Power pop veterans celebrate 20 years of service with another expected solid album.
Toward the end of 2001, the with so-called garage rock revival quickly gathering steam, RCA Records briefly turned its attention to Sloan, a frustratingly undervalued band of power pop geniuses who appeared doomed to remain a cult act outside of their native Canada. RCA arranged for a proper U.S. roll-out for the band's Pretty Together album and sent them out on the road with their signature signing, a scruffy NYC act called the Strokes. This seemed like can't-miss programming at the time. Both bands were full of snazzy dressers who dabbled in the sounds of yesteryear. The major label execs were probably hoping the kids wouldn't notice that the guys in Sloan were in their mid 30s. While the RCA association and subsequent tours with flavor-of-the-moment acts like Jet did little to raise the band's profile, Sloan would carry on undeterred and somehow continue to hit new creative peaks with every new release.
Very few people would've predicted that Sloan would have a better decade than the Strokes (although I'm sure their accountants would dispute such a claim). Yet 2011 finds the band that christened the previous decade a completely spent force. The Strokes have chosen to "celebrate" 10 years as a band with a flat, mirthless album and a host of interviews wherein the band members take shots at each other and wonder aloud why they continue to make music at all. Meanwhile up north, Sloan is celebrating 20 years of service with the release of The Double Cross, another expected solid album.
It's slightly unfair to fault a band for overachieving, yet Sloan set the bar extremely high in 2006 with their 30-song near-masterpiece Never Hear the End of It. That album marked the moment when the band accepted their small but significant role in history and reignited a fire that never really went out in the first place. They spoiled us, and it was tough to listen to 2008's similarly spirited Parallel Play without wishing it was about 17 tracks longer. The specter of NHTEOI is likely to haunt The Double Cross as well which, at 33 minutes, is the band's shortest outing. It's also the band's 10th album and there's an unwritten law that says any band that maintains an unflagging level of consistency over the course of 10 albums is almost beyond criticism. Almost.
Like the best Sloan albums, The Double Cross springs to life with five gracefully interweaving songs that showcase the full spectrum of each band member's considerable songwriting acumen. At the top of the order is bassist Chris Murphy's "Follow the Leader", a galloping meditation on adult conformity that winds breathlessly through several movements in under three minutes before hitching itself up to guitarist Jay Ferguson's glorious, Mellotron-laced "The Answer was You". Lead guitarist and resident riff enthusiast Patrick Petland gets lead-off single honors for his effortless, Stones-y "Unkind". Drummer Andrew Scott cements his reputation as the Keith Moon of indie rock on Murphy's fidgety "Shadow of Love" before taking center stage on the slow burning "She's Slowing Down Again". Scott's hazy, vaguely psychedelic songs have never really sat comfortably next to the classicist pop that his band mates traffic in. On this go around, however, he's finally perfected the Dylan-meets-Dire Straits sound he's been flirting with over the last few records and the other Sloan-men are more than happy to lend a helping hand, contributing key harmonies and rare lead vocal assists.
Unfortunately, the second run of songs only partially delivers. Murphy and Ferguson seem keen to craft a sequel of sorts to 1999s Between the Bridges while the others are on different pages. Murphy's "Your Daddy Will Do" is a clever tip of the cap to both The Beatles' "Your Mother Should Know" and the band's own "Don't You Believe a Word". Ferguson, the most anonymous member of the band despite the fact that he has written some of the most beautiful melodies in his field, pitches in with the autumnal, finger-picked "Green Gardens, Cold Montreal" and the four-on-the-floor "Beverly Terrace", which features an unexpected reprise of Murphy's "Shadow of Love". These two have always had good results on the rare occasions when they've sung on each other's songs ("The Lines You Amend", "Who You Talkin' To?") and they’re a particularly formidable duo here. Petland is usually the band's ace in the hole and the go-to guy for a hit single. While "Unkind" is sure to become a concert staple, his other contributions barely register. There's nothing inherently wrong with the shred happy "It's Plain to See" or the infectious, minute and a half "I've Gotta Know”, yet they don't really stand up to the more ambitious arrangements that surround them. And Scott's spot on midnight ramble "Traces" leaves one wishing the drummer had more than two songs on the album.
Ultimately, The Double Cross is just another Sloan album. Yet, after 20 years, another solid Sloan album is something that practically demands to be celebrated, flaws and all. Not only has this band stayed selflessly true to their united vision, they've weathered the ups and downs of their career graciously. We'll meet back here in another 10 years to see who’s still standing -- Sloan or their former label mates in The Strokes. My money is on the guys from Canada.