which never clicked with me) was and how bad Challengers (which always seemed decent) was in comparison. For the most part, Together doesn’t seem to have as many of the infectious hooks that its predecessors had, but it does seem more consistent and less lethargic than Challengers could be.

    In other news, the Spin review compared “Your Hands (Together)” to “War Pigs” and it’s driving me insane each time I listen to it.

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