Broken Social Scene “broke onto the scene” by becoming the best band with the worst name of 2003. Their moniker suggested that group of snotty teenage punks playing bad Rancid covers in your next-door neighbor’s garage, and the name of their lauded sophomore album, You Forgot It In People certainly didn’t help. But the music triumphed over the titles, and the diverse collective of fifteen Canadians put together one of the coolest sounds of the year. Wonderfully anthemic yet ambient pop-post-rock made You Forgot It In People an amazing accomplishment, so with the release of Bee Hives, yours truly understandably had his hopes up. Never mind the fact that these were all B-sides and rarities; a great band’s crap is as sweet to hear as any good band’s best work.
Let me give you the good news first: for a B-sides collection, Bee Hives has a remarkably consistent sound. Broken Social Scene picked tracks that had a very calm, ambient feel to them. As a result, this album flows quite well, even better than People.
Now the bad news: It’s not just that People‘s songs are a thousand times better (these are B-sides, after all), but that there’s so much unfulfilled potential on this album. Aside from soul-stirring hooks, Broken Social Scene specializes in texture, and they have more than enough of that here. But they let the idea of “sounding ambient” (an idea used with restraint on People) flail wildly out of control, so much so that the instrumental pieces lose any sense of structure. The good songs exhaust all interest and novelty after about their fourth minute, and that’s only halfway through their runtimes.
Shorter tracks like “Market Fresh” and “hHallmark” stand out as tighter songs and overlong plod-sessions like “Weddings” become boring, failed attempts at Rock-Musique-Concrete. Even the best track, “Backyards,” which begins as a joyous train-wreck of banjos, bass, blips and bleeps, and only gets better with Emily Haines’s angelic voice, loses direction about four minutes in. By the eighth minute the song has moved from “come-down” to “okay, I’ve come down enough.”
It may be an unconscious joke that one of the tracks is named “Ambulance for the Ambience,” because that’s exactly what Bee Hives needs. Ambient music is all good and well, but even when Broken Social Scene escapes mucking-up and actually makes an aurally exciting ambient piece, you still want so much more from a band that only a year ago was making innovative and experimental yet still absolutely perfect pop music. Even Leslie Feist’s more introspective version of the poppy “Lover’s Spit,” with its quiet piano and intimate arrangement in contrast to Bee Hives‘ kitchen-sink ambience, runs too long, though its beauty remains mostly intact.
Don’t come into Bee Hives expecting anything remotely comparable to You Forgot It In People. Instead, be prepared for some of the pleasurable mediocrity of Social Scene’s debut, Feel Good Lost, with some great hooks thrown in for good measure. After all, these B-sides come from the period in between these two albums, a time of great transition for a band about to become one of the best groups of the modern indie world. Bee Hives is disappointing, but it’s a nice hold-over over until Broken Social Scene’s next proper album, which undoubtedly will leave me with Thoroughly Soiled Pants … which I think would still be a better band name than Broken Social Scene.