Sunday, June 15, 2008

Champagne Socialism


When it comes to extending personal invitations to quality support acts, Broken Social Scene have previous, having helped to propel Los Campesinos! into the big time on the last occasion they found themselves on these shores. This time the beneficiaries of their patronage are Aucklanders The Brunettes - essentially Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield and four accomplices possessing hair of a similar hue.

In truth, the Toronto-based collective are by no means the first North American band to have wanted to promote The Brunettes outside of their native New Zealand - none-more-indie brethren like The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Rilo Kiley have also taken them on tour. They've also had the more dubious honour of having one of their songs selected by Channel 4 for use in a long trailer for the acting-free zone that is 'Hollyoaks'.

The song in question, 'Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth', is, it has to be said, the undoubted jewel in their crown - sweet, infectious and handclappily exuberant, like one of Jason Pierce's garage numbers smothered in honey by The Polyphonic Spree. All the same, the rest of the set, which draws heavily on last year's Sub Pop-released album Structure & Cosmetics, shows how positive the results can be when a band has been able to grow and evolve in their own splendid isolation, insulated by distance from the caprices of fashion.

Apparently, Broken Social Scene's sound man once met a girl in Oxford, and that's the reason they've been persuaded to play here. All I can say is: whoever you are, mystery girl, thank you. It doesn't quite match up to the first time I saw them - how could it, frankly? - but it still ultimately ranks as probably the best gig I've been to this year so far.

Not that the signs are too good at first, mind. We're in the Academy, of course - an atmosphere-free corporate dungeon a million miles from the deconsecrated church they played in Cardiff. Nominal band leader Kevin Drew seems reserved and a little quiet, and there's no sloshing glass of red wine in need of continuous refill, while charismatic guitarist/showman Andrew Whiteman is one of those missing. A stilted take of 'Churches Under The Stairs', from bassist Brendan Canning's forthcoming BSS Present... album Something For All Of Us, is played with the assistance of sheets of paper and derails during the third verse.

But the audience is only too happy to indulge the band when Drew apologetically offers to set things straight by playing it again, and gradually there's a slackening, a loosening, a thawing, and everything begins to flow smoothly. '7/4 Shoreline' and 'Superconnected' certainly help, as does 'Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl', performed on this occasion by Amy Millan of Stars, whose fellow band member Evan Cranley also plays a supporting role. Before long, Canning - looking somewhere between an eccentric geography teacher and a tramp - is entertaining us with his Peter Gabriel impression and the band are light-heartedly squabbling about where exactly it was that they had the misfortune to watch 'Snakes On A Plane'. Now in full Barry Norman mode, Drew advises us not to bother watching 'Atonement' - punting, it seems, was infinitely more enjoyable.

If it's difficult to lay a finger on precisely why Broken Social Scene's live performances are so superior to the recordings, then it's almost as difficult to explain their charms in the first place (in terms that don't just refer to the weight of numbers). One suspects that perhaps it's the contribution of Do Make Say Thinkers Charles Spearin (guitar/trumpet) and Justin Peroff (drummer/actor/aspiring novelist) that gives the songs a languid groove.

You could pretty much guarantee that the sweeping airraid siren guitar of 'Ibi Dreams Of Pavement' would bring the set of any other band to a close - but not Broken Social Scene, because they've still got 'It's All Gonna Break' in reserve. 'I'm Still Your Fag' lights up the encore, and Drew eventually leaves the stage exhorting us to "be kind" and indicating he practices what he preaches by gratefully returning a plectrum he borrowed mid-set. There's certainly nothing broken about the social scene they leave behind calling for more.

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