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One Chord to Another: A Retrospective on the Records of Sloan

We look through the varied and vivacious 20-year discography of Sloan album by album, charting this underrated group's significant achievements.

We look through the varied and vivacious 20-year discography of Sloan album by album, charting this underrated group’s significant achievements.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Smeared

Label: DGC

Release Date: 1992

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Smeared
1992

Sloan’s first album, Smeared, was released in 1992 on major label powerhouse DGC Records. Though it owes a lot to the music of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, it’s overall sweeter, less serious, and more memorable than anything by either group. It’s the only Sloan studio LP that doesn’t clearly feature all four members on the cover and it’s the only one whose production sounds dated, even on the five-or-so standouts, a couple of which still hold their ground in Sloan’s live set. Smeared is certainly not a bad album, but hindsight shows that their subsequent ones would all be improvements over it.

img-885 Key Tracks: “Underwhelmed”, “I Am the Cancer”, “Median Strip”, “500 Up”, “Sugartune”, “Two Seater”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Twice Removed

Label: DGC

Release Date: 1994

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Twice Removed
1994

1994 marked the year of Sloan’s sophomore release, Twice Removed, an album that found the band gaining ten years of musical maturity in just two. The production is superior to Smeared in terms of clarity; each member’s instrument is a distinct color in the mix. The production also brings a sense of timelessness, as the vocals aren’t hiding behind any effects, and distortion is used in the right spots, instead of blanketing everything. But more importantly, Sloan’s songwriting talent greatly improved, too. The band decided to let classic pop structure fully run the show, essentially filling a role that was only previously occupied part-time. Twice Removed established the classic Sloan sound: hooky, jangly, crunchy, and smart. It remains one of their most beloved albums, though there are far better ones.

img-885 Key Tracks: “Penpals”, “I Hate My Generation”, “Coax Me”, “Bells On”, “Snowsuit Sound”, “I Can Feel It”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: One Chord to Another

Label: murderecords / The Enclave

Release Date: 1996

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One Chord to Another
1996

After poor promotion for Twice Removed led to commercial failure, Sloan abandoned its DCG contract with no intention of continuing as a band. But in a twist of fate, Sloan rose from the major-label ashes and independently delivered its phenomenal third album, 1996’s One Chord to Another. Not only were the boys back in town, but they also were running it. One Chord to Anotheris a crisp ropes course of rock music, merging the psychedelic brand of mid-to-late sixties pop and raw seventies punk in a way that has been unmatched since. With intellectually satisfying guitar leads, maracas, horns, tack pianos, perfectly dry-sounding drums, masterful bass lines, and 12 songs that each could’ve been a single, One Chord to Another is not only one of Sloan’s best albums, it’s unequivocally one of the top five albums that anyone released in that entire decade.

img-885 Key Tracks: “Nothing Left to Make Me Want to Stay”, “Autobiography”, “G Turns to D”, “Everything You’ve Done Wrong”, “Anyone Who’s Anyone”, “Can’t Face Up”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Navy Blues

Label: murderecords

Release Date: 1998

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Navy Blues
1998

With 1998’s Navy Blues, Sloan combined the production values of Twice Removed with One Chord to Another‘s confident songwriting and added the heaviness of classic hard rock bands to make the biggest-sounding — and arguably best produced — record of their career. The songs are more anthemic than ever, but also more complex in structure. Zeppelin-esque is a good way to describe Navy Blues‘ hard rock swagger mixed with eclectic layered textures, although that doesn’t do its brilliant pop melodies justice. Led Hollies, perhaps.

img-885 Key Tracks: “She Says What She Means”, “C’mon C’mon (We’re Gonna Get It Started)”, “Sinking Ships”, “Keep on Thinkin'”, “Money City Maniacs”, “Suppose They Close the Door”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Between the Bridges

Label: murderecords

Release Date: 1999

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Between the Bridges
1999

In 1999, just one year after they released Navy Blues, Sloan unleashed Between the Bridges, the most evenly-divided album in the band’s career: 12 songs, three by each member. Featuring Sloan’s first foray into weaving songs together without separation, Between the Bridges also brings the band closer into the influence of mid-to-late ’70s rock and pop, even tastefully dabbling in disco and country on occasion. It’s one of the most dynamic Sloan releases as well, featuring their hardest-rocking guitar songs alongside some of their softest piano-driven numbers. Though some tracks are definitely better than others, none of them warrant the skip button. Bottom line: Between the Bridges is one of Sloan’s career best.

img-885 Key Tracks: “The N.S.”, “Don’t You Believe a Word”, “All by Ourselves”, “Losing California”, “The Marquee and the Moon”, “Delivering Maybes”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Pretty Together

Label: murderecords

Release Date: 2001

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Pretty Together
2001

Pretty Together is Sloan’s sixth album and their first of the 21st century, 2001 specifically. Though not a “classic” due to its often syrupy production and the inclusion of some forgettable songs, the album is still essential for a handful of quality tracks, a few of which rank among Sloan’s all-time best. And to Sloan’s credit, Pretty Together shows significant growth in the diversity and maturity of their sound. It’s here that we get some of the band’s most truly delicate and heartfelt songs, ones that primarily consist of lightly-strummed guitar and not much else, ones with honest, heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics, and ones with poignant arrangements. When these elements, separately or together, are at the forefront, the album is more than worthy of its title.

img-885 Key Tracks: “If It Feels Good Do It”, “The Other Man”, “The Life of a Working Girl”, “It’s in Your Eyes”, “I Love a Long Goodbye”, “Are You Giving Me Back My Love?”

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Action Pact

Label: RCA

Release Date: 2003

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Action Pact
2003

By 2003, Sloan had still not found success in the US. In an attempt to change their luck, the band swung for the mainstream fences by enlisting producer Tom Rothrock and giving him the authority to choose from their new batch of songs and sequence them in whatever order he felt would yield in the most cohesive album possible. The result was Action Pact, which, as Sloan had hoped for, became their most streamlined release, the first where, sonically, their sound resembled a brand-new blanket instead of their familiar patchwork quilt. With nary an acoustic guitar or piano in sight, Sloan and Rothrock whipped up a batch of 12 no-frills rock songs, using the less-is-more formula of bands like KISS, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, and even the Smiths. While Sloan does the whole thing with more grace and pop flair than any of those bands, it didn’t catch on like they had hoped. And though it contains a fair share of Sloan classics, the whole thing is brought down a peg by the wildly uneven distribution amongst the members, with Chris and Patrick contributing five each, Jay putting up two, and Andrew delivering none — the first and only no-show on a Sloan album. It’s a cool album, but it’s not representative of Sloan’s democratic and eclectic beauty.

img-885 Key Tracks: “Gimme That”, “Backstabbin'”, “The Rest of My Life”, “False Alarm”, “Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore”, “Ready for You”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Never Hear the End of It

Label: murderecords/Yep Roc/Sony BMG Canada

Release Date: 2006

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Never Hear the End of It
2006

Few music-makers are more acutely aware of their career arc than Sloan. That’s why after the slick, arena-friendly Action Pact and a 2005 Greatest Hits collection, the band knew it had to ditch its radio confections for a delicious vinyl crate stew. Enter 2006’s masterpiece of a double album, Never Hear the End of It. Of its 30 songs, there is not a single bad one; all four members contributed strictly prime cuts. The entire thing is filled with intricate arrangements, both musically and vocally. It’s got their most perfect pop yet. It’s got timeless highbrow rock. It’s got punk. It’s got short song vignettes, complex epics, ballads, garage rockers, mod swingers, huge sing-alongs, and incisive lyrics. The production is varied and confident. And the whole album is diverse enough to keep your attention from song to song as a result of its well-thought-out sequencing. It’s an album for people who love music in a deep way, like The White Album if the Beatles actually liked each other when they were making it and didn’t give “Revolution 9” the green light. You eventually will hear the end of it, but you’ll just want to start it up again.

img-885 Key Tracks: “Flying High Again”, “Who Taught You to Live Like That?”, “I’ve Gotta Try”, “Everybody Wants You”, “Fading into Obscurity”, “Someone I Can Be True With”, “Right or Wrong”, “Blackout”, “I Understand”, “Can’t You Figure It Out?”, “Ill Placed Trust”, “Living with the Masses”, “Last Time in Love”, “It’s Not the End of the World”, “Another Way I Could Do It”.

Parallel Play, The Double Cross, and B-Sides

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: Parallel Play

Label: murderecords

Release Date: 2008

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Parallel Play
2008

It’s hard for a band to follow an expansive and acclaimed double album. Even music’s greatest have run into trouble doing so; The White Album‘s follow-up, Get Back, was aborted and shelved until two years later; The Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup marked the beginning of a post-Exile on Main Street downward spiral. So it makes sense, historically, that Sloan’s follow-up to Never Hear the End of It, 2008’s Parallel Play, was underwhelming. That said, it’s more sonically honed-in than Pretty Together, as all of its songs have a similar dirty production style. Furthermore, it’s better representative of the Sloan sound than Action Pact; after Never Hear the End of It, Sloan knew its sound benefitted from the textures that acoustic guitars and organs offer. The problem with Parallel Play is that while half of its songs are as good as any Sloan had ever written before it, the other half contains some of their least memorable and most lingering ones yet. Because of this, it’s just a good album, not a great one.

img-886 Key Tracks: “Cheap Champagne”, “All I Am Is All You’re Not”, “Witch’s Wand”, “Living the Dream”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “I’m Not a Kid Anymore”.

 

Artist: Sloan

Album: The Double Cross

Label: murderecords

Release Date: 2011

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The Double Cross
2011

Twenty years as a band. That was the milestone that accompanied Sloan’s tenth release, 2011’s The Double Cross, aka XX, aka 20. And what a way to celebrate — The Double Cross found Sloan recapturing the single-album glory that characterized its ’90s winning streak with a set of adventurous pop songs, more confident and refined than anything they had ever released before it. Stylistically, the album is all over the place, with touches of Fleetwood Mac, the Buzzcocks, the Who, ABBA, Iggy Pop, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, and side two of Abbey Road. On paper, this hodge-podge of influences seems hectic, but on the record, the band manages to control them so that they function as mere seasonings on a 100 percent Sloan entree. This sonic continuity is also achieved by their best production in years, with perfectly punchy drums, high-register bass, scorching electric guitar flourishes, and most of all, the essential textures offered via Rhodes pianos, Mellotrons, and organs, played by Sloan’s resident sidekick and on-stage George Martin (if George Martin could sing as well as the Beatles could) Gregory Macdonald. Ultimately, The Double Cross, despite having one or two forgettable cuts, is one of Sloan’s more bountiful treasure chests.

img-886 Key Tracks: “Follow the Leader”, “Unkind”, “She’s Slowing Down Again”, “Your Daddy Will Do”, “Beverly Terrace”, “Laying So Low”.

 

A bonus golden characteristic that separates great bands from good bands — or rather, one that separates bands who have Beatle-y moments from the bands who are truly Beatle-esque — is the quality of their non-album tracks. The fact that some of the Beatles’ best work was released not on any album, but rather as the A and B-sides of stand-alone singles and extended-plays established a precedent matched by few in music history. It’s hard enough to cobble together an album where every song is good; it’s almost impossible to do that and still have just-as-perfect songs as leftovers.

In 1992, Sloan recorded its first collection of songs in the form of an EP called Peppermint, releasing it on its own label, Murderecords. Of its six songs, three would get revamped for their debut LP, Smeared. It’s a similarly noisy affair to the aforementioned album, with perhaps more Nirvana influence than that of My Bloody Valentine, and it’s similarly okay. At this point in the band’s history, substance took a backseat to style. Key Tracks: “Marcus Said”, “Torn”.

Seventeen years after Peppermint, Sloan released its next EP, the five-song, digital-only Hit & Run, which chronologically falls between Parallel Play and The Double Cross. For this release, each member contributed one song (Murphy contributed two), and they’re all solid. The majority of them are heavy on acoustic strumming and piano tinkling, which has always been a good look for the band. For only five songs, there’s sure a wide range of different moods — proud, spiritual, regretful, vigorous, and contemplative, to name a few. A rocking iTunes-only bonus track was also released, but purists can’t, in good conscience, count it as part of the official EP track listing. Seek it out anyway. Key Tracks: “Take It Upon Yourself”, “Midnight Mass”, “Oh Dear Diary”, “Get Out of Bed (iTunes bonus track)”.

Over the years, Sloan has released several singles on its Murderecords imprint. In 2013, the ones they originally released in the ’90s were included as part of a digital compilation of the singles released by every Murderecords-signed artist from 1993-1998. Though these songs include Sloan’s uncharacteristically loose but experimentally cool single-note, two-part “Rhodes Jam” and early versions of later B-sides “Stood Up” and “Same Old Flame”, they’re only essential for serious fans. The prior year, Sloan put out their first new 7″ since the ’90s. Its two songs, “Jenny” and “It’s in You, It’s in Me,” are homages to the hardcore punk bands the guys still admire, as is the Minor Threat-imitating picture sleeve. In typical fashion, Sloan does a bang-up job, proving that it can fit into any genre and still be great.

Also in 2012, Sloan re-released Twice Removed as part of a three-LP box set. The first disc is the original album, the second has demos of same songs in the same order, and the third is filled with Twice Removed-era outtakes. There, you’ll find early versions of some future Sloan classics and a few decent otherwise-unreleased cuts. This is another for only the serious Sloan fan.

Done in the same recorded-in-the-studio-then-overdubbed-with-party-effects style as the Beach Boys’ 1965 novelty album, Beach Boys’ Party!, Sloan’s Recorded Live at a Sloan Party came packaged as a bonus disc on The Enclave label’s version of One Chord to Another. Like the Beach Boys’ album, it features mostly covers (Sloan even parodied the layout of “fan photos” included in the 1965 LP for its album art). However, Sloan also tackled two of its own songs in an unplugged fashion on this album. The one that really makes it an essential purchase is the acoustic version of their 1992 classic, “I Am the Cancer”, taking the song out of its shoegazing original context and putting it in a much more delicate and beautiful one.

The remaining officially-released Sloan non-album tracks can be found on the sister compilations A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 and digital-only B Sides Win: Extras, Bonus Tracks and B-sides 1992-2008. These (mainly the latter) contain the cream of Sloan’s non-album crop — their Past Masters, if you will. The former contains the band’s first 14 album singles, but also two worthy new tracks, the riff-tastic “All Used Up”, and hook-laden “Try to Make It”.

B Sides Win boasts 23 leftover tracks from the majority of Sloan’s career, plus an alternate mix of Peppermint‘s “Underwhelmed”, a remix of “Are You Giving Me Back My Love”, and a cover. All of these are great tunes that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard unless you owned every Sloan single and promotional release, the Japanese versions of their albums, or fan-compiled bootlegs, all of which are hard to come by.

The first four songs take us through Sloan’s early days, where we start to see its pop side overpower its noise side. Two of these are worth a listen: “Amped” is a welcome slice of melody with nice rhythmic dynamics, while the other, “Laying Blame”, starts off as one of Sloan’s best love songs until a dark, melodic bridge with excellent chord changes turns it into a song of lusty regret; it’s a perfect sonic bridge between their first two albums.

We only get one B-side from the Twice Removed era, but it’s a keeper: “D Is for Driver”, a musically rich rocker that acts as a good representation of Twice Removed‘s overall sound: upbeat and catchy, but melancholic.

For the One Chord to Another period, we’re treated to proper studio versions of “Stood Up” and “Same Old Flame”, the songs originally released as two lo-fi sides of a single. They sound better here, especially the former, with its bluesy drop-D riffage.

All three Navy Blues-era cuts are solid, particularly “Work Cut Out”, a jittery piano-driven number featuring a skillfully harmonized chorus to remember. One of the other ones recorded around this same time period, “Glad to Be Here”, (originally a Twice Removed-era composition called “Girl In Case”) sounds like Cheap Trick covering “Jumping Jack Flash” to fabulous effect.

Arguably, Sloan’s most coveted B-side was released in 1999, during the Between the Bridges era: “Summer’s My Season”, a soaring, organ-heavy anthem with an unusual chorus/verse/chorus/second chorus/verse/chorus/second chorus/coda structure. Vocally, it’s one of their strongest arrangements. The other B-side from this era, the classic rock-meets-disco / two-songs-for-the-price-of-one “At the Edge of the Scene”, also rules.

All three of Sloan’s Pretty Together leftovers, had they been included on the original album in lieu of three throwaways, would have lifted its overall quality tenfold. The first is “Had Enough,” a dazzling Let It Bleed-meets-Plastic Ono Band blend of major and minor. This is followed by the rising-then-unraveling ’70s hard rock-inspired, “Helen.” Last is a breezy Donovan-meets-Beach Boys acoustic piece of pop — and Sloan’s only true title track — “Pretty Together.”

Sloan’s Action Pact leftovers are less polished than anything that made the album, in a good way. The best one is “Step on It, Jean,” a stomper in the vein of the early Who or the Nazz.

Sloan actually had B-sides for the B-sides released on A Sides Win, and they’re better than the ones they went with: the dreamy Smiths-soaked “I Thought That I Was Ready for You” and “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know”, a song reminiscent the Cars, but if they had more muscle.

Despite knocking out 30 songs on Never Hear the End of It, Sloan actually had more to offer. The two B-sides from that album are nice additions. The first, “Even Though”, sounds like a modern take on “If I Fell”. The second one, “The Best Part of Your Life”, is a sunny tune with darker elements of their early shoegaze sound brooding underneath.

The lone B-side from Parallel Play is Sloan’s only official reprise in their canon, although it may not truly count as such since it wasn’t on the album to reprise anything. Regardless, “Believe in Me (Reprise)” is a cool, nearly-wordless, focused jam based on the original, featuring callbacks to other Parallel Play songs, as well as some catchy vocal bits that aren’t on the album. It makes for a great listen and causes one to better appreciate the original.

Sloan’s most recent B-sides were available as bonus downloads with The Double Cross. One of them, “Then Again”, is an essential track, featuring virtuoso melodies over a bleeding organ and a militaristic rhythm; although less stadium-sized than “We Will Rock You,” it’s definitely more musical.

This is part two of a three-part retrospective on the work of Sloan. Rounding out this retrospective will be a lengthy breakdown of Sloan’s latest LP, Commonwealth.

Aaron Pinto is a senior writer at Manik Music and an avid enthusiast of pop music. The two Bs inform his entire worldview: the Beatles and the Beach Boys. He can’t stand Pink Floyd or Radiohead. To quote Steven Van Zandt, “To have impact in two minutes and thirty seconds—that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to write Pink Floyd’s The Wall than it is to write ‘Louie Louie’”. Word.

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