I met someone from the State Department this week.
The cool thing about writing for a newspaper is you can meet people from the State Department, engage them in conversation and not have to face the usual questions, like, “Who are you,” and, “How did you find me,” and, “Where are my bodyguards?” This particular State Department employee came to Valparaiso to speak to high school students about Middle Eastern politics, since he interned in Uzbekistan for a year. He’s met the head of the Taliban, as well as the leaders of most of the countries involved in the current political quagmire over there.
I should also point out that this guy’s 25 years old, or two years younger than me.
Anyway, he had a lot of insightful things to say about the state of the Middle East, especially in terms of poverty and information control. He also found a unique way to put everyone’s minds at ease about the current anthrax scare in this country. “Three people have died of anthrax so far,” he said. “In contrast to that, 45,000 people die each year in car crashes. 460,000 people die each year from smoking. This is not a panic situation.”
In a related story, I saw on television tonight that you can now buy home anthrax testing kits, and they’re selling through the roof. I’m supposed to do a story on the potential drought of Cipro, the leading anti-anthrax drug, and what that could mean for our national health and security. Sometimes it’s difficult to defend the media against charges of needlessly scaring the public. I’m not sure I want to contribute to that, even innocently.
That’s why I like doing this silly music column. If I don’t want to talk about terrorists, or the al-Qaida network, or anthrax, or anything related to the real world at all, I don’t have to. My day job sometimes tests my patience for reality. Plus, nothing I write here could incite my readers to panicking in the streets. If you ever want a crash course on the power of the written word, become a journalist for a few days.
Thanks for indulging the airing of a personal dilemma. Now back to your regularly scheduled silly music column.
I love Canada. Sure, I’ve taken some shots at them before, insinuating that they may as well be a decently-sized province of the northern United States and such, but I have a genuine affection for them. One of the things I like best about those silly Canucks is their progressive music scene. I mean progressive in the forward-looking sense, not the complex drama-rock sense, even though Canada did give us Rush, one of the best prog-rock groups of all time.
Just look at Sloan, one of the most popular bands in Canada. I’ll repeat that, just because I love typing such a giddily improbable sentence: Sloan, one of the most popular bands in Canada. Ten years into a constantly shifting and superlative career, Sloan is officially the Band that Wouldn’t Go Away, and God bless the Canadian music buying public for recognizing what a great group of musicians they are.
America, as per usual, had no idea what to do with Sloan. Their debut album, Smeared, came out on Geffen Records in 1991, and offered up a witty take on My Bloody Valentine’s reverb-drenched drone. When it came time to release the follow-up, Sloan delivered the wonderful Twice Removed, an album that sounded nothing like Smeared. Befuddled, Geffen let the album die and dropped the band unceremoniously. Guess what happened to it in Canada?
It was voted the best Canadian album of all time by ChartAttack, the Canadian music magazine.
In subsequent years, Sloan have only gotten better, releasing three great studio discs and a double live collection on their own Murderrecords. They followed up the minimalist indie-rock of Twice Removed with the smirking Beatlesque pop of One Chord to Another, the vintage-sounding ‘70s rock of Navy Blues and the conceptual retro-arena sound of Between the Bridges. Each was, if not necessarily better than, then at least jaw-droppingly different from the last.
By the way, good luck finding any of those records stateside.
All right, enough digs at the U.S. Someone might get the idea that I’m somehow pro-Canadian, and we wouldn’t want that.
Every Sloan album has been a radical departure from its predecessor, so it’s no surprise that the just-released seventh album Pretty Together sounds like nothing they’ve done before. The differences between this album and 1999’s Between the Bridges are worth listing, in fact: Bridges was written and recorded in six weeks, while Pretty Together took a year. Bridges was almost a series of four EPs – each of Sloan’s four songwriters got three songs apiece. Pretty was largely written by the band as a whole. Bridges cost almost nothing to make, while Pretty cost a small fortune, and it sounds like it.
Sloan have gone in a much mellower direction this time, advancing to the late ‘70s (and in a couple of cases the early ‘80s) for inspiration. It opens with one of their classic arena-rock anthems, “If It Feels Good Do It,” and yet if you listen closely you’ll hear sampled beats, synthetic blips and a definite sheen to the lead guitar. Keyboards (often vintage-sounding ones) permeate Pretty Together, especially on the Hall and Oates-ish “Who You Talkin’ To” and the wimp-rock anthem “Are You Giving Me Back My Love.” The textural quality of this album takes some getting used to, much like the lack of texture on One Chord and Navy Blues took time to sink in.
The band obviously labored over this album, and the result is some of their subtlest work. The songwriting continues to move in a more complex direction – you have to listen to “In the Movies” twice to be able to follow the melodic twists. In the more acoustic second half, Sloan offer up some of their loveliest tunes – “I Love a Long Goodbye” and “The Life of a Working Girl” chief among them – and for once, they don’t drown them in smirking irony. That approach works against them as often as for them, but if you can roll with their sentiments, Pretty Together is a swell listen.
The album does contain one embarrassing disaster, unfortunately: the Kiss tribute “Pick It Up and Dial It.” If you make it through Kiss’ fist-pumping pro-rock and roll anthems without chuckling, you may find this palatable. Otherwise, it’s a poorly crafted speed bump sandwiched between more thoughtful pop songs, and it’s one this album could have done without.
All told, though, Sloan have crafted another winner, one that finally presents their winsome songcraft in a full showroom sheen. It also features my favorite cover art of any album this year – slightly cheesy and yet oddly majestic, just like the album itself. Go to www.sloanmusic.com and check it out. If we Americans ever catch on to Sloan like the Canadians have, it’ll definitely be our gain. For now, alas, it’s just one more way that their music scene soundly trounces ours.
Ten years into an improbably long-lived career, Sloan have weathered the ever-changing music world through a policy of consistent inconsistency. They’ve released six studio records that sound like they may have been made by six different bands, and they’ve still managed to keep fans coming back. The title of the new album may well be a commentary on the state of the band: even though trends have come and gone, Sloan has followed their own muse and still managed to keep the group… well, pretty together. Kudos.
Next up, Aphex Twin. I’ve heard this thing only once, and I think I might need the whole week just to process it. Jesus, it’s good.
See you in line Tuesday morning.