Bran Van 3000 – Glee (1997)
I first heard about Bran Van 3000 from the least likely of sources: Pitchfork. This was when I first entered college in 2006 and really started to dig into music on my own for the first time. I didn’t really have anyone to steer me towards weird, cool music except for myself, and that usually led me to absolute ruin. So, I leaned on critical reviews, and this was right about when Pitchfork had really established themselves as a new force in music criticism.
I’m not going to belabor the Pitchfork thing here, but I will say that there was a definite shift in tone over time on the site, specifically in what they would review, and quite frankly in what they would review highly. It is always worth remembering that S.C.I.E.N.C.E. by Incubus earned an 8.7. I found out about Pitchfork just before they started expunging these types of reviews from their website in order to cultivate their image like a culturally dismissive banzai tree, and Bran Van was one of those early anomalies.
Maybe it was the weird name. Maybe it was the pink and blue pastel album cover of a rabbit sniffing a deer’s ass (at least that’s what it looks like to me). Maybe it was because the damn thing scored an impressive 8.6. Whatever the reason, the album caught my eye, and as luck would have it, I found a copy at CD Warehouse, Northeast Ohio’s second choice in secondhand record stores. Ever since then the record has held a particular soft spot in my heart.
Glee is one of the best examples of this group of new millennium tension, kitchen sink albums that began to pop up around the late nineties and early 2000’s. They basically smash every genre of music onto one record, almost like if a band covered a mixtape. I guess Beck would be the patron saint of this kind of album if I’m being honest, but my mind always goes to albums like Len’s You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush, Citizen King’s Mobile Estates, and (to a lesser extent) Scapegoat Wax’s Okeeblow. They have this a la carte approach to genre that isn’t so much a total synthesis of these disparate styles, but rather an implementation of them on individual tracks. Like, one will be hip-hop, one will be country, one will be big beat electronica, that sort of thing. It’s an exquisite corpse in album form. I tend to enjoy these records more often than not just because you never really have a chance to get sick of something. Depending on the group’s level of competency, that can make for a pretty cool record, and I think that Glee falls into that camp.
Bran Van is a Canadian rock/hip-hop/big beat collective from the Montreal, Quebec, and is the brainchild of filmmaker and part-time DJ James Di Salvio. After working alongside Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze at the music video production house Propaganda Films in the mid-nineties, Di Salvio began to slowly shift his focus to music. Having received a royalty check for some remixes he did for French-Canadian songwriter Jean Leloup, Di Salvio recruited fellow Montreal club kid E.P Bergen to write a few tracks and “help him spend the money”, according to a 2017 retrospective of the group published in the Toronto Star. While dicking around in Central Park, the two dubbed their new group “Bran Van 3000” after the Swedish term for grain alcohol. However, the group quickly ballooned from a duo to a “come as you are” collective of musicians and producers working on the project, including Steve “Liquid” Hawley, Nick Hynes, Rob Joanisse, Sara Johnston, Gary McKenzie, Haig Vartzbedian, Adam Chaki, Raymond Akira Betts, Stephane Moraille and a random dude they found playing clarinet on the streets of Montreal. After assembling a demo tape of the crew’s work, Di Salvio went to Austin, TX for SXSW in an attempt to gain some publicity for the recordings. Sure enough, after sliding a tape to Moby of all people, Di Salvio and his crew were contacted by Geffen Records three weeks later. When asked about seeing the group live, the Bran Van collective, realizing that they, in fact, did not have a touring band, hastily assembled one and began not only touring, but courting several major label offers. They had already been signed to the smaller Canadian label Audiogram Records, but soon offers from Geffen, Capitol, and Madonna’s A&M Records began to flood in, creating a bidding war over the group that Capitol eventually won.
Their debut record Glee was released originally on Audiogram Records in Canada on April 15th, 1997, and later by Capitol Records internationally on March 17th, 1998. The Canadian and International versions differ rather substantially, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Glee went on to have some moderate play internationally, but it was unsurprisingly very popular in their home country of Canada. The album is certified Gold in Canada (50k sold), and won the 1998 Juno Award, which is essentially the Canadian Grammys, for Alternative Album of the Year. Also, Bran Van was the 131st best-selling artist in Canadian history, according to a 2017 list compiled by Neilsen Canada and Billboard. Thank you, CanCon.
Now, I’m most familiar with the Capitol Records international release of Glee, and as I said up top, there are significant changes between the international and original Canadian releases. The Canadian original is seventeen tracks, compared to the international release’s nineteen. The original has the turntablist track “Hardrockin’ Cincinnati”, which was cut completely from international release. Also, the song “Ceci N’est Pas Une Chanson” was changed to simply “Une Chanson” and both this track and the song “Oblonging” had their runtimes cut, with almost four minutes being cut from “Une Chanson”. The international version, on the other hand, includes the songs “Rainshine” and “Carry On”, two pretty indispensable tracks in my opinion, as well as the track “Old School”, which is decidedly less so. I will be discussing the Capitol Records international release for a few reasons. 1.) it is the version of the album I grew up on 2.) it is the album the vast majority of the world knows, and most importantly 3.) it is leaps and bounds the better record. It isn’t even a discussion to be frank. I normally want to try and discuss original releases on this blog, but I don’t want to discuss this record if it does not include “Rainshine” and “Carry On”. I also don’t want to discuss the album if the track listing isn’t assembled the way it is, because it makes this album’s disparate parts into an accidental concept record. When trying to describe this album to people, I always say that it seems like the movie Go. It feels like you’re following someone going from a Friday afternoon to a night of partying to Saturday morning. I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of lyrical content, but more so in the tone and feel of the album, if that makes sense. You get the lazy afternoon laconics of “Couch Surfer” and “Drinking in LA” up top, then you get to the late-night club suite of songs like “Rainshine” and “Carry On”, then you move to the come down tracks like “Cum on Feel the Noize”, and you end up literally at a diner the next morning with “Supermodel”. It clearly wasn’t intentional, but that’s the vibe I always got from it.
So, since I’ve kind of already broached the music already, I want to get to the album proper, but before I do, there are some clarifications I need to make. First off, I want to note that while I’m for sure not going to do this with every album going forward, I’m going to go track by track with this record because of how its structured. Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m going by what Genius.com says are the vocalists for each track, and there could be some mix up between Liquid and Di Salvio’s verse and Johnston and Hill’s vocal tracks specifically. I also know that some of the listings on Genius are flat-out wrong, so I did what I could to correct my notes whenever I caught it. Sorry in advance if I fuck that up, but I think I got it right. Anyways, on to the record.
The album opens up with “Gimme Sheldon”, a kind of lackluster pun that fits for a lackluster DJ Shadow piss take. It sucks that this is the opener. I mean, I get it. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album: electronica and hip-hop acting as a foundation for genre bending flourishes, but it is one of the most forgettable tracks on here. Thankfully, it quickly gives way to “Couch Surfer”, a slacker-ass track with simple guitar strumming and a straightforward hip hop beat. That sounds like nothing special, but like a lot of tracks on this record, it exudes an effortless charm and personality. It’s got a real Brad Pitt in True Romance vibe to it that I can really get behind. But the true slacker anthem comes with the next track, “Drinking in L.A.”.
Based on, well, a night of aimless debauchery Di Salvio had in the titular city, which culminated in him waking up face down on a lawn in West Hollywood, “Drinking in L.A.” is a really fucking good song. Is it “Marquee Moon” or “Venus in Furs” or some uber chic hipster standard? Not at all. But I think it can stand toe-to-toe with “Where It’s At” by Beck and “Dream All Day” by The Posies as one of the best easygoing slacker tracks out there. Again, it comes down to the song’s natural charm. There’s a lived-in character to this track that can’t help but make me smile. There are so many little things that make this track work. That shuffling trip-hop drum line, the weird radio call-in intro that asks listeners to call in and answer what Todd’s favorite cheese is for free Bran Van tickets, the “Oooooooh’s” of Sara Johnston and Jayne Hill, Stephane Moraille’s big brassy vocals on the hook that pretty much take this song from fun track to fucking amazing. Even the slack-hop lyrics have this wonderful personality. Lines like “I woke up again this morning with the sun in my eyes/ When Mike came over with a script surprise/A mafioso story with a twist/A To Wong Fu-Julie Newmar Hitch” exhibit some pretty creative world-building and turns of phrase that that this album is brimming with. Hell, for years now, the opening salvo of “Hi, my name is Stereo Mike” is something I would just absent-mindedly say to myself from time to time. It is such a perfect little genre-smashed pop song. Fun fact: the “Drinking in L.A.” single actually went to #3 in the UK and was certified silver, which means the single sold over 200K copies. The more I dig into albums like this, the more I am vexed by other countries’ album certifications. Anyway, back to the actual music.
“Drinking in L.A.” leads into the bridge song “Problems”, which begins the suite of late-night, darker-tinged songs. More importantly, it’s really where Sara Johnston begins to flex on this record. Stephane Moraille is rightly remembered for bringing the hammer to this record vocally speaking, and the auditory bouillabaisse that Di Salvio and crew make keep things engaging throughout, but for my money, this album works because of Sara Johnston and Jayne Hill’s vocals. Resting somewhere between the breathy sensuality of Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields and the nineties pop star sensibilities of a Mariah Carey/Christina Aguilera type, these two fucking kill it on this record, and it starts with “Problems”. It’s a short, propulsive, almost-combative track that is imbued with a self-assured, Shirley Manson-esque sneer. It also establishes the leitmotif of the phrase “I feel fine” running through the middle of this record, which always comes across as confident, if subtly vulnerable. After a middling instrumental break with the track “Highway to Heck”, we get “Forest”, a guitar-laced hip-hop track, that quickly turns into, like, sexy Limp Bizkit? That’s more of a burn than I meant it to be. However, to borrow a turn of phrase from Chuck Palahniuk, it isn’t the right way to describe it, but it’s the first way that came to mind. It’s a good track, please believe me.
This is also where I probably have to broach the “rap stylings” of Di Salvio and Liquid. Are they great? Eh, not really. When it’s the slacker rap stuff, I think it’s pretty entertaining. But when it takes a turn for the more “serious”, it’s maybe a click better than that dude from the Bomfunk MCs on “Freestyler”. But honestly, I think they serve their purpose on this album. They mostly just move the action along until something cooler happens, and that’s all I really want from them. To put it another way, their rapping is never what I come to this record for, but it also never prevents me from coming back to the record, if that makes sense.
Now the album really starts to feel itself, for a lack of a better term, because not only is there a fucking explosion of the group’s kitchen sink ethos, but they make it work in a way that doesn’t seem possible. Case in Point: “Rainshine”. Taken chronologically in this three-and-a-half-minute song, “Rainshine” goes from pounding drum solo to Hill belting ethereal lyrics over gentle acoustic guitar to more pounding drums over Hill and Johnston intoning “I Feel Fine” to STOP.
Now it’s reggae.
Legit, there’s a neck-snapping left turn into reggae on this track. This leads to reggae and 90’s hard rock working in concert with each other to more ethereal breakdowns with Hill, Johnston, and reggae man to a big cacophonous rock outro. End song. Yeah, again, this occurs over the span of three-and-a-half minutes, but goddamn is it a great track. I distinctly remember hearing this song for the first time, and it was where I truly locked in on this record. It’s not my favorite song on here, but this was the song that signaled to me that they were not afraid to try some fucking crazy shit, even if there was ample evidence to the fact that they should not do that. But it resulted in a really fun, weird song, so kudos.
That brings us to “Carry On”. Fuck yeah. So, this maintains that dark, atmospheric hip-hop vibe, and yes, that means more rapping. But this song is once again built on the backs of the three female vocalists. My stone favorite moment of this album is Jayne Hill’s bridge and chorus to this song. While I’d never accuse this record of structural cohesion, there are times when it knows how to let a moment breathe, and this is the prime example: simple dub instrumentation under her beautiful voice. Seriously, when she sings, “How would you like to stick with me? How much do you love to Freeee-fall?” it gives me chills every time. Fuck do I love it. Johnston provides some lovely harmonies in the background and Moraille bats clean up to close out. To think this was left off of the original Canadian cut. Simply criminal.
Our final track in this downtempo late-night suite of songs is “Afrodiziak”. It is the nineties, so we have to spell things in zany ways. More rapping by Liquid and Di Salvio, and this is probably their weakest outing as lyricists, with a “knick knack paddywhack” getting thrown in like they’re Barney Rubble rapping about Fruity Pebbles. However, they get help on this one with Moraille channeling her best Crystal Waters pathos and, of course, Gravediggaz. Yeah, I neglected to mention that at the top, huh? Like an RKO outta nowhere, fucking Too Poetic and Grym Reaper of horrorcore supergroup Gravediggaz show up to, frankly, put into contrast how much better they are at this whole “rap” thing than our two Canadians. Look, I’m being harsh, but these two were instrumental in creating one of the greatest albums of the 90’s in 6 Feet Deep and for all their charms and excellent work on the production and musical end, Di Salvio and Liquid are just out of their depth. For the wrestling fans out there, it was like when Bart Gunn steamrolled a bunch of dudes in the Brawl 4 All, only to get pieced up by noted fat man boxer Butterbean, who himself couldn’t hang with the Riddick Bowes and Evander Holyfields of the world. Circle of Life, you know? Despite some misgivings, the instrumentation on this track is a really great mixture of trip-hop and rap beats, and there are enough great performances on here to make for another great track. Quick note: if you were wondering like I was about why the fuck Gravediggaz showed up on this track, it’s because they shared an office with the Bran Van crew, and were persuaded to hop on the track. Mystery solved, I guess.
After a pretty forgettable electro-acoustic filler track in “Lucknow”, we get a cover of the Quiet Riot by way of Slade song “Cum on Feel the Noise”. Johnston takes over lead vocals on this one, and does a serviceable job I’d say. The best way I can describe this version of the song is that it sounds like you could easily hear it slotted somewhere on a late-nineties teen movie soundtrack, likely at the inevitable “school dance” scene all those fucking movies loved. Like, this is what you’d hear playing off-camera in The Rage: Carrie 2 minutes before Rachel Lang spears Zachary Ty Bryan’s hog off. Considering the sheer volume of those movies I’ve watching in my life, this likely hit that nostalgia-by-proxy spot for me and probably makes me like it more than I should.
So, up to this point, save for a few turntablist sound collages and cooldown instrumentals, this has been a shockingly fun ride. Not the smoothest deal, but definitely what Neil Young would call “rugged glory”. However, this is where the album hits a bit of a dry patch for me, despite it featuring some of the album’s more fondly remembered tracks. It starts with “Exactly Like Me!”, a very straightforward track that reminds me of some of the more mellow moments off of the Blur record 13. A real “Coffee and TV” vibe on this one. Not that it’s bad, but I tend to lean into the wackier side of this record, and the acceptable enough take on late-stage Britpop just doesn’t hook me.
The same goes for “Everywhere”, probably this record’s second most well-known track. Again, it’s pleasant enough acoustic track that sounds like everything and nothing at the same time. It’s like the primordial ooze that all 4th singles off of a VH1 Adult Contemporary band’s post-breakout album derives from. Not unpleasant, but absolutely inessential. To put it another way, this song was featured on the Practical Magic soundtrack, and that is the least shocking thing I uncovered doing research for this review.
The massively abridged version of “Une Chanson” is up next, and again, this isn’t bad, but it isn’t essential listening. The song has the feel of a B-side off of Moon Safari, and while I adore Moon Safari and think it is one of the ten best electronic records of the 90’s, I don’t mean for that comparison to sound so complimentary. However, “Une Chanson” seems like a stone classic compared to the next track, “Old School”. This is the first and only truly awful song on this record. It’s a garbage mélange of Robbie Williams “Rock DJ”/mutant Jamiroquai disco rap, Johnston’s rap that seems more like stunt casting than correct application of her immense talent, highly questionable soul singer voices, and heavy metal screams. It’s one of the worst things I’m likely to discuss on this blog. It is the dark side of the weirdness this album has to offer. Let us not speak of it again.
We do get back to the good side of weird with “Willard”, a weird drum and bass country story song about gun running hicks. Again, “drum and bass country song” sounds like a hack comedy writer poking fun at “these kids today” between swills of bourbon, but I swear that’s what this is. It’s in the silly tongue-in-cheek style I can appreciate on this record, and again, that’s likely due to the sharp contrast of it coming directly after the abhorrent “Old School”.
The electro-country vibe continues pretty much through the end of the album as the next song is “Supermodel”. “Supermodel” is easily the longest track on the record, and it tells the story of Thunder Bay, Ontario diner waitress-cum-supermodel Amber Jones’ meteoric rise and sad fall due to a sweets-derived forehead pimple. It’s silly to be sure, but the track features more of the group’s aloof charm in the vein of “Couch Surfer” and “Drinking in L.A.”, as well as their penchant for eccentric wordplay with its descriptions of “coconut cake cucumbers” and the “We’re All in This Together Diner”. Whereas “Willard” was more country mashed with drum and bass, “Supermodel” mixes twangy country guitars with a pretty standard hip-hop drum track. Again, this album isn’t reinventing the wheel per se, but it is using its disparate parts in entertaining ways. Well, I say that, but that really only applies to the first two-thirds of the song as we get more of Liquid’s rapping. It comes at the end of the song and this time it feels not only extraneous, but detrimental to the track. Excising this final minute of rapping would not only bring the track down to a more palatable four-and-a-half minutes, but greatly improve the cohesion of the track. It’s so unnecessary in fact that I forgot that it was even there until I went back and relistened to the whole track, as I usually skip the damn thing and never give it a second thought. It makes me feel like Gordon Ramsay when he tastes a really good dish on one of his insane television shows, only for the chef to throw a bunch of toast points in the dish last minute and fuck the whole thing up. “Supermodel”. What a shame.
The begins to wind down with the severely abridged “Oblonging”, which is a mix of “Fitter Happier” and a Boards of Canada interstitial track. It’s fine, but never gets to the level of either of those songs. The final track is “Mama Don’t Smoke”, which I think is a perfectly fine closer. It’s a campfire country track that gives me the vibes of a stripped down, less mournful “Misguided Angel” by Cowboy Junkies. I also feel as though it was appropriate for Jayne Hill to close out this album, as I think that her singing, along with Moraille and Johnston’s, are what elevate this record beyond its station. That’s kind of my main takeaway after going through this record in-depth. The genre-mashing, slacker charm, and risk-taking make this record, at worst, an interesting curio cast in the amber of time. But their vocal performances make this a true cut above.
In reality, an album like Glee shouldn’t actually work. It is a patchwork pastiche cobbled together from dozens of reference points whose polarities threaten to draw-and-quarter the entire project at every turn. But there is something to this record. It has a fun atmosphere with tons of character that never takes itself too seriously. It can be inconsistent, and when it misfires it really misfires. However, I think that when it hits the mark, it is not only excellent, but truly overachieves in a way that makes you fascinated in how they got some of these tracks to work. In the end, I’m always going to value albums that gamble and fail more than highly competent albums that stay in their lane. Glee is just the rare album that connect on those wild haymakers far more than they miss.
For more long form talk about albums, check out our discussion of the 1998 IDM classic Music has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada here.