For Those About to Rock
Sloan Salutes You With Action Pact

I know, I know, I’m terribly late again. But this time I have a good excuse.

Her name is Isabel.

I live 20 miles north of Baltimore, right on the Chesapeake Bay, and for the last week or so, this whole area has gone hurricane crazy. People have been buying water by the 10-gallon package, sandbagging their doors and making sure everything they owned and wanted to keep was elevated four feet off the ground. I watched all this activity with amusement – something about the way I’m wired makes it difficult for me to be frightened of anything named Isabel. Now if it had been called Hurricane Asskicker, that would be a different story, but Isabel? Ooh, I’m so scared.

Well, she showed me. Isabel whacked our area pretty badly, even though she shifted course mid-week and decided not to come up the bay after all. Really, it could have been a lot worse – Isabel was rated a Category Five hurricane before she hit land, with winds approaching 160 miles per hour. By the time she reached North Carolina and started inland, she had been downgraded to a Category Two. And considering that, I don’t think I ever want to see a Category Five.

Isabel hit Maryland at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, and even though we only caught the outer edge of her swirling vortex of death, we got slammed. Baltimore’s inner harbor is entirely flooded, huge trees were ripped from the ground and flung onto roads and power lines, and many folks found pieces of their houses missing come Friday morning. Our city lost power at about midnight, and it stayed off all through Friday and Saturday morning.

We were lucky. We have an enormous dead tree in our backyard, which we’ve been trying to have removed for months. I really don’t know what kept that sucker upright, but it’s a good thing, because had it come down, it would have landed square on our house. As it is, rotted limbs were torn off and scattered across our lawn (or rather, “lawn”), and it’s a wonder no one was hurt.

I’ve been rethinking my journalism ambitions recently, and one image from the hurricane’s assault has remained with me as an example of the sort of thing I don’t ever want to do. Before the power cut out on Thursday, I was watching our local news, and they cut to one of those maniacs that do on-location reports from storm zones. This guy was a mess – tattered and windblown, and crouching behind a stone wall. “Right now I’m in a protected area,” he said reassuringly.

Then – and here’s the stupid part – he looked square at the camera and said this: “Watch what happens when I step out of the protected area and into the winds.” And the idiot did it, and was promptly blown over. And I realized that he was probably all tattered and windblown because he’d practiced that routine before the cameras rolled. Dumbass.

Anyway, I made it through all right, and thanks to those who have expressed concern for my well-being. At about 10 this morning, Baltimore Gas and Electric said “let there be light,” and there was light, and it was good. I got my registration straightened out, which left me with more money than I expected, so I’m able to get this month’s deluge of new releases, including new ones from Seal, John Mayer, Outkast, A Perfect Circle, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, Dave Matthews, Neal Morse, South, The Mavericks, Lyle Lovett, Sting, and, yes, Iron Maiden. All of which means that I’m practically drowning in column topics now, and even though it’s a lovely Saturday and the Baltimore Comic-Con is happening right now, if I don’t get this Sloan review out of the way, I may not get to it.

So here goes.

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In order to really appreciate the new Sloan album, Action Pact, you have to listen to it while you’re driving.

Seriously. Try listening to it at home, as background for whatever you’re doing, and then try cranking it up in the car as you’re zipping past old people on the highway. It’s a completely different experience, and one that vastly improves what’s actually a backwards step for the band. As any fan of the Canadian quartet knows, Sloan changes sound every album, which partially accounts for their lack of popularity in the United States. This is the first time, however, that the sound of the new one has been a direct reaction to the sound of the previous one, and they may have stepped just a little far in one direction.

Sloan’s last album, 2001’s extraordinary Pretty Together, found them layering on the production techniques like never before. They wrote it largely as a unit, and labored over every second of the sound until it shone. Pretty Together practically glittered, especially “The Other Man,” their best shot at a chart smash in many a moon. (It didn’t work.) Still, after such an intensive process, I can certainly understand the impulse to make a simple, raw rock record immediately thereafter.

Hence Action Pact, on which Sloan has decided that they actually want to be AC/DC. It’s filled with dumb rock riffs and fist-pumping choruses, like a Kiss album made by collegiate nerds. It’s stunningly derivative, and stunningly brief, almost like it’s not really an official release. Previous Sloan albums have managed a deft balance between idiotic-yet-fun rock and textured pop, but this one tosses that balance away in favor of rocking out for 35 minutes or so. There are no ballads, there are only two mid-tempo numbers, and for the most part, the only instruments here are guitars, bass and drums.

There’s one other important thing missing as well – the sense of band democracy the foursome has fostered all along. Every previous album has provided equal time to Sloan’s four singer/songwriters – guitarists Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland, bassist Chris Murphy and drummer Andrew Scott. Action Pact, however, is dominated by Murphy and Pentland – they get five songs each, and Ferguson gets the remaining two. Scott’s voice is completely absent, and without his twisty epics to round it out, the album feels like it’s lost a limb.

What’s here, though, is certainly fun. Opener “Gimme That” announces its presence straight away, with a full twin-guitar assault topped by Murphy’s nearly wordless melody. Pentland’s “Live On” uses the same four chords, but makes room for some big, dumb solos as well. In fact, nearly everything here has been through the Dumb-O-Tron – Murphy’s “Ready For You,” for example, is built on one admittedly cool riff, and includes lines like, “My life is so lonesome, now I know you exist, we could talk on the phone some, but I’d rather we kissed…” Slap that song onto the playlist of any ’70s rock station and no one would know it was recorded this year.

Some tunes on Action Pact remind me more of Dokken and ’80s Kiss than the ’60s and ’70s influences for which Sloan are known. “Backstabbin'” made me check to see that it wasn’t a Gene Simmons or Judas Priest cover (it isn’t), and “Who Loves Life More” starts out with a riff George Lynch could have written. If One Chord to Another aped the ’60s and Between the Bridges trotted out the ’70s, then it seems like they’re on a progression, and before long they’ll be back to the mid-’90s wall of guitars that permeated their debut, Smeared. God, let’s hope not…

Amidst all the moronic rock cliches on this album, though, there are many moments that keep it sparkling: Ferguson’s wonderful ascending guitar lick on “False Alarm,” for example, or the backing vocals on “Reach Out,” or even the whole of “The Rest of My Life,” as feel-good a single as they’ve ever released. This is not an album meant for analysis or critical review, however. It’s supposed to be a stupid rock album, cut from the same cloth as Hotter Than Hell or Electric Warrior. When you’re sitting and trying to figure it out, it’s impossibly knuckleheaded and more than a bit silly. But when you’re driving at 90 miles per hour, shaking your fist and shouting along, it’s the best rock and roll record to come out this year.

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Next week, some new stuff, plus notes from the Comic-Con.

See you in line Tuesday morning.