Nova Scotia's Answer To The Fab Four, Eh?
Strongest album: Twice Removed
Weakest album: Smeared

Halifax hasn't turned out to be the next Seattle, or even Chapel Hill, as the "next big scene". One can construe that as a positive development, since hordes of record labels descending upon your town can suck the life out the very stuff the music industry feeds on - witness the endless parade of mediocre grunge bands in the wake of the overhyped Seattle scene. Chief among the fertile Halifax scene are Sloan, four young men who have a small amount of fame in Canada and are fairly obscure everywhere else. Which is a shame, since they've released some of the most interesting and pleasurable music of the '90s. So far, they're my favorite band of this decade, and while I hope they gain a wider audience, it's already so late in the game - they've released records since 1992 - and are unwilling to break their backs pursuing megastardom (in a recent interview, they disavowed touring the U.S. heavily, saying that they didn't want to go in debt and spend a ridiculous amount of time on the road, both sensible reasons) - that I doubt any huge breakthrough. I predict that they'll go down in history as the '90s Big Star, another great band that wasn't appreciated in their prime but virtually revered 20 years after they broke up. Whatever their commercial fate, they've already made history artistically, and that's all that really counts, anyway.

Here's an excellent website put together by Sloan fans.

Peppermint EP (1992) ***

In the wake of grunge, Sloan emerged with a hard rock alternative: bright, poppy tunes hewed to post-My Bloody Valentine crystalline guitar roar. Sounding more aggressive and unpolished than their later work (but you'd expect that from a debut, right?), Sloan announce themselves as major talents on their first release. Three tunes, "Marcus Said," "Underwhelmed," and "Sugartune," would be redone for Smeared, and all were improved, notably "Underwhelmed," still in embryonic form here. The three tunes that didn't make it to the debut album are well worth the aquaintance: "Pretty Voice," ("that no one wants to hear"), "Lucky For Me," and the closer, "Torn" are all effortlessly entertaining examples of top-notch pop-punk. A debut that doesn't just promise greatness to come, but is quite accomplished in its own right.


To anyone a bit familiar with late '80s/early '90s "alternative" rock, this album seems like a either a rip-off or a put-on, and it's probably both. A pastiche of various contemporary hip styles, I hear audible echoes of My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Jesus & The Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., any number of shoe-gazing or dream-pop bands - you name it, it's there. "Left of Center" is even delivered in a Lou Reed monotone, adding another influence. As you might have guessed, Sloan at this point sound pretty derivative, though hints of their own style keep showing up (particularly in the whiny falsetto vocal style). However, the dizzying array of influences keeps things interesting, and unexpected. When I say I hear all those influences I mentioned, I mean that I don't hear, say, one song that sounds like Nirvana and then the next that sounds like Teenage Fanclub. I mean that I hear about three or four of those influences all in the same song, though some songs only have two - "500 Up", for example, lays a classic power pop melody on top of Sonic Youth-y guitars (especially obvious in the guitar break).

The songs themselves show a strong personality, even if the sound hasn't yet. "Underwhelmed", the most direct and linear song, concerns an anal dictionary freak who gets rejected by a cool girl for pointing out grammar mistakes in a personal story of hers, and by the end of the song you actually feel sorry for the nerd. "I Am The Cancer" combines ethereal female backing harmonies with whooshing feedback for a startling effect. "Median Strip" has an amazing clipped bassline and effective use of Pixies/Nirvana quiet-to-loud dynamics, and may be my favorite song on the album. The aptly named "Sugartune" finds its Raspberries center, as does "Raspberry". "Two Seater" sports distorted vocals and is more agressive than anything they've done since, while "What's There To Decide?" closes the album with a floating melody carried aloft by feathery backing. A strong beginning, though it's the weakest of their three albums because of its contemporary sound. By now, the late '90s, it sounds a bit dated.

Twice Removed(1994)*****

Apparently a recent poll of Canadian critics, musicians, and industry insiders voted this the greatest Canadian album of all time. The accolade seems to have embarassed the band a bit, who stress in interviews when it's brought up the accomplishments of people like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Well, all I can say is that while I respect Mitchell I've never really gotten into her much, and while I love Neil Young, I have to admit that I like this better than After The Goldrush. Ditching the dense punky rush of the first album, Sloan makes its sound more spacious and its songs more melodic, achieving a timeless aura of melancholy pop bliss. Playing spot the influence won't work on this album; the closest I can get is a reminder of prime Big Star, circa Sister Lover's more upbeat moments, and that has more to do with feel than actual sound. Sloan has grown into their own unique style; their influences are submerged rather than obvious. What amazes me the most about the album is its careful attention to sounds, with each element of every arrangement uniquely produced. Very few bands today fully exploit the studio as an instrument the way certain bands such as the Small Faces, Beach Boys, and Beatles did in the '60s, whose sense of experimentation coupled with an unwavering commitment to pure pop Sloan share.

There's also a natural sense of eclecticism present that comes from the fact that all four members of the band write songs. I find to my pleasure that while bass player Chris Murphy writes slightly more than the rest (5 songs are his) and may be considered the leader by default, four of my five favorite songs are by different band members, and the fifth, "I Hate My Generation" is a collaboration. Chris' "Penpals" opens the album with words lifted from overseas fans, and the broken English is both funny and endearing - plus it has an incredibly catchy guitar effect leading into the chorus. Drummer Andrew Scott's jangly "People Of The Sky" uses birds as a metaphor for a couple's relationship in which one commits adultery, combining dreamy guitar texture with driving rythm. The most instantly addictive tune, guitarist Patrick Pentland's "Worried", sounds simple, even basic, compared to the rest of the album, and its straightforwardness makes it all the catchier. Guitarist Jay Ferguson's "Snowsuit Sound" may be the album's masterpiece, though. Beginning with a murky bass sawing through like snow tires caught in the mud, it recalls a bad memory from childhood about being pushed in the dirt, then liberates itself into a heavenly chorus that soars above it all. A gorgeous album suffused with a low-key, vague sadness, it's one of the few true masterpieces of the '90s.

One Chord To Another(1997)****

This was actually released in 1996, but was only released in America a year later. In the interim between the last album, Sloan almost broke up and was released from their major-label contract. Luckily for us, they regrouped, and released an independent record with some major-label distribution. As opposed to their previous releases, there's less eclecticism and a more coherent feel to the album as a whole. Not that there isn't plenty of variety. "The Good In Everyone" and "G Turns To D" are driving guitar rockers, while "Junior Panthers" sounds like a Pet Sounds outtake. "Everything You've Done Wrong", the first Sloan song to use horns, takes a stroll down Penny Lane(or is that Chicago?). Most of the other songs vaguely remind me of Badfinger refracted through Beatles VI, though "400 Metres" is a Lou Reed-ish litany in the vein of the first album's "Left Of Center". The band sounds different on every album, and gone is the melancholy atmosphere of Twice Removed. "The Lines You Amend" concerns a friend's suicide with a reference to Ringo Starr's "Photograph" unexpected but not incongrous. The spaciousness of Twice Removed is replaced by a denser, more conventional sound. This conservatism makes the album a shade or two less satisfying than the previous one, but the songwriting is still up to par, with intelligent lyrics, hooks galore, and an inescapable melodicism. What more can you ask for? Well, I wish they'd play somewhere near where I live, but you can't always get everything you want, now can you?

P.S. Accompanying the American release is a live bonus CD. Live At A Sloan Party!'s package is an homage to the Beach Boys' Party! LP. They do only two originals, focusing on a choice of covers that reflect their eclecticism: Roxy Music, Jonathan Richman, Everly Brothers, Hollies, April Wine, and a bizarre medley of Canned Heat and Stereolab.
Navy Blue (1998) ****1/2

It's one thing to possess a plethora of cool influences; it's another to rise above those influences. This disc has been spinning on a daily basis since I purchased it three weeks ago, and while I realize that I won't know how well this holds up down the line until some actual time has passed, I'm going to tentatively declare that this is Sloan's best album. All the songs are good-to-great with nary a mediocre one in sight, and for variety's sake (always a key word when you're dealing with Sloan) they balance the pure pop Beatles tendencies (a redundancy by formal definition) of their last two albums with a new-found yen for retro glam-metal. With Sloan you often wonder just how much they're putting you on, and now that we're four albums down the road I realized in about four seconds that the Sloan Comes Alive! mid-'70s pin-up rock-god attitude on display this time 'round is a just a tongue-in-cheek homage to music Sloan clearly love (as should you) but clearly realize is often as hard to take seriously as a grown man in spandex. Actually, this isn't as great a departure from the signature Sloan sound as the trappings and titles might lead one to believe. "C'mon, C'mon (We're Gonna Get It Started)" pounds its piano chords up and down like some great lost '70s bubblegum single by the Osmonds or Cassidys or somebody, and of course Beatles alusions pop up all over the place, not just stuff like almost sharing an Abbey Road title, "Seems So Heavy" (which actually sounds like the Ben Folds Five attempting Small Faces neo-psychedelia) but also the "whoo's" in "Keep On Thinkin'" (which actually sounds like - believe it or not - a poppier Bachman-Turner Overdrive unplugged). As you can tell, Sloan mish-mash their influences in many contradictory on paper and creative ways, so that in the end you can play spot-the-influence all afternoon (pretty fun, and I bet you don't have anything better to do, anyway) yet the record adds up to much more than the sum total of its recycled parts. So the album's best song, "Iggy and Angus" mentions Kurt Cobain in the chorus and winds up sounding nothing like either AC/DC or the Stooges but rather Thin Lizzy; "Stand By Me" shares a title with Ben E. King and Stephen King, and quotes "Jump" for good measure. Songs like the weirdly upbeat "Chester the Molester" showcase Sloan's discovery of the piano, which is much more prominent than on previous releases. Of course, those ivory-tickling ditties sit beside the chunky powerchords of the likes of "Money City Maniacs" which Kix out the Hanoi Rocks for an irrestible '80s glam-stomp, though it's doubtful neither of those somewhat overrated minor cult bands would have thrown in a chorus about waking up covered in Coke fizz - it would have been gin or Coke as in cocaine, and it's Sloan's charm that they slyly make fun of hard rock "decadent" lyrics about bands on the road and on the run. And anyway, "Money City Maniacs" rocks like the wet dreams of those of us who woke up one day and realized that psuedo-Dolls '80s hair-metal bands like Poison and Great White wouldn't have been all that bad in theory - what the world needs more of is good, melodic, punchy pop-metal - but had our psuedo-nostalgia put in check by the realization that in reality those bands sucked big time. The album closes with a ballad that wrings more emotion out of "cotton-pickin'" than you'd think possible, and all I've got to ask is: what's next?

Between the Bridges (1999) ****1/2

Scratch the two weak songs (Scott's tuneless arena-boogie "Sensory Deprivation" and the unmemorable closer "Delivering Maybes") and you've got Sloan's most consistently listenable disc. It's not that the preceding albums weren't also loaded with sparkling pop gems and power-rock anthems, and may have even had individually better songs; it's that for the first time in Sloan's catalog, the songs flow together as an organic whole, rather than wildly flying together in a game of dizzying one-up-manship eclecticism. Sloan's greatest weakness has always been that they too often sound a Frankenstein's monster synthesizing an intoxicating alchemy of the best FM-ready car-radio blastin' rock of the past three decades (caught between '80s New Wave and '90s alterna-rock and '60s British Invasion and late '70s power-pop as if differences between the genres were non-existent), rather than sporting a truly original sound of their own. Well, given this late on the rock timegraph, perhaps that's a bit much of tall order for even the most talented bands. By now, though, Sloan have hung around long enough to stamp each track they do with their unique personality (which isn't the same thing as groundbreaking originality), and this hangs together as an album, without the jarring transitions from track to track that characterized previous Sloan releases. It helps that there's a concept: poor Nova Scotia boys form a band and strike out to find fame and fortune far away in the strange land called California; failing in their bid to conquer the world (well, the U.S. at least) they return home but aren't that bummed because they've still got their friends -- friendship and roots are the overriding values Sloan seem to champion. Given the autobiographical nature of much of the material, there's a deep sense of nostalgia on several of these tracks, particularly the Mott the Hooplish "Marquee and the Moon," which is not a Television reference (it's the names of two Halifax clubs they paid their dues in) and the stunningly pretty, melancholy circa-1980 soft-rocker "Waiting For Slow Songs" which allegedly rips off Christopher Cross (!). The opener, "N.S." adds another layer to Sloan's horizons with its stately spaciness, flowing into the rousing power-chords of "Beyond Me", an affirmation of long live rock!, into the sumptous pop pearliness of "Don't Believe a Word," which mayhaps win out as the disc's strongest track -- without once sound disjointed or jarring. As usual, it's difficult to choose faves given the consistent strength and variety of the material and delivery; the most irresistably exuberant rocker must be "Losing California," boasting one of the most instantably memorable riff-rock choruses since the Clash' "Death or Glory," and will have any listener who cares about punchy rock air-guitaring in seconds. Wow -- the world blinked and Sloan proved themselves the most consistently brilliant guitar-based rock band of the '90s. Now the real test comes - can they make it through the '00s?

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