Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Musiquarium (Sloan: part two)

Today, the conclusion to Chris Hornbostel's epic two-parter about Sloan.

Twice Removed announces its awesomeness with a should’ve-been-hit called “Penpals”  that pretty neatly establishes the Sloan ethos within its three minute run time.  The story of the song is terrific, too. The band had become friends with some of the folks at influential Seattle label Sub-Pop, also known as the first label Nirvana recorded for. Those friends gave the Sloan guys some of the more illegible international fan letters sent to Nirvana that were still pouring into the label’s offices, letters that were destined to be thrown out unseen. Instead of letting them go to trash, Murphy crafted a full song out of the tortured text in those missives.  What’s great about the lyrics of “Penpals” is that for most of the song, as listeners we feel like the band is making fun of the letter writers. There’s the fractured syntax and weird phrasing and since this is the early 1990s we’re thinking how ironic and funny it all is. The joke’s on us, though, when Murphy gets to the final lines of the song, delivering an answer to those kids in Algeria and Norway and France: “You’re so cool but you know that. I hope your letters never stop. You are truly special, I like you, I like you!” It’s an amazingly disarming, revelatory moment of pure “I’m OK, You’re OK” sentiment, something that particular decade could’ve used a bit more of. (The galloping pace of “Penpals” should also be noted. Perhaps it’s the maracas on the studio cut that do it, but in a decade where a whole lot of drumming sounds turgid and wooden and slow, “Penpals” manages to skip along briskly.) The band figured all along that “Penpals” would be the hit single, and it’s a signifier to just how checked out of things Geffen was that they didn’t see it that way. This is the hit single from Twice Removed that never was.

The next song up is “I Hate My Generation”, which is significant for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a song written and sung by rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson. Secondly, it’s the song that Geffen decided to list as the “emphasis track” on the piddling promotional material they bothered to send out. It isn't as glorious as “Penpals”, but it’s a neat track in its own right, with the us-against-the-world chorus of two misfit buddies who have in common nothing but playing the guitar...which is enough.

The third track in on the album keeps the string of amazing songs going. “People Of The Sky” is also significant because it was written and sung by drummer Andrew Scott. While his Dylan-inspired run-on verse lyrics tend to the oblique, the “Ba-ba-bada BAAAAH” chorus is so instantly winning that the song became an immediate fan favorite. (When the group would play it live, everyone in the band switched instruments, usually with Chris Murphy ending up on drums and Scott front and center on guitar.) 

The next two tracks are back to being Chris Murphy songs. “Coax Me” builds off a minor-key melody into a winning chorus, while also featuring one of the greatest lyric kiss-offs of all time, when he admits that he thinks industrial dance band Consolidated is OK, but “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” “Coax Me” is also notable for being the closest that Twice Removed got to a hit single. While Geffen in the States had pulled the plug on promoting the record from the outset, the group’s Canadian distributor, MCA-Canada scraped together some funds to cut videos for this song and “People of the Sky”, and both videos saw mild airplay on Canada’s version of MTV, Much Music.

The other Chris Murphy song in this duo, the one that follows “Coax Me” is one of the great unheralded album tracks of the decade. It’s a song about unrequited love, separation, jealousy, anger, and longing called “Bells On”. It’s one of those songs with perversely detailed lyrics that feel so personal they become universal. The song builds through layers of loss and resignation to a shattering final verse. The details here are so closely drawn that anyone who’s been through a crashing relationship will recognize them. “Bells On” is one of those songs where you feel like you’re the only one who loves it, and then you find out that everyone you know thinks they’re the only one who loves it. It’s one of the tentpole songs for the album.

The one songwriter in the band absent from Twice Removed so far shows up on the next two tracks. Patrick Pentland’s contributions to Twice Removed are uncharacteristically low-key efforts, with one exception. “Loosens” is the first track of his that comes in, with it’s restrained, almost delicate and stately melody that feels fragile as a snowflake. Pentland--ever the metal guy--shakes free of those constraints with his next effort though, the stirring “Worried Now”. 

“Worried” is an important song for Sloan in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it reveals Patrick Pentland as a formidable singer and songwriter in the band. His clear, earnest vocals are the perfect matchup to Chris Murphy’s, and throughout the record the two wield the perfect harmonies they first demonstrated on “Underwhelmed”. The other thing about “Worried Now” is that its anthemic chorus sums up the uncertain times of Twice Removed perfectly: “Remember the times you told me not to worry? I’m worried now.” The song also reveals that Pentland possesses a unique ability to write massive melodic hooks that sound like instant classic rock anthems--something that would later serve Sloan incredibly well.

The last section of the album is mostly built around Chris Murphy’s songs. At the point of Twice Removed in the group’s brief history, he’s clearly the most confident of the group’s songwriters. “Shame Shame” is more betrayal and bewilderment. “Deeper Than Beauty” is a return to the lighthearted university girls and guys themes of “Underwhelmed”. A live favorite, “Deeper” features only guitar and drums, with Murphy giving free reign to his clever poetry about a girl who when she takes off her glasses (“Her hideous glasses”) makes him want to skip his classes. “Deeper Than Beauty” exists as one of the last smiles to be had here.

The album closes not with bleak songs, but rather with quiet melancholy. Jay Ferguson’s second offering of nostalgia and love lost, “Snowsuit Sound” (She’s the “sizzle teen” who’s older than Ferguson; he's the dork with braces who walks around in winter making that snowsuit sound. Ouch. Been there.) Murphy follows that with the most difficult song on the record, the seven-minute building swirl of “Before I Do”. It’s another dark song, one that builds and builds to a crescendo of noise. For all their catchy smarts elsewhere, here the band reveal they can still bring a lease-breaking racket. It’s many layers reward repeat listens. The album closes with Pentland’s “I Can Feel It”, a duet he sings with his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Pierce who was in another Halifax band called Jale. “Feel It” is a mostly acoustic song about--like other songs on the record--failed love, recriminations, and betrayal.

And so that’s that. As mentioned earlier, when the van gave up the ghost and required the remaining tour budget to fix, Sloan cancelled remaining Stateside gigs and returned home. After playing some live show commitments in Canada they called it quits. The guys agreed to play a few more shows they’d previously agreed to honor a commitment for MCA-Canada, but then that was it. 

Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson found themselves both working for a friend’s independent label, murderrecords. That label was curious: were there any stray tracks lying around from previous Sloan sessions? It would really help the fledgling label out if they could put out something by Sloan, even if the band was no more. The guys had already agreed to form up one more time to play an official set of farewell shows around Toronto in the summer of 1995. Sometime in all that, the idea of putting together a few tracks for murderrecords was mentioned. Maybe the guys played some songs they’d  written in the past year for each other, too. Maybe Jay Ferguson played “The Lines You Amend” for the group. If Patrick Pentland played “The Good In Everyone” for them, that likely sealed the deal. The group agreed to record those songs. They found themselves with a record label again (about their American deals, the best left unsaid, the better). The little record was actually picked up for major label distribution by EMI, and yielded three massive Canadian hits and went platinum, making Sloan superstars north of the border. The band decided they could get along with one another after all.

Thus, the story has a happy ending, something you rarely get in rock music. I know of few nicer people in rock and roll than the four fellows in Sloan.  They survived their worst year, a year that would have ended the careers of 99% of their peers. The awful experiences that resulted in them recording an all-timer of a record seemed to galvanize them both as a band and as genuinely nice human beings. I also know of no other band with their career arc. The four band members have remained in the group together since 1991--still going strong after 24 years. Throughout Canada, and even in the US and Europe, they've managed to sell enough records to at least be comfortable working musicians. Over the years, the songwriting contributions of all four members has blossomed, with the group importantly providing a songwriting credit of “Sloan” on all releases, something that no doubt has helped keep them an agreeable going concern. (That the rest of the band ended up relocating to Toronto also worked in their favor.) In fact, on their latest double album, Commonwealth, opened in the US Billboard charts in the top ten “Heatseekers” category and appears on many critics' best-of year end lists.

Sloan, in fact, have made a number of tremendous records. If you've decided they might be your thing, I envy you your joy of discovery for the ‘60s influence of One Chord To Another, or the swaggering 70s glam rock stylings of Navy Blues or the Abbey Road experimentation of Never Hear The End Of It. They exist now as one of the world’s most enduring and excellent rock bands, something that probably would've sounded crazy to the lads sitting inside that blown out Winnebago in Iowa in 1994.

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