Last year’s Never Hear the End of It breathed some much-needed life back into the great Canadian power-pop band Sloan, who had gone a bit stale and predictable following a run of excellent albums in the 1990s. A double-album boasting no less than 30 tracks, Never Hear the End of It was conceived as a series of songs and song fragments, ranging from 50 seconds to five and a half minutes each, that segued together à la the b-side of Abbey Road into a constantly evolving whole. It was easy to hail the record as Sloan’s best. Not only was it the band’s strongest effort since Between the Bridges (1999), but it spoke to the immediacy and fickleness of pop music within the guise of big-picture ingenuity.
On Parallel Play, its ninth studio album, Sloan gets back to basics — 13 fully realized songs in 37 minutes — while still entertaining the track-to-track segue model. This time it’s not so much a conceptual statement as a way to maintain a flow between the increasingly disparate song styles of the band’s four songwriters: the classic power-pop motifs of bassist Chris Murphy and guitarist Patrick Pentland, the AM-radio sheen of guitarist Jay Ferguson, and the wild-card rock of drummer Andrew Scott. Considering that each band member is contentedly pursuing his own muse, Parallel Play coheres together quite well. Pentland’s opening track, “Believe in Me”, a galloping rock ‘n’ roll groove with thick vocal harmonies, rapturous organ, and a borderline cheesy sentiment (the band’s obvious yet intermittent Achilles’ heel), has its guitar rhythm adopted by the “ba-bada”s sung at the start of Ferguson’s “Cheap Champagne”. Likewise, Scott’s “Down in the Basement”, a back-in-the-day shuffle in the vein of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, lands quite nicely into the lap of Ferguson’s sorta-Motown jam “If I Could Change Your Mind”.
It’s hard not to admire Sloan, who continually ignore the dead-end trends and gut feelings of modern-day indie rock in favor of classic archetypes (from the Beatles and the Kinks to Cheap Trick and the Raspberries), a bearing not followed by those seeking pop music “alternatives” since the time when Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub held some cultural clout. Perhaps none of these new songs will prove to be quite as lasting as those from Navy Blues (1998) or One Chord to Another (1996), but regardless, Parallel Play is the work of a band catching its second wind. Murphy turns in the eminently tuneful “All I Am Is All You’re Not” and “Living the Dream”, as well as “I’m Not a Kid Anymore”, a defiant piece of riff-heavy power-pop. The album’s most indelible track, Ferguson’s “Witch’s Wand”, benefits from ingenious shifts in melody, prominent handclaps, and a coda of contrapuntal harmonies. Pentland delivers a couple of solid, if somewhat plodding, tracks, “Burn for It” and “The Other Side”, that lack the tension of his own “Believe in Me” — the only minor disappointments in an otherwise strong collaborative effort.
Still, it’s Scott who winds up as Parallel Play‘s MVP, with four songs that cover a range of styles with tongue placed in various parts of cheek. “Emergency 911”, the album’s shortest song at just under two minutes, is fuzzed-out Fisher Price punk, while “The Dogs”, the album’s longest song, is slo-doze molasses rock that nods back to the band’s shoegaze roots. Following his Dylan pastiche, Scott closes out the record with “Too Many”, a reggae-lite tune that concedes that the major problem in the world is the huggermugger of the world’s problems.
Sloan’s own problems (by-the-books contentment, phoned-in songs) can be written off as a thing of the past for now, as Parallel Play is proof that the kick in the pants delivered by Never Hear the End of It made something of a lasting impact. It’s great to watch the venerable Canadian band continue its post-slump renaissance, and even more fitting that it makes the rebound look easy. “It’d be a small step for mankind if these planets aligned,” Ferguson sings on “If I Could Change Your Mind”, and while he may not exactly be referring to the guys in the band, he may as well be.