The Canadian quartet Sloan has always fashioned itself after the democracy within the Beatles. In both bands, all four distinct members contribute to the songwriting. But also like the Beatles, there has been a dominance of two of the band members, at minimum in the choice of singles/videos released (though all four usually contribute an equal number of songs to each album. Imagine if Ringo had written a quarter of the Fab Four’s output). Bassist/vocalist Chris Murphy and guitarist/vocalist Patrick Pentland have always been at the forefront of the band, the latter having the leadoff single from each of the last three studio albums. The two are responsible for the more anthem-like powerpop melodies and rock songs on their albums. Guitarist/vocalist Jay Ferguson contributes the dreamier, melodic songs, while drummer/vocalist Andrew Scott adds ones that are usually more unusual and sparse, many with the shifts and time-changes you might expect from a songwriting drummer.
The Beatles’ influence may be obvious, but so also is the love of all things pop from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their fourth album Navy Blues was a veritable ode to 1970’s rock, from Iggy to AC/DC, from the Rolling Stones to Aerosmith, and especially Kiss. This Kiss influence is most apparent in the songwriting, if not the attitude, and the new album is no exception. Pretty Together leads off with what is also the first single, “If It Feels Good Do It”, which betrays this influence. Even more obvious is the Murphy penned “Pick It Up and Dial It”, a song that recognizes the almost death like rattle of what is left of “rock” today. 1970s influences aside, there are some other things going on this album unlike any previous Sloan release.
Lyrically, many of the songs show another, more introspective side, a (gasp) maturity that had until now not been so obvious or prevalent. In songs like “The Other Man”, “I Love a Long Goodbye”, ” Who You Talkin’ To?”, and “The Great Wall” has its writers looking inward, and it isn’t always pretty. Even the deceptively titled (and sounding) “If It Feels Good Do It” is a break-up song, hidden in power chords. Sonically, the music is well crafted no matter what form it takes, from bombastic rock majesty to delicate horn or string laced pop. The intricate vocal harmonies are still there, as is the almost disarming drumming style of Scott.
The more mature sound may have something to do with the recording process of this album. This is the first they gave themselves no time constraints. Sloan had put out two studio albums and a live album in the course of two years (all the while extensively touring), and the break that followed was obviously rejuvenating, both personally and musically. Over the years, they have been able to create an autonomous unit, releasing their last few albums on their own murderrecords label, with distribution deals through other companies. Pretty Together was also recorded with no record label deal (or involvement). The album was released in October in Canada (by BMG Canada) and will be released in the US and Europe in April (through a new deal with RCA).
The real beauty of Pretty Together is in the quiet songs. In “Who You Talkin’ To?” Jay Ferguson sings about the brotherhood of outsiders against those who would exclude them, and in “Are You Giving Me Back My Love?”, the uncertainty of love. But it is in pair of Chris Murphy compositions “The Other Man” and “The Life of a Working Girl” that really stand out on this record. The first is a mid-tempo jangly guitar, bass driven song that positions the singer, as the third person in a love triangle. Or is he? “He knows that I’m a friend of yours / But doesn’t know I’ve crossed the line” certainly adds credence to this, but the final line betrays that this all might be the singer’s fantasy.
“The Life of a Working Girl” is just that, a melancholy (“Does she get lonely like I do / If I could only see her all the time”) examination of a woman consumed by the workaday world. Her examiner sings of her ambition, but “I can carbon date her age, she’s not keen to / It’s a trap, a door / In the stage she can go through / Until the encore”. Murphy sings in a very plaintive tone, with only acoustic guitar and droning organ as accompaniment.
Sloan does what it does best, once again filling a unique niche in the world of pop as excavators and celebrators. Although some songs do not shine as bright as others, every song is catchy and sticks with you until the next one comes along. But this new album is a step forward from their tried and true formula and points to a broadening of tastes and possibilities for the group. Sloan may still be little more than a cult band outside of Canada, but perhaps with a little more exposure, the rest of the world can see what they’ve been missing. It just might be the right time. As “Pick It Up and Dial” asks, “They say rock and roll is dead again / You tell me if it’s true”. Sloan has shown us (once again) that it absolutely is not.