There are three women who sing with Broken Social Scene, and it could easily be argued that the finest of them all is Feist. Amy Millan is also a superb singer, adding a delicacy to any song she performs on. Yet Emily Haines has the charisma to take both of these wonderful singers and climb all over them on her way to the spotlight. She doesn't get much to do when with Broken Social Scene, but every song she does get her hands on she makes her own. So when you team her up with a group of boys who like nothing more than to ramp up the volume on their electric guitars and really jam out, surely this would result in one of the best pop-punk albums of this (or any) generation? On the basis of "Live It Out", these is a lot of work still to be done if the band are ever to make good on their obvious potential.
The opening six minutes lay out everything the band has to offer in what is arguably their finest moment. "Empty", a lightning strike of awesome, starts off with ominous tones and a quiet guitar riff that repeats back upon itself constantly. Then Haines joins in, singing softly, whispering almost, over the delicate refrain. Some brush drums come in, and Haines starts to add depth to the intelligent lyrics "we couldn't see what was coming" she purrs, before an avalanche of guitars hurtle out of nowhere and start going at it like crazed hell-dogs from the fiery depths of Hades (I don't get to write about punk albums often, forgive me). As the guitars crash and burn all around her, Haines returns "shake your head/it's empty" she offers sweetly, before the guitars wipe out and the music struggles to return back to the opening notes. There's a lot of feedback, and the bass kicks in with a little bit of funk, pushing the song forwards gently. After this, it all goes downhill somewhat.
There are a lot of big moments on the album, sure, but none compare to the bombast of "Empty". In fact, the only one that comes close is "Monster Hospital", as the rest of the tracks offer electronic experimentation that varies from punk rock to weird alternative stuff. And songs which are both - "Patriarch on a Vespa" (great title) has Haines sneering over semi-aggressive guitar licks that don't seem to have the guts to match up to her vocal performance, and thus holds back the entire song from reaching any kind of depth. Josh Winstead's bass guitar tends to be the only instrument that can make much of an impression past the guitars and Haines' vocals, and this is really prominent in "Glass Ceiling", which also suffers from poor lyrics. Haines is a feminist of sorts, and her lyrics here are nowhere near as cutting as they should be here, which spoils the point of the song. But that bass is strong, really strong, and it helps redeem the song a little.
"Handshakes" has very little to say. "Buy this car to drive to work/drive to work to pay for this car" moans Haines, with very little attachment, summing up my own thoughts on the track. The guitars and drums busy themselves to try and make up for this, but go in no immediate direction which leaves the song feeling aimless. "Ending Start" also has very little impact, being so experimental that is stands out as confusing. Beginning with overlapping vocals from Haines and one of her male cohorts, there's a weird half-crash after about a minute, and then the song sombrely exists over some half-formed drumming and mild guitars, sounding like one of those creepy songs you here when you go on a log ride at a theme park - y'know, the ominous tones you get just before you're dropped? Sounds like that. The opening of final track "Live It Out" is offputting in the same way, but settles down into a more conventional pop-punk mixture that ends the album decently. Haines spits out the lyrics casually, throwing out her casual charisma in all directions, showing just why she is the front-woman of this band, and that impresses. The music is decent too, which helps, and the sudden ending works well.
Not everything is dull and experimental - the previously mentioned "Monster Hospital" is a rip-roaring rush. Starting with distortion and then adding even more, the guitars tear into the piece, and Haines savours every syllable in a superior-sounding voice. The video's really creepy, and the song itself echoes this, jumping backwards and forwards as it does. It updates the story of Bobby Fuller, who originally wrote "I Fought The Law", which the Clash famously covered. He was found dead in mysterious circumstances, see, which were ruled as suicide. Regardless of history, which I'll leave for you to find out about, this is essentially the definition of bad-ass. "Poster Of A Girl" continues the theme of being bad-ass AND really creepy, but leaning more towards the latter than the former. The title references T.S. Eliot (my English degree finally pays off!) and the song flips from English to French for whole sections at a time, and Haines sounds really, really hot when she talks in French. The English is a little more stressed, the whole song sounding strained but working because of it, with the wiry guitars struggling to get anywhere. It's much more downbeat and in tune with Haines' work with the Soft Skeleton.
But if any song here deserves to be on that brilliant album, it would be "Too Little Too Late", a downbeat but quietly powerful song that has Haines using a croaky whisper and the guitars dialling everything down pleasingly. And here, the lyrics match up to the music, creating a gruffly beautiful song that works really well. If I have to match Haines' voice to anyone else, I'd have to suggest that... I can't think of anyone who quite matches her. She has a whispery, spidery voice that is at the same time mellow and sensual. On ""The Police And The Private" you can listen to the song at high volume or quietly, in the dark, and it still works wonderfully. It's tremendous, a willowy electronic number that features more then one great hook. The end goes on for too long, but aside from that, the song makes for a really enjoyable listen.
If you happen to be a teenage girl, I think this could well be the best album you've heard. If you're a teenage boy, it's music sung by a woman that isn't actually rubbish. For everyone else, I'd refer to what Haines has herself said about the album - "it's all about kicking the ass of depression". Half the time this sounds fantastic, but quite often the music is as dreary as the thing it tries to fight. One thing is for certain though: Emily Haines is going to be a major force for music in the future.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Glass Ceiling
4 Too Little Too Late
5 Poster of a Girl
6 Monster Hospital
7 Patriarch on a Vespa
8 Police and the Private
9 Ending Start
10 Live It Out