Sloan is probably the best band you’ve never heard of. Part of that has to do with the fact that they’re Canadian, part of it stems from the quartet’s refusal to have a front man, and most of it is the result of their consistent refusal to be defined by genre. On the strength of their indie Peppermint EP, Sloan was signed to Geffen in the midst of the early ‘90s grunge obsession, and released Smeared, an album which failed on all accounts: to sound like an authentic grunge record, to reflect the band’s true talents, and—most importantly—to allow Sloan to continue making records for big labels. If their failure to sound or sell like Seattle rockers was a disappointment to their fans, it has resulted in a huge boon to their fans.
In the wake of the Geffen failures, Sloan released themselves from the burden of being “the next big thing” and relocated themselves to Canada’s Murder Records. The result was the lush One Chord to Another, a contemporary take on the vintage pop of the late ‘60s, ranging from Small Faces sing-a-longs to the best of Beatles-esque. Then followed the overflowing Navy Blues, a near-perfect album that seemed perfect salute to the Seventies: from AC/DC throb to Zeppelin guitars, with every letter of the overindulgent alphabet crammed in between the two. By 2002, the collective pop genius known as Sloan released the aptly titled Pretty Together as a computer-era collaboration in which band members only related via their Ethernet connection.
This time around, Sloan set out to make a power pop record: two guitars, 12 songs, 39 minutes. The result is an uncanny album that continues both the creative and overwhelmingly harmonic arc the band has pursued for the past decade. As with every Sloan album, references abound: “Live On” sounds like a great lost Thin Lizzy track; “Ready for You” is reminiscent of early-era Cars; and “Hollow Head” sounds like it came off the last Foo Fighters’ release. Action Pact is riff-heavy, with rhythm guitars constantly dueling it out with the beat against the backdrop of steady bass. Perfect harmonies are right where you expect them, but they never sound trite. Each track is a magnificently, painstakingly created nugget of pure confection.
What most distinguishes Action Pact from its predecessors is that, while bassist Chris Murphy and guitarists Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson take turns on songwriting and corresponding lead vocal duties (drummer Andrew Scott took a vacation from these duties to raise a newborn), the album sounds remarkably consistent from beginning to end. The stylistic jumps that are somewhat jarring for Sloan initiates on other albums are nowhere present on this record that truly earns the label action-packed. The lead single “The Rest of My Life” is a jangly number that relies on broad harmonies reminiscent of the quartet’s older work; still it fits in seamlessly between the hard rocking “Backstabbin’” and the guitar-propelled “False Alarm”. It’s not that all the songs sound the same—“Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore” is a slow-paced, minor-keyed borderline ballad while “Ready for You” is an arena-ready anthem—it’s just that the sound of the album is all of one piece.
For the unity of Action Pact, Sloan and their fans have Tom Rothrock to thank. Known best for his production of Elliott Smith and Badly Drawn Boy, it was Rothrock’s knowledge of and love for Ratt and Kiss that made him Sloan’s choice for producer. Action Pact marks a departure for Sloan both in producer [not their good friend Brenndan McGuire] and production: on this album, individual sounds and instruments do enjoy neither sonic distinction nor clarity. Guitars bleed into one another, drums muffle the lead vocals, the bass plays the simple line instead of creating around it; the usually outstanding individuated pieces of the Sloan machine are here made to take a backseat to the power of the machine itself. The result is a powerful and messy enjoyable half-hour of songs you won’t be able to get out of your head.
Action Pact is a rarity amongst current releases: it is an album without flaws. When the only complaint you can level against an album is that it inexplicably lists two solid tracks as “bonus”, you know you’ve got a great recording on your hands. And that’s just what Action Pact is: a great recording of great songs by a great band with the perfect producer for the project. All of which should go a long ways to making Sloan the best band you’re lucky enough to have heard.
// Notes from the Road
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