Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Great albums of 1999, part II

In some cool clips of Sloan from the mid-90s I saw on YouTube, people called them "Canada's answer to the Beatles". Critics always loved them, and rightfully so. Pitchfork said that regardless of their outward guise, be it grunge, 60's pop, or 70's rock, the members of Sloan -- Chris Murphy, Pat Pentland, Jay Ferguson, and Andrew Scott -- are A+ songwriters and there isn't much that can hide that. (Except maybe whatever the fuck they did on Action Pact.)

There doesn't seem to be much agreement on which is their best album. iTunes' review claims that One Chord To Another is their "consensus" best album, yet Chart magazine has twice rated Twice Removed the greatest Canadian album of all time. Meanwhile, amongst my peer group Navy Blues is another popular choice.

They're all wrong, because this is their best album:

In Chris Murphy's words, the "underappreciated" Between the Bridges.

As the dedicated will know, around 1995 Andrew moved to Toronto, effectively breaking up the band. Well, not so effectively, because the next year One Chord came out, and around that time they all moved to Toronto, one by one. Around the time Navy Blues came out, I read a quote from Murphy saying something to the effect of, "I've already written all my 'should I leave Halifax' songs, and now I'm writing my 'why did I leave Halifax?' songs." Between the Bridges is the result.

Before anyone says it, I am aware that this is also the consensus worst-rated and least-loved album in their catalogue. Well fuck that. I will grant you that it does not have a "Money City Maniacs" or a "The Good In Everyone". Indeed, I think they only made one video for their singles off Bridges. The charming lo-fi pop sounds of One Chord and the thumping basslines of Navy Blues gave way to something that, on its surface, is a lot less upbeat, less sing-a-longy, and just... greyer, as reflected by the cover. To make matters worse, it was like their marketing machine had forgotten to do anything. When it came out, I hadn't even had any idea they were working on a new album. Well, how good could it really be? I thought. I picked it up thinking it would be so-so, not great, and after a few listens it'd take a more or less permanent place on the shelf.

Then when I listened to it for the first time I was absolutely 100% rapt. I sat next to the CD player looking at the track times because I was so eager to hear what came next. One after another these songs drew me in. The immediate radio hits were missing, sure, but that isn't to say the melodies are tuneless rock pablum. They aren't; they're big and glorious. It's an evolution of their rocking sound on Navy Blues but leaner and with more focus.

It's not like the songs are all sad and lonely either. Everyone (in Canada that is reading this) remembers "Sensory Deprivation" from all those beer commercials. "Losing California" and "Take Good Care Of The Poor Boy" are two of their finest rockers. "The Marquee and the Moon" was Murphy's trademark wit applied to something deeply emotional and moving, and "A Long Time Coming" is, for my money, one of their best love songs. But these descriptions are glib and could be attached to the best stuff off any of their albums. What sets this one apart is that all of the songs have a certain depth to them that they had never demonstrated before. The grey that is pervasive in the look and sound of the album is intentional, reflecting the confusion of uprooting and the feeling of homesickness. This is an album with a unified purpose, and as such there is an urgency to each one of their songs that isn't on any of their previous albums.

To be fair, I am sure that a lot of why I love this album so much is because when I first heard it I was in grade 12 and about to graduate. I was grappling with the decision of whether to stay at home and go to SFU or to move to Vancouver and go to UBC. I had lived in the same house my whole life and I wasn't sure if I could bear to give it up. This album spoke to my difficulty, and because of that I identify it really strongly with a time and a place. I put on this album and I am sitting at home (home home) next to the stereo on a rainy day, admissions booklets on the desk and the TV on mute.

That alone would be enough to ensure this album a place in my personal pantheon, which makes my decision to not bring this album to Berkeley with me when I moved here really strange. Even before I moved, it had been a while since it had come out so I hadn't listened to it a lot. But I've since retrieved it and it feels even more important to me. I listen to it and I feel like I am hearing, watching, my own life. There is Sloan, sitting outside on a foggy day thinking about home and wondering if they made the right decision to leave. There they are, returning home for a weekend, maybe, going to a place they've been a million times and finding that the records in the jukebox have all been replaced. Wondering if they'll ever fit in with their old friends again. Trying to convince themselves that they had to prove they could manage all by themselves. Getting encouragement from their family, friends, and old mentors. Losing themselves in moments and wishing they could stay. Having a bit of success, but only thinking about what they've lost. Fortifying themselves with a final "we believe in you" from home and plugging forward.

Or is that me doing all that?

Lately I've been playing a lot more music and I got to thinking about writing songs again, but I couldn't think of anything to write about. Then it hit me; maybe I could write about being a Canadian in the US, being surrounded by things that are so similar on the surface but just different enough to sting. I could write about how half of being grown up is wondering what you've lost. I would capture the frustration and confusion of wondering if I would have been better off staying put at UBC. Maybe I could write a whole album! Maybe it would one day be regarded as the great Canadian album about growing up and leaving for bright lights, big city, and the big leagues.

But then I realized that Sloan already wrote it.

Current Music: Red Hot Chili Peppers - Suck My Kiss


rachel said...

The Pitchfork review of Navy Blues is my favourite music review of all time.

You know, I'm familiar with Losing California but I don't recognise a single other song title off of Between the Bridges. Perhaps I know the song from the beer commercials but at the moment I'm inlined to say that I do not.

Now I can't listen to "The Other Man" or Feist's "Let It Die" without thinking of the other. hehehe.

G said...

Like I implied before - I don't think I know any of Sloan at all. Does that make me any less Canadian?!?

Then again, I'm not such a huge hockey fan either...

Graham said...

In my mind, it's a toss up between this album and One Chord to Another. It's one of those 1A/1B scenarios where whichever one I'm presently listening to will be my favourite.

Ashelteredhound said...

Sloan is slightly, slighly gay. But, whatever, keep on rockin!

Dickolas Wang said...

Galen: no, you probably wouldn't like them anyway. Keep on singin'.

Hound: In early Sloan videos, Chris plays with Pat's hair and licks him on the cheek. I think they were searching for an image a little too hard.