BY KEN WALCZAK
Big in Canada. Three words that must ring painfully in the underdeveloped ears of all American record executives. For years, the phrase seems to have served as a death knell for the stateside record-selling prospects of all but a few lucky bands. The mere thought of another Moist or 54-40 record languishing unbought on American shelves surely gives pause to even the hardiest of A&R men to this very day …
None of which bothers Sloan in the least. Their brief flirtation with the U.S. record industry ended roughly in 1994, after both the band and DGC realized that they weren’t Sonic Youth after all. Shortly thereafter, Sloan reverted to releasing albums on their own Mu 1rderecords imprint. Their output since has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Record to record, the quirky Halifaxians came off like the ideal students in a sweeping college survey course (“Rock Music: Sgt. Pepper’s to the Present”), incorporating their favorite elements from each unit into their graded assignments. They even seemed to be working chronologically.
1996’s One Chord to Another was textbook Lennon/McCartney — were it not for the lyrics lauding precocious singing children and singles with B-sides, several tracks might easily be mistaken for Past Masters bonus tracks. 1998’s Navy Blues straddled, with varying degrees of success, the stylistic gap between Beatlemania and early FM radio. Most recently, Between the Bridges stunningly added ’70s rock harmony and fretwork, creating a setlist jarring to the ears of those raised on Guided By Voices and Pavement, and presumptively allergic to the guitar solo. Yet Bridges, in the final analysis, was superb: powerful, infectious and just a hell of a lot of fun to play in your car stereo.
But Sloan’s new record, Pretty Together, may just top them all. This year the wily Canadians casually blend rock bombast with pop songcraft to create a satisfying, sing-along-demanding stew. The album is rich with subtle charms — elaborate harmonies, complicated vocal rhythms — yet throws in enough pedals and echo effect to keep hold of the well-saluted ears of Those About to Rock. On the whole, it’s a gem.
And to continue the classroom metaphor, it surely earns the boys another A, for their Bridges-style ambition and audacity. Yes, there are ’80s references here. Not of the Flock of Seagulls variety, but more subtle allusions, as Sloan cribs the fine, subtle touches that distinguished a few of that decade’s best radio stalwarts. “In the Movies” recalls Ordinary World-era Duran Duran; “the Other Man” masterfully co-opts the light-touch bass guitar and insistent melodicism of Crowded House. References to what all but a few of us (I’m talking to you, Buckcherry) would call the “embarrassing” ’80s sound are kept minimal and largely tongue-in-cheek. The disc’s most hair-metal guitar sound highlights the opener and lead single “If It Feels Good Do It.” Its introduction, shouted: “This song is dedicated to you!/ ‘Cause this song is for people who know what rock ‘n’ roll is really about!”
Blistering announcements like these lead quickly to two conclusions: (1) The flowery pop numbers will never strand the album in an oversweet la-la land, and (2) this shit must KICK ASS live. (A quick plug: Sloan at the Middle East November 20!) After all, a rowdy nightclub setting should do nothing to diminish “The Great Wall”‘s sublime “ooh”s and “aah”s, and everything to add fist-pumping legitimacy to rallying cries like “Pick It Up and Dial It”: “People people/ This is a poll/ Are you one of the ones who went and/ Gave up on rock ‘n roll”.
Pretty Together is probably closest, in both mood and accomplishment, to 1995’s Twice Removed, which does not appear in the above chronology solely because it had been the only Sloan record worthy of the adjective “timeless.” Many have called Twice Removed the greatest Canadian album of all time; at the very least, it was a fine reason to scoff at the American public for perpetuating this silly “Big in Canada curse.” In a very similar way, Pretty Together is both an excellent album and a reason to believe in the viability of rock north of the border. Anyone concerned that it doesn’t earn the Genre-Savior title we all seem so eager to bestow these days would be missing the point, as DGC did seven years ago.