John K. Samson started as the frontman for Propaghandi, playing ultraleft (and vegan!) hardcore punk. After two albums, however, he left to start the Weakerthans, which allowed him to gain some distance from the political and focus more on the personal. The Weakerthans early albums were still punk-inflected, but over time Samson softened the edges. His new solo album, Provincial, started from material he recorded on EPs—acoustic or even acapella—and then subsequently re-recorded with a fuller sound. Samson’s solo effort has an especially personal feel to it, focusing on his hometown of Winnepeg, Manitoba. Most of the songs are in some way inspired by highways in Manitoba; Samson also sings a ballad about a hometown hockey star and pens an ode to graduate students. Provincial alternates regularly between acoustic tracks and chugging power pop, and Samson seems to enjoy keeping on the move, jumping from the campy to the amusing to the sentimental, and from pounding to gentle to orchestral. Even when Samson follows a fairly standard template, his sense of humor keeps things cute and cozy.
Samson’s unplugged tracks are tender descriptions of life and love, with light percussion and mournful, unobtrusive acoustic guitar. Sometimes strings and/or horns come into play as well, like on the percussionless “Grace General.” Samson’s voice—mild and bookish (he mentions higher education and ampersands)—cuts clearly through the instrumentation to deliver pleasant meandering narratives. “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” takes its time to unfurl, with drums and appealing violins entering part-way through. It’s hard to figure out what the song is about—sagas and swordplay are mentioned, as are Halloween, x-rays, and hitting on nurses—but it doesn’t really matter. Samson’s voice is confident, and the song takes on the pace of a waltz. “www.ipetitions.com/petition-/rivertonrifle/,” about a petition to get a native hockey star into the NHL hall of fame, is goofy but sincere. The bemusement and sentiment play well off each other, preventing the song from being too cheesy or a throwaway. The refrain, “we the undersigned, put forth his name,” is awkward but oddly sticky.
It can be jarring the way Samson switches between electric pounding and balladry almost every other song, but if you don’t mind the sudden shift in gears, Samson’s pop goes down easy. The crunching drums and dual guitar interplay of “Cruise Night” are firm even if the lyrics about cars are kind of corny (stories of cars sounded dated even when the Beach Boys put them out in the early 60s). But the familiarity is kind of the point. The power pop on Provincial gets better when Samson adds a dose of humor to the riffing in “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” the song that would most easily slot into a Weakerthans’ album. He sings, “The doorbell rings, I put my controller down and pick it up, and shoot some things. . . the loneliness increases, she said she’d come back home, when I write my master’s thesis.” It’s an amusing description of procrastination and frustration with subtle hints about the way work can consume your life. Later he sings “No more marking first year papers, no more citing sources. . .”—it’s an easy anthem for many a struggling student (or teacher).
Samson doesn’t break any new ground on Provincial; it’s familiar stuff, warm and well-worn. That means it can be alternately immediate or unexciting, sometimes within the same song. But Samson has always had a good ear for tune and a knack for linking levity with brevity—think of the Weakerthans’ “Our Retired Explorer,” from Reconstruction Site—and when he succeeds in that, as he does on this album, it’s always gratifying.