International Pop Overthrow
Sloan and The Feeling: Worth the Import Price

So my computer’s still broken, and this column is coming to you courtesy of pure human kindness.

It’s been an interesting week, trying to get half a dozen similar problems resolved while working on a couple of pretty major stories, and watching our local boy, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, fall apart. It was a local story on a national scale – Democratic challenger John Laesch, whom I have met three or four times, was on Hardball on MSNBC this week, fielding questions about, of all things, whether gay people should be allowed to serve in Congress. Way to completely miss the issue, guys…

Anyway, I run three miles every morning on my treadmill, and ordinarily, I’ll watch an episode of something, usually Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while exercising. But my computer is also my primary DVD player, and with that broken, I’ve been forced to watch television. So I’ve been checking out VH1’s selection of music videos, just to keep up with popular culture, and I’ve decided once again that popular culture truly sucks.

First off, there’s the Killers, who seem to be everywhere these days. “Overhyped” doesn’t even begin to describe the reaction to Sam’s Town, the band’s second album, and I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I’ve seen the video to “When You Were Young,” the repetitive single, probably four times this week. Right around the third time, it hit me – if this exact same song were performed the exact same way by, say, Bon Jovi, all the alterna-kids would hate it. Seriously, it sounds like Jersey-style heartland rock, like right out of the Bruce Springsteen playbook. Why is this considered revolutionary?

Then there are the ridiculous new singles from Janet Jackson, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake that crop up on my TV every morning at the same times. Come on, people, these are not even songs. These are beats. Beyonce’s “Sound the Alarm” even reduces her vocals to a percussion instrument. I feel like there’s a war on between melody and mindless rhythm, and rhythm is winning. I think Gwen Stefani should be tied up, thrown in a car trunk and driven off a cliff, but I prefer her clubby drivel to these three half-assed efforts. I honestly couldn’t believe it when I first heard “Sexyback” – is this really what people have been raving about? Really?

It’s not just the computer-generated pop that sucks, though. Witness Hinder, a band VH1 assures us we “oughtta know.” First I suffered through the generic interview clip, where the tattooed bad boys in Hinder announced their goal to “bring back real rock.” And then came the actual video, for a song called (I shit you not) “Lips of an Angel.” And I was dumbfounded. Can this actually be a major-label band? Night Ranger never wrote a power ballad this bad. Poison would reject this song as too sappy and too silly.

It’s really just third-rate Nickelback, and just to prove it, VH1 played the new Nickelback clip soon after. I hate to admit this, but “Far Away” is my favorite of the videos I’ve seen this week. It’s a short film about a woman waiting to hear whether her firefighter husband/boyfriend (it’s not clear) survived a massive forest fire, and it’s almost affecting, in its way. But if fucking Nickelback is the best we can do, then I think pop culture needs an enema in the worst way.

Nickelback’s from Canada, one of many musical cancers our neighbors to the north have inflicted on us, but I can’t complain too much, because they’ve given us just as many great bands. Which is a clumsy segue into this week’s topic – sweet, sweet pop from other countries.

I hate import prices, and most of the time, I refuse to pay them. Why spend $30 on a CD that I can get for $12 if I wait for a domestic release? But more and more often, the good stuff just isn’t coming here, or its appearance on these shores is delayed by a year or more, for reasons unfathomable. Most of the time, I’ll wait – I bought Starsailor’s third album, On the Outside, when it was released here in August, not when it hit the U.K. in 2005. (And I haven’t listened to it much since.)

But sometimes I just can’t hold out. Some bands are so good that I can’t wait for them to sort out their U.S. distribution deals. I have to have their new record now. So I bite the bullet, I pay the inflated price (thanks to an underperforming dollar), and then I pay the additional charges to ship the damn thing over international borders. (I know, I know – I could download it from any of a number of international iTunes stores, but I’m old-fashioned, and I like to have the physical CD in front of me when listening. It’s a context thing.)

And then I wait. It takes a minimum of a week to get something from the U.K. to Illinois, which makes sense, but it also takes about two weeks to get something from Canada, which makes no sense. I’m less than a day’s drive from the Canadian border. I could physically go to a Canadian record store and buy what I want in much less time than it takes to ship it here.

Case in point – it took 16 days for Maple Music to get me my copy of the new Sloan CD. I meant to write about it last week, and I honestly expected it to arrive in time, but no. It just barely made the cutoff for this week’s column. But Sloan is one of those bands I can’t wait for. I’ve been a fan since high school, when my friend Chris (who now, oddly enough, lives in Canada) included “Underwhelmed” on a mix tape for me. It was snarky, funny and clever, and I immediately bought the album, Smeared, and pretended to really like it.

But I didn’t. “Underwhelmed” is great, “I Am the Cancer” is neat, but the rest of it was drowned in Kevin Shields-style guitar, and the band didn’t wear it well. It wasn’t until their third record, One Chord to Another, in 1997 that they truly found their sound – ‘60s-inspired melodic rock with hooks galore. And of course, they subsequently lost their U.S. record deal, forcing me to keep up with them via imports from then on.

But I’m glad I have. The scrappy Halifax foursome has never let me down, although they’ve never done the same thing twice. Recently, they’ve swung from the shiny, well-produced pop of Pretty Together to the gut-punch rock of Action Pact, two records the likes of which they’d never made before, and now they’ve gone to a whole new place with their new one.

Reviewers like me love it when a band provides a hook for them to write about. Nothing is harder to describe than a 12-track CD of regular old songs, especially one that doesn’t break any new ground for the band. No worries on that score – Sloan’s new record is a 30-song, 76-minute extravaganza that plays like the second side of Abbey Road. It’s a classic rock double album, by far the lengthiest and most ambitious thing they’ve done, and they’ve even given it a cheeky, self-aware title: Never Hear the End of It.

Sonically, this is a return to the sound of One Chord and Navy Blues – they recorded much of this record in their rehearsal space, and recaptured the vintage tones they used to do so well. But this is no rehash. This is a whole new thing – a 76-minute song suite, a marvel of editing, a rushing hurricane of melody that screams by at a breakneck pace. Only three songs here break the four-minute mark, and most hover around two, but none are fillers. Each song, even the 52-second “I Can’t Sleep,” is exactly as long as it needs to be, and each moment moves the album forward.

And I think that may be what I like most about it – Never Hear the End of It is defiantly an album, full of transitions and fragments that serve the whole, but wouldn’t stand alone. It’s also a statement of unity from the long-running quartet, featuring songs from each of the members. (Action Pact included nothing from drummer Andrew Scott. Here he gets equal time.) It’s a varied record, in many ways the group’s White Album, but it’s also a cohesive one, perfectly sequenced and solid straight through.

Pressing play, we hear from each member in rapid succession – guitarist Jay Ferguson sings the second verse of “Flying High Again,” the brief opener, before other guitarist Patrick Pentland crashes in with his “Who Taught You to Live Like That,” a pounding rocker. Scott takes center stage for “I’ve Gotta Try,” one of his trademark melodic stompers, and then bassist Chris Murphy grabs the spotlight for a minor-key stunner, “Everybody Wants You.”

And on it goes like that. Pentland’s “Listen to the Radio” is an epic strummer with great backing vocals, while Murphy’s “Fading Into Obscurity” runs through four tempos in as many minutes. Relatively longer tunes like the riff-heavy “Ana Lucia” and the great “I Understand” flow beautifully into minute-long segue-songs like “Something’s Wrong” and “Golden Eyes.” It’s a flood of song, and the melodies never falter. The record is sequenced for the vinyl release, with four equal-length sides, but you’d never know it listening to the CD, and they have some fun with the song orders, following Murphy’s groovy “People Think They Know Me” with Scott’s response song “I Know You.”

This album has everything, all compressed into an hour and a quarter, from the punky explosion of “HFXNSHC” (Halifax, Nova Scotia Hard Core) to the clever rhymes of “Someone I Can Be True With” to the laugh-out-loud throwaway humor of Scott’s “Living With the Masses.” The amps are cranked for much of the running time, but pianos slip in here and there, and the tempos slow down in the final fourth, with a trio of sweet ballads at tracks 27, 28 and 29. The album ends with “Another Way I Could Do It,” finishing the trip with a lovely vocal tag.

This is an album the likes of which I figured we’d never see again, in this age of the digitally delivered single, and God bless Sloan for remembering how cool something like this can be. Never Hear the End of It is pretty much the last thing I expected from this band, but then, I never know what to expect from this band. I just know they never let me down, and this is one of their best efforts, a virtual torrent of riffs, melodies and harmonies. It’s a classic.

But Sloan isn’t the only band plying a sound influenced by decades of melodic rock. I have Dr. Tony Shore to thank for turning me on to The Feeling, a new sensation from the U.K. Their debut album, Twelve Stops and Home, was scheduled for release in the U.S. last month, but alas, it never happened, so I paid in British pounds, and a week later, received one of the sweetest and best pop records of the year.

The Feeling combine 40 years of British pop into one sunny sound. Elements of the Kinks, 10cc, Supertramp, ELO, Queen and even Coldplay and James Blunt wind their way through these 13 easygoing, windows-down melody-fests. These are songs that promise big choruses, and unfailingly deliver them, and this is a record so well-produced and lovingly crafted that many will hear processed and corporate, when it’s anything but.

This is music created with pure love of pop in mind. How can anyone think that a Steely Dan meets Supertramp number like “Never Be Lonely” was written with super-stardom in mind? (It’s apparently happened across the pond – The Feeling is a smash success in their home country.) And how could anyone do anything but smile uncontrollably when it cascades into its fantastic chorus? I don’t know, but I’m unable to control the idiot grin. “B-b-b-baby, I think I’m going c-c-c-crazy…”

The album opens with “I Want You Now,” a classic pop tune if I’ve ever heard one – this is the sort of song the greats write, the kind of barnburner that would flow from the pen of a Ray Davies or a Todd Rundgren. The sound is shiny and balanced, which some will decry as too glossy, but this record sounds as good as anything Jellyfish might have turned out, and I have been known to call that band’s records unassailably perfect.

“Fill My Little World” stands as the most fun song of the year so far for me, the one I can’t resist singing along with. Right behind it is the Cars-esque “Love It When You Call,” a song that could have been a dismal failure in lesser hands. Contrary to popular belief, good pop music is not easy to write, play or record, and very few bands do it well. The Feeling does it well – better, in fact, than 90 percent of the new bands I’ve heard since Ben Folds Five broke up. Even the slower numbers are delights – “Kettle’s On” is oddly affecting, and “Sewn” is a masterpiece, a triumph of melody.

The album does drift into self-important balladry by the end, which is unfortunate. “Same Old Stuff” is a nice, Lennon-esque song that can’t withstand the epic Oasis-style treatment the band gives it, and “Blue Piccadilly” has shades of Paul McCartney’s less successful solo work. But don’t despair – sandwiched between them is a cheeky wonderama called “Helicopter” that sounds like nothing else here. And bonus track “Miss You” is as lovely a piano number as one could hope for.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about what this band does – the lyrics are simple and direct, the melodies right out front, the influences proudly worn. Which is why it’s mystifying that so few groups do this sort of thing this well. Despite a couple of well-intentioned missteps, Twelve Stops and Home is a terrific pop record, one that fills me with silly joy, and it will undoubtedly find its way into my top 10 list at the end of the year.

Speaking of that list, here (one week late) is my third quarter report. Truthfully, I was waiting for this week’s contestants to arrive, both of which pleasantly surprised me and made it into this draft of the list. I should stress once again that this is just a draft, and not the finished product. A lot can happen in three months. I should also point out that the top two trade places on an almost daily basis (and I did just see my current #1 choice live, and they were amazing), but they may not appear in the same order in three months. But they’re probably the top two, unless something else knocks me out of my chair.

With that in mind, here’s how my top 10 list looks at the beginning of October:

#10: Quiet Company, Shine Honesty.
#9: The Alarm, Under Attack.
#8: Roger Joseph Manning Jr., The Land of Pure Imagination.
#7: Sloan, Never Hear the End of It.
#6: David Mead, Tangerine.
#5: The Feeling, Twelve Stops and Home.
#4: Grandaddy, Just Like the Fambly Cat.
#3: Ross Rice, Dwight.
#2: Keane, Under the Iron Sea.
#1. Mute Math.

And with that, I bid you farewell. Next week is another big ol’ slew of reviews – this stuff just keeps hitting stores, and I’m almost drowning in new tunes. And how about that Lost premiere? As Frank Zappa would say, wowee zowee.

See you in line Tuesday morning.