Retrospective Reviews: Bran Van 3000 - 'Glee'
Looking back at the band that made "Drinking in L.A."
Drop Bran Van 3000's "Drinking In L.A." after midnight on any dance floor in Canada and you'll get a horde of partiers shouting along with that classic chorus: "What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A.? I'm twenty six…" It's a song about getting old in the most fun and glamourous way possible, and we all wish on some level that we could suffer from such nice problems. Who wouldn't want to have life moments while drunk and bored in L.A.? Ennui sucks and all, but ennui with style is one of the most deliciously fun things to go through. For anyone who doesn't manage to pull that off when they're young and beautiful, "Drinking in L.A." offers an immediate escape vessel, ready to transport you to a place where there's nothing to do but cruise around in the sunshine, look for a party, and drink until you forget about your existential angst.
That's why the song's really important line is the one right before the chorus: "But we did nothing, absolutely nothing that day." The album Glee is a document of some talented musicians hanging out with nothing to do. In a lot of ways, it's a time capsule from the late-90s. Rents were cheap, especially in post-referendum Montreal, North America's economy was in better shape, and artists could still make a lot of money from one hit single. It was totally okay to start a band and screw around in your 20s because you knew things would work out eventually. Those days of doing nothing? They weren't really about doing nothing, they were about making something. Bran Van 3000 managed to capture that sense of freedom on tape.
Glee is full of sudden, manic sound changes over the course of its sprawling 17 songs, as if the band recorded themselves playing around with their radio dial. It's an eclectic mixture of hip-hop, jazz, rock, and soul, with some found voice samples thrown in for semi-ironic flair. It makes sense that one of the band's two founding members, James Di Salvio, was a film director who took up sampling and turntables on a whim. The whole album sounds a bit amateurish from a technical standpoint, but it comes together with a clear, powerful, cinematic vision. It was an "alternative rock" album at a time when that could mean anything from electronica to Metallica, and along with artists like Len, Beck, Soul Coughing, and Primitive Radio Gods, Bran Van 3000 embodied the identity crisis.
Glee never crossed over to the U.S. The band kicked ass in Europe, especially in Germany, but fell flat whenever they ventured south of the border. Maybe it's because their lead single was about a city that Americans knew too well; when you're in Canada or across the Atlantic, L.A. is a mystical place, an ideal of coolness, but in the U.S. it's just big city with too much traffic. Or maybe Glee just came off as a poor man's Odelay. Whatever the case, "Drinking In L.A." is as much a 90s Canadian anthem as any Tragically Hip song, all the more so because we seem to hear something in it that other people don't. And to think, all of this came out of Bran Van 3000's days upon days of doing nothing.