A minor institution in their Canadian homeland, and a cult favorite of powerpop enthusiasts everywhere else, Halifax’s Sloan have built a successful career on the kind of guitar-heavy melodic rock that has appealed to skinny people with long hair since the Beatles and the Who married rockin’ guitars to sweet melodies.
The mass appeal of this musical style all but faded away in the early ‘70s and never regained across the board popularity. So instead of battling for the top of the charts, powerpop has lived on as a vibrant subgenre, with its own particular aesthetic defined by crisp guitars, the thin voices of bookish white guys, and ear-pleasing chord progressions. While anyone born south of the 49th parallel would be hard pressed to call Sloan a major band, A Sides Win, a chronological collection of the band’s singles plus two new tracks, makes a compelling case for Sloan as worthy upholders of the powerpop tradition.
“Underwhelmed” and “500 Up”, the first two tracks on the album, show Sloan working towards their destiny within the framework of early ‘90s trends. These early songs show the band already with the clear sense of melody that would serve them so well over the next 12 years—but couch that melodic intuition in a bed of sonically youthful dissonance. They sound good, but dated. After these initial experiments, the band hit upon their true métier—one, that due to its formulaic nature, sidesteps any time-bound criticism. You may not like the sound of Sloan, but aside from those first two singles, they could never be accused of trying to sound trendy.
“Coax Me” (1994) and “People of the Sky” saw Sloan clean away the fuzz and emphasize the ba ba ba’s, but it’s on “One Chord to Another” (1996) where Sloan made their own, beautifully generic, entry into the powerpop canon. “The Good in Everyone”, “Everything You’ve Done Wrong”, and “The Lines You Amend” are full of heard-once-and-forever-remembered melodies, cheerfully sung heartache, and witty musicianship. While these songs won’t surprise anyone who’s heard Fountains of Wayne or the Raspberries, they’re worthy additions to your next dock party mix-tape.
While the stylistic constraints of powerpop can be a blessing, they can also be a curse. Seemingly aware of this, and unable to develop from within (Sloan is blessed by four songwriters), the band, having created their pop masterpieces, traded in their VOX amplifiers for Marshall Stacks—a seismic shift for a powerpop band.
The vocals and melodic style didn’t change much, but the guitars now crunched where they used to chime and the riffs became altogether more foot-stomping. 1998’s “Money City Maniacs”, “If It Feels Good Do It” and “Friendship” are prime examples of the slightly bluesier style the band has been working ever since. Sloan Mk II may have lost some delicacy, but more than made up for it by adding some muscle.
For a couple of reasons, the decision to release a singles compilation rather than a simple “best of” is an interesting one. For one thing, it is unlikely that outside of Canada many people ever actually heard these songs as singles. Second, on the best powerpop albums every song sounds like it could be single. So why release the album this way? I’d like to believe it signals a purity of intent and a degree of humility on the part of the band.
Twelve years and eight albums after they started, Sloan knows they’re in the business of making pop songs—nothing more and nothing less (a fact confirmed by the consistency of the two new songs). There’s a certain level of inherent disposability in the work of the pop musician; a level only heightened for those musicians dedicated to the art of the three-minute song. Over the course of an entire album, Sloan can never hope to compete with giants like Big Star or The Who. The band’s greatest albums may not even match the best of The New Pornographers or Teenage Fanclub; but narrow the competition down to singles and they’ve got at least a puncher’s chance. There’s nothing here that will change your life, but there’s plenty that will brighten your day.
Note—Add an extra rating point if you’re Canadian. Memories mean something.
// Notes from the Road
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