Sam Roberts: Chemical City

Take Dylan's scratchy vocals, channel it through Springsteen's pop grandeur, and throw some of Lennon's psychedelia on for good measure... but Chemical City still manages to disappoint with those ingredients.

Sam Roberts

Chemical City

Label: Universal International
US Release Date: 2006-05-16
UK Release Date: Available as import

For such a quintessentially Canadian singer-songwriter -- he's a former hockey player, for goodness' sake -- Sam Roberts has always seemed more heavily interested in the music south of the border than his other indie contemporaries. His first album, We Were Born in a Flame, was an enjoyable slab of rootsy pop/rock, creative in its melodies, but smartly restrained in his ambitions. Now, with sophomore effort Chemical City, Roberts has thrown all that restraint to the winds. Hell, he's not content with just sounding eerily like Dylan with the scratchy voice and folk-grit lyrics, let's throw some Lennon trippiness and Springsteen grandeur in there, too, for good measure!

With names like that, you'd have to expect something sprawlingly ambitious, and surely enough Chemical City is an epic journey through Americana, its instrumentation and scope reminiscent of the prog albums of the early '70s. And for a few dazzling moments in the beginning, he actually succeeds in channeling the three aforemented rock gods; opener "The Gate" speeds forward like one of Springsteen's beloved Chevrolets through the images of an abandoned city, all topped with psychedelic swirls on top. It's easy to see where this could fall apart, but Roberts is smart enough to understand the capacity of a driving bass and beat to pull a song together and fully take advantage of it.

But it's a downhill slide from the promising momentum of the opener. For better or for worse, Roberts is still acutely self-aware of the indie ethic that he's grounded in, and the only other time the album explodes into such momentous arena rock is with "Mind Flood", which features an addictive bass groove followed by a gloriously trancelike four-minute guitar solo. Like "The Gate", it's definitely overstrained, but it's still energetic enough to sweep a listener up in its sound.

That's more than can be said for the rest of the album, which alternates between quiet ballads, hooky roots-rock, and tripped-out meanderings -- most of which boil down to unmemorable and oddly tedious. The pop-rock tracks, such as "The Bootleg Saint" and "The Resistance", are beautifully produced, but lack strong underlying melodies. Moreover, the fact that they're piled up near the end means it's dangerously easy to zone out through an entire portion of the album. "An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay" may be the only track here to leave an impression, with a catchy chorus hook that serves as a reminder to its absence on the other tracks.

Meanwhile, the ballads hurt from bland lyrics. For all the road bard posturing Sam Roberts does, the fact is he's not a great lyricist, too often falling back on clichéd couplets. "My love for you is as deep as a coal mine", he croons as the chorus in "With a Bullet". Blue-collar rootsiness? Check. Lovelorn yearning? Check. Metaphorical imagery? Check. And so the lyrics go, clumsily slapped together through the entire album.

Too often, Chemical City feels like it's straining in two different directions: the psychedelic bombast of the bigger tracks and the more traditional rock/pop Roberts has done up till now. He's shown he's got the potential and ability to do either, but the former only works if he's willing to commit and run away with it. As it stands, Chemical City is a mostly unmemorable effort that weighs down its occasional moments of brilliance.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.