Friday, November 18, 2022

My Sloan Story: How I Became Besotted

So I keep trying to get back to this to tell my weird little story, and I keep getting interrupted. This working-for-a-living thing is pretty inconvenient sometimes. 

As I noted, this is all about lockdown, and that weird gray haze we were all living in, because popping out of it was far too disorienting and terrifying. There are times, these days, when I’m running from place to place nonstop (today is a 14-hour day, if you are curious), that I miss the days when I would roll out of bed, get the kids to cross their bedrooms to their computers, grab a coffee and wander into the spare bedroom to try and work. (Like the rest of us, I was only middlingly successful at that.) But that world–in black and white inside the fog, and jarring Soviet-era greens and browns and rusty oranges outside it–left me almost desperate for something new, something different, something that was mine without my knowing it yet. 

Because I was at the computer essentially nonstop, I had music playing all the time. My music, and yours. Apples in Stereo and the Aerovons. Badfinger and Blue Ash and Blondie and Big Star and the Beatles. The Cars, the Clash, Cheap Trick (and you know I can’t keep this alphabetical thing up forever). XTC, Shoes, the Cars, Fountains of Wayne, Redd Kross, Guided By Voices, Teenage Fanclub, the New Pornographers…. You get the idea. Power pop once saved my life when I was mired in a deep depression: I needed it to come to the rescue now. And damn, it sure did.

I found Sloan.

It took a bit: the algorithms I had set up did pretty well, and when you have Spotify* on 12 hours a day, they dig pretty deep into the corners for you. Yeah, you start with the same hundred songs, but eventually it starts trying out new stuff. And as I noted in my first post on this topic, it was the words that pierced the veil first. That makes sense, I think. I am a writer, and  words mean a lot to me. (I read recently somewhere an interview with a female musician (maybe Jill Sobule or someone in that vein?) that she has the words first and the music is written to fit them. I can tell you honestly: I have never heard a male composer say that. It’s music first, then words. I have no idea what this means; I just think it’s weird.) Anyway, these distinct little phrases just kept kind of reaching out for me. There was no consistency to the singing voice or the musical style, except insofar as they were in our general wheelhouse, but every time I clicked out of the work I was avoiding to check Spotify, it was the same name. Sloan. 

I made a sensible adult decision (which I duly announced to the spouse) to become obsessed with this band. I mean, everyone went a little Covid-crazy, and this was better than making sourdough or posing my family like paintings or  joining Q-Anon or something. I attacked it very methodically, in a scholarly fashion. First, I looked at their videos on YouTube, reasoning that these were more likely to be the “singles” than other songs. (Little did I know that Sloan releases basically every song as a video; it’s just that some of them are album cover art. But whatever you’re looking for, it’s probably on YouTube.)  So that filled a couple of weeks as I started putting a timeline together in my head, reading old interviews, etc. 

I was helped immensely in this aspect by finding Sloancast, an extraordinary podcast put together by two Sloan superfans, Rob Butcher and Ken Gildner. If you are interested in the band’s history, in people who have worked with them, and in a meticulous breakdown of almost every album, the Sloancast guys are your best bet. I never miss an episode. (And as of ten days or so ago, they have had all the members of the band–alphabetically by last name, Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott, as well as member-at-large Gregory MacDonald, on as guests.)  A podcast like this would be any band’s dream, honestly. But there is another, called the Sloan Selection Podcast, which is more focused on putting songs from their (pretty immense) catalog side by side and choosing a winner. Good fun, but I personally prefer the history/background stuff more. 

[insert here the requisite amazement that there are four singers and four songwriters in this band, that they have been doing this with the same lineup since 1991, that they do Cheap Trick-levels of touring, that they split everything equally. Not to say that these things aren’t amazing, because they are, but just that any profile of Sloan will mention them.]

So this is what happens when an academic dork takes on a new band. Figured out who they were, their likely most popular/well-know songs. Then (god help me, I wish I were making this up) I went to discogs and printed off every track list off every album. That meant reshuffling a bunch of stuff in my head, reorganizing the timeline, but remember that I got 30 years of music in one huge information dump. The process took a bit. Then (cringing again), I got a highlighter and marked off the songs I already knew. To quote Chris M, so far, so good. Starting with the EP Peppermint, I worked my way methodically through the entire catalog, highlighter in hand. It was kind of fun seeing songs I was already besotted with in their own context, like seeing a picture of your partner as a kid posing with their own family, or in a school picture. Peppermint (1992). Smeared (also 1992). Twice Removed (1994). One Chord to Another (1996). Navy Blues (1998). Between the Bridges (1999). Pretty Together (2001). Action Pact (2003). Never Hear the End of It (2006). Parallel Play (2008). The Double Cross (2011) Commonwealth (2014). Twelve (2018). So, so much to absorb, and man, was I absorbed. (I’m leaving out probably a dozen EPs, single releases, and live albums, maybe more.) 

The thing is, the Sloan guys and I are about the same age. That means our musical inspirations and tastes are roughly analogous, or at least contemporary to each other. They pulled from sources I mostly knew, but some not intimately (My Bloody Valentine, who I only knew a bit of, loom large in the lore, for example.) But on most things? Hell, yeah, exactly in my sweet spot.  (In a recent interview, Chris M was asked about a specific little musical grace note in one of their new songs, “Magical Thinking.” The interviewer suggested it was a callback to “People of the Sky” from Twice Removed. I said to myself, “Nope. That’s from Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.” Like that ) The spouse says that if you went into a lab and made me a band, Sloan would be the one. 

But this whole process, as absorbing and delightful as it was, also pissed me off. Why? Because I could not stop asking myself: HOW DID I MISS THIS BAND?!?!? It’s utterly inexplicable to me. I went to shows regularly, though in the 90s I was somewhat handicapped by being in a big city that was not on the way to anywhere (Miami), so few bands came that far south. I did go to shows in NYC, though only when they lined up with school breaks. But I listened to college radio. I watched 120 Minutes like it was my religion. I knew cool people, including one invaluable friend who worked in a used record store off Tompkins Square Park, who could turn me on to stuff. It makes no sense that a national border could make that much difference, and yet it did. (Even in the rollout to their most recent album, Steady, out less than a month at this writing, there were a couple of videos that I knew were dropping, yet we initially couldn’t see them in the States. It’s a global world, publishing/copyright/rights people. Catch the hell up.) And so, even in my pretty much pure delight with Sloan, I curse bitterly the years I didn’t know, the shows I didn’t see, and all of the rest of it. I’m making up for lost time (seeing them for the third time next week, and fourth in February), but still. 

Anyway, there’s my Sloan story, and though I will never be the kind of superfan Rob and Ken are, I stand in awe of their encyclopedic knowledge. (And thank Rob in particular for being gracious to a complete noob in this world and helping me along.) So if you are reading this blog (and still reading this post), this band is something worth hunting down. They live in our world. This is our music. 

Thank me later. 

* I know, I know, I know. But for a lot of musicians (who weren't making Joe Rogan money), this was pretty much their only income stream for the last couple of years. I wasn't going to stop supporting them.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Some Chills Down the Spine: A Review of Sloan’s Steady

In the coming days, I’ll be unspooling the strange journey I’ve been on for the last two-ish years, but today I want to unpack the most recent gift from our friends from the north, Sloan’s new album, Steady, which came out Thursday.

Everywhere you look in Powerpopland, you’re going to find people gushing about this record. The original vinyl pressing started arriving at people’s houses about ten days ago; mine got here last Wednesday.  (Available in the US from YepRoc.) It’s a gorgeous package, tones of silver on black, and inside, a glorious pink sleeve and purple vinyl. The band has been very careful to manage their visual presentation as well as their musical, and so it’s no surprise that it’s attractive. But we are music people, and as music people, you want to know what’s inside. 

It’s a Sloan record, which means everything comes in fours: four writers, four singers, four distinct songwriting styles. You can count on bassist Chris Murphy for wry observation and wit. You can count on Andrew Scott for Dylan-esque reflections on modern life. You can count on Jay Ferguson for lush portraits of moments in time. And you can count on Patrick Pentland for killer melodies and raw emotion. But there’s something about the blend which is inexplicable. I often say that music is the only magic I believe in, and that’s true of Sloan more than almost any band I can think of. 

Side A leads off with Murphy’s “Magical Thinking,” a sardonic catalog of the rationales offered by the sort of people who think the universe or the tarot or their horoscope or their Meyers-Briggs type will manifest itself just because, seeing to it that the world behaves as it’s supposed to, rewarding the just and punishing the deserving. Kicking off with a fairytale harp flourish, the song is driven by a low guitar and bass riff that is both melodic, and just a little dark, as is the song. That’s followed by “Spend the Day,” the first song released from this record. (YouTube tells me the video was posted three months ago: it doesn’t seem like it could possibly be that long, but I’ll take their word for it.)  Patrick Pentland’s signature driving guitar underpins this invitation to avoid the world and “hide away/spend the day/ in here with me a while.” Tempting.

Then we turn to Jay Ferguson’s character sketch of a female ghost writer on a seemingly endless journey, “She Put Up With What She Put Down.” It’s a beautiful jangling pop song, Ferguson’s trademark, with the deceptive fragility so many of his songs have. (For longtime followers of the blog, I would argue that Ferguson is the “Shoes-iest” member of Sloan, for that reason.) I want to stay focused on this record, but it would be remiss of me to pass by this song without noting that the way Ferguson writes about women is extraordinary. Early on, he relied a bit on the distant goddess trope (thinking here of “Snowsuit Sound,” from Twice Removed: a song I love, but which I think buys into a certain framing he later outgrew). The first time I really noticed it was in the gut-wrenching “Light Years,” from Never Hear the End of It (2006), which I hear as the song of a person in love with an addict. But it’s not cruel or dismissive: It’s not “Kicks,” it’s not “The Needle and the Damage Done.” It’s sympathetic and poignant, and even a bit hopeful. But my favorite Jay song in this vein is on Commonwealth (2014): “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind.” I wasn’t looking at the lyrics, and I didn’t know the song, but when he sang the title and immediately followed it with “and I hope that you say it”.... I…. Look, the woman who never shuts up is a standard misogynist trope. The idea of a song that invites her to speak? That’s huge. And it's followed two songs later by the extraordinary “Cleopatra,” which is similarly empowering. I’ve digressed too long, but the point here is that Ferguson is just a really strong, really sensitive writer of women characters, and “She Put Up With What She Put Down” is another beautiful piece in that body of work.

We return to Chris Murphy for the piano-driven “Human Nature,” a rumination on the complex relationship we all have with gossip. It’s a lovely, contemplative work, and (because it’s CM) has a delightful Oscar Wilde twist at the end. There’s a great video of Murphy and indefatigable Sloan jack-of-all-trades Gregory Macdonald performing it live here. That’s followed by the Pentland-penned “Scratch the Surface,” a pop masterpiece about the alienation of city life and the false consciousness we fall into. This song became the first official Sloan video since 2011, and it’s charming: each of the members doing something characteristic (Andrew paints, Jay looks at records, etc.) interspersed with stunning drone footage of Toronto. The side closes out with the first Andrew Scott song on the disc: “Panic on Runnymede.” Like many of Scott’s songs, the lyrics are somewhat opaque, but the harmonies are gorgeous and the guitar work, especially at the end, strong. Plus, we get to hear from the dogs, which is always a treat.

Side B opens with two bangers: these may well be my favorite songs on the album. “Dream It All Over Again” could easily have been the album opener, representing as it does the by-now-standard report on how Sloan is dealing with their somewhat unusual cultural position. They’re pretty philosophical about it at this point: “If you wait a while /Then we’ll be back in style /But if you lose your thread /We’re never hard to find.” The real joy in this one is the back and forth between Chris and Jay, and then the soaring harmonies when they all come together. It’s just gorgeous. And “Nice Work If You Can Get It”? Holy. Shit. It starts out with a riff ripped right out of the mid-60s. It has kind of a “Day Tripper” vibe initially. But then it launches into these extended harmonies which put me in mind less of the Beatles than the Records in their heyday, and that chorus in unison? That is pure 1979, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give. It’s just perfect: that riff, that melody, those harmonies. Perfect. 

It’s followed by a Patrick Pentland song unlike anything he’s done for a good while. Starting off with a Ronettes drum bit, it’s the softest and most pain-filled song on the record, about the loss of a relationship. But instead of focusing on the wrongs of the other person (like, say, “Backstabbin’” or “Unkind”) this song is just raw grief. Pentland has never had a problem wearing his heart on his sleeve, and it has served him well. It serves him well here, too. It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking.

When the next song, Scott’s “Close Encounters,” begins, you’d swear it was a Jay song, starting with a kind of mid-70s soft rock vibe, and when Scott comes in, it’s a delightful surprise. It’s a beautiful piece, reflecting on, among other things, the ongoing Covid crisis, though he uses the mask as a metaphor for hiding oneself more generally. He even makes a Murphy-ish plea: “So love your brothers /And your sisters the same,” because, you know, it’s all we got. 

Murphy’s “I Dream of Sleep” is, and I am not kidding, a country song, pretty unusual for Sloan. (Do we have to go back to “I’m Not Through With You Yet”? Maybe.) But Murphy’s relentless calculation and checking the clock is familiar to any insomniac, and by “any insomniac,” I mean me, who just finished a month of 2 and 3 hour nights. This one is maybe too close for me to assess fairly. The album rounds off with Ferguson’s “Keep Your Name Alive,” driven by another of those tasty riffs. It’s an interesting closer, and for a band like Sloan, who have rarely been off the road for long over the last (checks calendar) decades, the question of whether “you have to leave your home /To keep your name alive” is a little existential. Maybe this is a hint that their punishing road schedule can’t go on forever.

I expected to like this record, maybe even to love it. But I didn’t actually think it would meet my newbie-enthusiastic expectations. This is the first Sloan release I've been conscious of as it dropped, and it's a tremendous record, full of juicy nuggets of melodic pop-rock and callbacks to the giants of the genre. Sloan has done a masterful job here. Run, don’t walk, to get this one.


Friday, October 21, 2022

Steve Simels: Many Happy Returns!

Today, we bid a very happy birthday to this blog's backbone, the man who kept the fires aglow and the posts a'coming, my friend and yours, Mr. Steve Simels. 

A sharp-as-hell observer of all things musical, cultural, and political, Steve has been wowing us with his words for fifty years. 

As many of you have noticed, Steve has been scarce around here lately. He's been dealing with a serious health problem for the last few months, and has been largely incommunicado. 

I share with you this post from his partner, Wendy (pictured with him here) :

Tomorrow is Steve's birthday. I haven't posted anything about this, but he is having serious health issues and isn't home. It would  mean a lot to me if you could send good thoughts his way ...  thanks.


And so mazel tov and many happy returns to our fearless captain and a a wonderful person: Steve.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

I'm Back! / Bandcrush: Sloan

Well, hello, strangers! It's been a good bit since I've stomped on these home grounds, and a ton of stuff has happened. I wrote a book, we had a pandemic, you know... stuff.

But I assure you, my love for our genre has never flickered for  second. I spent a ton of lockdown staring at a computer, doomscrolling--but I'm sure none of you did anything like that--and listening to bands who had never crossed over my transom before, or if they did, I didn't register it. But if there was any joy there, it was that I had little to do except listen to music. 

Which brings me to Sloan. 

My friend Bill insists we caught the tail end of a set in early 2000, opening for GBV. Maybe? I had a newborn; I'm pretty sure I missed that show. My sister-in-law insists that she had spent literally years in the 90s trying to turn me on to them. Maybe? She wasn't someone I looked to for new bands, I guess, so I probably nodded politely. 

A heartbreaking waste of time, if either of these things are true. Because when I fell, I fell HARD.

You all will understand what I mean when I say this: Sloan pierced the fog of my lockdown haze. Everything was gray and dangerous and lonely, and these, I dunno, tendrils? of music kept reaching out to me from my computer. It was words at first, odd little phrasings.

        What's so bad about dying anyway?

        I guess you caught me lying to myself.

        You get rough, attack my self-esteem /It's not much, but it's the best I've got.

        We've all been in one situation or another we regret.

        She don't know what it means, she just knows that it's not what it seems.

        Every now and then, I'm reminded that you /could say goodbye and then vanish from view.

They all struck me as profound and beautiful and just, you know TRUE. And they spanned almost 30 years, because I received Sloan in a tsunami, all at once.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be unpacking this weird journey I've been on, which gave me structure and kept me sane. I hope you'll enjoy it. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Literary Notes From All Over

From 1964 in The New Yorker, please enjoy Nat Hentoff's brilliant profile of Bob Dylan as he was recording his fourth album. You know -- the one with "Chimes of Freedom."

And you can read it over at the link HERE.

I should add that when this was written, Hentoff was also a jazz and pop critic at the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Reivew, and when I got my gig over there, I was briefly Nat's editor. Very nice guy.

I should also add that the Floor Models did a bunch of demos in that same CBS studio in NYC, which was a helluva thrill.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

[h/t Eric Boardman]

Thursday, August 25, 2022

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

From nobody knows exactly when, please enjoy the funniest rock-and-roll photograph of all time...

...and then from 1977, dig the greatest live rock recording of all time, juxtaposed here for obvious reasons.

You're welcome,

[h/t Arthur Kramer]

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Records I'd Forgotten Existed, Let Alone Loved: An Occasional Feature (Special "Schmucks in White Satin" Edition)

From 1966, please enjoy the original version of The Moody Blues, with the great Denny Laine, and their glorious almost hit single "Stop."

I should add that Laine -- who found greater fame and fortune as a member of Paul McCartney's Wings -- wrote and sang that. Jeebus, he was the real soulful deal.

But speaking of the post-Laine Moodys, I have a story, and its not really a funny one.

The short version -- I went to see the mellotron version of those guys -- with the insufferable irony-free Justin Heyward fronting -- at the old Fillmore East, circa late 1968. They were opening for whatever the edition of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers was, and apparently the Moody's thought it was somewhat demeaning to be paired with them..

And when the crowd didn't respond with the enthusiasm they thought their whey-faced British prog-rock deserved, Moody's flutist Ray Thomas looked at the audience and sneered-- and I quote verbatim -- "We're not doing any 12-bars tonight. Too complicated."

What a fucking snob asshole.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Records I'd Forgotten Existed, Let Alone Loved: An Occasional Feature (Special "More Cow Bell" Edition)

From 1987(!) and his sophomore studio album Lord of the Highway, please enjoy the incomparable Joe Ely and his killer ode to public rowdiness "Everybody Go Hammered."

That's just a great genre-bending rock song -- you can hear why Ely was credible collaborating with The Clash back in the day -- and what a pleasure it was to revisit it after all these years.

I should add that I bring it up because a publicist friend of mine (for decades) just sent me Ely's forthcoming album (of unreleased lullabyes he did for his daughter in their respective youths) is coming out on my birthday (Oct. 21) and its freaking great. But I'll have more to say about that when the time comes.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Records I'd Forgotten Existed, Let Alone Loved: An Occasional Feature (Special "50s Ballad Pastiche" Edition)

From 2014, please enjoy everybody's favorite pop tart Lydia Loveless and her spine-tingingly gorgeous cover of "They Don't Know."

Seriously -- that's just great. I think it's legitimately better than both the hit version by Tracey Ullman AND the original by the song's composer, the late great Kirsty MacColl. I mean, forgetting the vocal, which is about as well sung as you can get, but the backing band track is just outrageously cool in a jangly folk-rock way.

BTW, first time I heard that was when I was a guest on the much missed intertube radio show Lost at Sea formerly hosted by friend of PowerPop Captain Al.

Thanks, Captain.

Have a great weekend, everybody!!!