Album Review: Sloan – Commonwealth

Posted: October 23, 2014 in 2010s, 4/5, 5/5, Alternative, Sloan
Tags: , , ,

commonwealthFull disclosure: I am a huge Sloan fan.  Been following them since their debut EP, Peppermint, and fell in love them when they released Coax Me as a single from their masterpiece second album, Twice Removed.  Back in high school, I made a pilgrimage to their headquarters in Halifax (bought the split 7” with Eric’s Trip from Patrick’s hands, then walked across the street to Sam the Record Man and picked up the smashing Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”. Didn’t buy the clear vinyl first pressing of Twice Removed with lyric sheet, though…. Whoops!).

A lot’s happened since then, most notably, we’ve all grown old.  Sloan’s sound has developed from shoegaze, to retro-slacker pop, to 70s rock, to 80s rock, and now into an amalgam all their own.  The key to their shapeshifting and perhaps their longevity, though, has been the fact that all four members write and sing their own songs.  Which leads us to their latest release, Commonwealth.  In an interview last year I believe it was drummer Andrew Scott who mentioned that for an indie band today, you need to do something interesting to convince listeners to actually buy an album.  This time round, they’ve done something interesting for sure: inspired by Kiss’ solo record project in the late 70s, they’ve crafted a double LP with one side each by each member. Oh yeah, and each side is named for a suit of cards and if you order now, you get a custom deck of Sloan playing cards!

To be honest, this isn’t much of a departure.  Beginning with their third LP, One Chord to Another, drummer Andrew began recording his songs in full himself (he had moved from Halifax to Toronto, spent two days in Halifax recording drums for the other boys’ tracks, then returned home to the Big Smoke to record his own, then mailed them in).  It may sound a bit business-like, but it seems to be the glue that has held this band together all these years after a near-implosion amidst big label pressures to dismantle Twice Removed (“Make it sound like Nirvana” the execs said!).

I’ll get to the point – apart from one side, this LP is superb.

The first disc features guitarist Jay Ferguson on side 1 and bassist Chris Murphy on side 2.  In and of itself you’d be hard pressed to find 10 better tracks of power pop.  In a sense, Jay has often been the odd one out in the band.  Never rocking as hard as the others, drummer Andrew once called his songs “fruity”.  Over the years, though, he’s developed a pop sensibility that comes to perfection here.  All those years of hand claps, on-the-beat piano stomping, glistening guitar lines, and ooh-aah harmonies come together magically.  We’ve Come This Far is a quick glam rocker asserting Sloan’s commitment to follow their own path, You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind is a blazing quick pop rocker, Three Sisters flips the coin for a softer, yet still upbeat pop tune, and Cleopatra is one of the catchiest tunes Sloan have ever released.  He wraps up his side with an acoustic ballad, Neither Here Nor There.  Throughout, he upholds his nostalgic romanticism, dreaming of bygone Hollywood, wistful tours of Europe, and the comforts of home.

On the flip side, Chris continues the pop extravaganza with a slightly harder edge.  Closing track You Don’t Excuses to be Good seems to present his view of the Sloan mythology: again, they’ve gone over 20 years as an independent band, blazing their own path and managing to pay the bills without being L.A. superstars.  Get Out is a quick rocker, So Far So Good is a mournful piano ballad with a beautiful switch from minor to major key, and Misty’s Beside Herself is full of clever chord changes and catchy melodies.  It’s opener Carried Away that is the absolute gem of the whole album, though.  In many ways this is the sister track to one of Chris’ past hits, The Other Man.  Where he was once the man a woman was cheating with, now he is the one being cheated on.  Despite the dour subject matter, it’s presented in a perfect 3-and-a-half minute pop tune that will be stuck in your head for a long time.  Absolute perfection.

Side three, unfortunately, is where things go slightly amiss.  Guitarist Patrick Pentland has been behind many of the band’s bigger hits.  He’s got a knack for a catchy rock tune as well as the occasional heartwarming ballad. The bad news is this time out he gives us a mere 4 tracks spanning 12 minutes of sludgy 70s rock lacking any notable hooks, and bogged down by a whole lot of bitterness.  Apparently, Pat is becoming a grumpy old man.  13 (Under a Bad Sign) and Take it Easy are almost indistinguishable, two 70s rockers that drag on, devoid of any notable riffs or solos.  It seems he has been taking his advice to “Take it Easy” too seriously.  I wish a bit more work were given here.  What’s Inside is a sluggish psychedelic ballad with none of the vulnerability that have made past love songs of his (I Can Feel It, It’s In Your Eyes) so charming.  Last, despite being released as the advanced single, Keep Swinging (Downtown) is just boring. It sounds like the stuff they used to toss off as a bonus track for the Japanese release (see Out to Lunch from Navy Blues).  The acoustic outro is interesting, but by this point, I’ve largely lost interest. In terms of lyrical themes, it seems to me that the crustier Pat gets, the more ironic his songs become. “Unkind” was an infection rocker off of 2012’s The Double Cross, but it seems that it’s far more unkind to write a pop single about someone being unkind, than to simply “suck the life out of the room”, as the lover he points his finger at unforgivably does.  Beginning with 2001’s If It Feels Good (another catchy rocker), Patrick has returned time and time again to his laissez-faire manifesto, all the while become nastier towards those who don’t share his carefree ways (ex-girlfriends, believers in 2000 year-old magical carpenters…). I wish he would lighten up a bit or at least put his bitter pill to a memorable riff.

The fourth side, then, is where things get really interesting.  Andrew gives us an epic 18-minute long suite unlike anything Sloan have ever attempted before.  His arc as a songwriter is an interesting one.  He was too timid to sing his sole contribution to their debut album (500 Up on Smeared), so Patrick did the honours.  That tune, however, is the one I revisit the most from their shoegazer days.  Since then, he’s grown in confidence and has a sound all his own.  He tends towards modalism, often sitting on a chord (usually A) for most of a verse or chorus.  He was the first to use tape splicing to build mini-suites.  Where the others tend towards melodic lead guitar, when Andrew pulls out his big old Grestch 6120 (or recently a Telecaster Deluxe), he scratches out wild, unbridled solos.  He can veer towards wordiness (apparently the first draft of People of the Sky had ten+ verses).  He experiments with dissonance.  While some dismiss him as the oddball in the band, he has remained my favourite from day one.  In recent years, though, I have found his contributions somewhat lacking.  On the oft-maligned Pretty Together, I think he reached his apex, contributed three tracks which had a sound as big as a prairie sky.  Then, on Action Pact, he had no songs at all!  Since then, he has been pushing in new directions without, in my opinion, quite getting where he wants to go.  He contributed mostly song fragments to Never Hear the End of It, and then on the last two releases has veered towards Dylanesque lyricism with a couple of experiments in garage rock and reggae along the way.

This time round, though, he gets it absolutely right.  As the title suggests, Forty-Eight Portraits, is influenced as much by his recent explorations as a visual artist as his life as a musician.  He uses the music as a canvas to paint a series of interconnected impressions of life as an independent artist.  He’s grown content raising his kids, hacking out songs in his band, and painting in his garage. Rather than looking down on the rest of the world (hello, Patrick!) invites the world to come along with him – He opens this epic with, “I say we’re going together,” and by the end speaks to the unbelievers, “we’re saying a prayer for you.”  The music moves from abstract piano and dog barking, into driving rock, a ballad duet with Chris, garage riffing, grandiose string passages, a children’s chorus, and then a hard rock instrumental conclusion.  Following the songs many changes takes some getting used to, but is ultimately rewarding.

While Patrick’s side is disappointing, the other three are so inspiring, I have to applaud Sloan and give them a 4.5/5.  Truly excellent.

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