Sloan’s full-length debut album sounds almost like a different band than their other albums, offering up noisy alternative rock rather than focused pop. Of course, their sweet harmonies are already in place and their later albums boast plenty of guitars, but buzzsaw guitar bands instead of The Beatles are the band’s primary influence here. Sloan don’t really rise above their alternative templates (Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and The Posies come to mind), but Smeared contains enough exciting and aggressive guitar-driven rockers to make it a highly worthwhile debut, even though it lacks the distinctive characteristics of their later releases. My favorite song here is “I am the Cancer,” which is worthy of comparison to Yo La Tengo’s best work, with guest Jennifer Pierce playing the Georgia Hubley role. Album opener "Underwhelmed" (probably the best-known song here, as stellar album openers in general are a band trademark), the melodic jangle pop rock of "500 Up," the gloriously overdriven "Lemonzinger," and the dreamily psychedelic "What’s There To Decide?" are other standouts, and the band’s lyrics demonstrate an infectiously innocent and clever mindset that’s divided among four (!) similarly talented singers and songwriters (though bassist Chris Murphy pens the majority of these tunes). Despite an over-reliance on the grungy guitars that were all too prevalent at the time, Smeared began a string of musically strong but commercially neglected albums (at least here in the United States). Fortunately, considerably more diverse and even better crafted albums would soon follow.
Twice Removed (DGC ‘94) Rating: A-
This was voted the “Best Canadian Album Of All-Time” by Chart magazine. A vast overstatement, to be sure, but Sloan delivers a more diverse and melodic, albeit less aggressive, collection of songs here. Moving away from the exciting if unoriginal sound of Smeared, on Twice Removed Sloan has evolved into a fine pop rock band who rely on a crisp sound coupled with a sure melodic grasp (plus the requisite sweet vocal harmonies). Their interesting lyrics also repay close inspection, and they aren’t above unleashing tired but true pop tropes such as singing sunny “la la las” or “bop bop ba’s.” The Beatles and Beach Boys are obvious reference points but in a heavier context, and the group often offers pretty ringing guitars that convey melancholic overtones. The guys tackle real life issues, too, and they also find time to remind us not to take things too seriously, though they themselves can’t help wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Granted, Sloan can sometimes be a bit wimpy vocally and plain musically, and given the album’s high accolades I was slightly disappointed at first. However, repeat plays reveal subtle layers that can’t help but impress, usually in the form of a surprising lyric twist (such as using fan letters for lyrics to a song) or an unexpectedly delicious chorus. Studious and meticulous about their craft, the only thing that Sloan fails to deliver is that “can’t stand still” thrill I get when listening to truly great bands like Nirvana and Sugar. Still, I’d put the band high on the same second tier shelf that includes other top power popsters such as Fountains Of Wayne, Matthew Sweet, and Teenage Fanclub.
One Chord To Another (Murderecords ’96) Rating: A-
After being ignored and then abandoned by their record label (DGC), which almost caused the band to break up, Sloan put their record company woes behind them by forming their own record label (Murderecords) and then delivering their best effort yet. Whereas it’s easy for me to recall the sweet melancholia of Twice Removed or the hard rocking glam pop of 1998’s Navy Blues, One Chord To Another simply brings to mind some very good power pop songs, the quality and diversity of which makes up for the fact that the album has a less distinctive core identity. “The Good In Everyone,” a short but catchy and energetic album opener, “G Turns To D,” which rocks as hard as anything the band has ever done but with a chorus that you’ll be humming in your head for days, and the horn savvy “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” in particular please. There are a couple of songs on the nondescript side from a musical standpoint, but even in such cases the clever lyrics somewhat compensate, and One Chord To Another is considered the band's quintessential recording by many. Though it's not my personal favorite (see the next review), I wouldn't argue too strenuously against that claim, as many of the other songs not yet mentionerd are also of an extremely high quality.
Navy Blues (Murderecords ‘98) Rating: A
Though The Beatles are still the starting template here, other harder rocking influences are apparent, running the gamut from Big Star to Cheap Trick to Chicago and onto glam kings such as Queen and Mott the Hoople. The groovy bass-led "She Says What She Means" is Big Star all the way, “C’mon C’mon (“We’re Gonna Get It Started)” is a totally Fab piano rocker, and when the boys kick into perfectly harmonized guitars a la Thin Lizzy on the midsection to “Iggy and Angus” they won me over forever - the brilliantly catchy chorus that accompanies it merely clinches it. The album’s strong production and the band’s increased confidence only help matters, as does their willingness to let ‘er rip come guitar solo time (and if ‘70s glam is the plan there’s gotta be some guitar solos, right?). Stellar harmonies and some more killer choruses back the band’s consistently creative melodies, and the whole album’s a rip roaring good time; naming further song highlights is therefore pointless, as this is an album where you can just press play, sit back, and enjoy the whole thing. Unfortunately, Navy Blues sank without a trace, which says more about the sad state of the current music scene than the album itself, which sounds like nothing less than the power pop radio station of your dreams. Fortunately, the good people of Canada know that these homegrown boys are something special.
4 Nights at the Palais Royale (Murderecords ‘99) Rating: B+
This totally live, warts and all double album whopper runs through the Sloan songbook in energetic fashion, recreating rawer stage versions that only occasionally suffer in the vocal department. Alas, while the banter between songs and audience participation is amusing at first, with the band getting a hero's welcome in their homeland of Canada and showing off a seemingly special rapport with their fans, this soon grows tiresome. Still, the band rips through rough, loose limbed (a.k.a. sloppy) song versions with vocals that are less likely to be wimpy than on their studio albums, and the daunting track list imposingly demonstrates that not too many ‘90s bands can match Sloan’s catalogue for overall songwriting quality. It’s impressive how Sloan brings some of their meticulous studio creations to life, too, though I’d be hard pressed to name more than a handful of these 28 songs that actually surpass their original versions. So start with the original studio albums (you can’t go wrong with any of them thus far) and then add this largely enjoyable “for the fans” memento, especially since Sloan obviously loves their fans (and vice versa).
Between The Bridges (Murderecords ‘99) Rating: A-
Sloan may not have an undeniable or original sound, and they may be a marketer's nightmare, but their obvious musical chemistry and sparkling songwriting duly compensate, and Between The Bridges was another strong release that falls just short of classic quality. What's interesting about this album is how autobiographical the lyrics are (hmmm - a Nova Scotia band that tries but fails to make it big in California but returns home largely contented anyway; who could that be?), and how seamless the song-to-song transitions are, as this is arguably the band's most cohesive overall album to date (interestingly, each of the band’s four songwriters contributed three songs apiece, making for a balanced album). Among the highlights are the Beatles/Rundgren-esque "Don't You Believe A Word," with its airy pop chorus, "Friendship," a great guitar rocker with a truly exciting buildup, and "A Long Time Coming," with its warm keyboard tones, singable soft rock chorus, and melodic guitar harmonies. Then again, there are quite a few other songs I could name just as easily, such as the beat-driven, vocally hooky "All By Ourselves," the smoothly melodic "Waiting For Slow Songs," the stellar riff-rocker "Losing California," with its catchy harmonized chorus, and the overtly poppy yet rocking "Take Good Care Of The Boy." As you can tell, there are a lot of catchy songs on this album, and even when the songwriting lags, like on the speedy stomper "Sensory Deprivation," the energy and passion in the performances make the song worth hearing anyway. Really, any problems that I have with this album are fairly minor; it took awhile for me to fully embrace a few of the other tracks, for example, but when all is said and done, as with most Sloan albums this is one where you can simply press play and be assured of 40+ minutes of entertaining music. Once again Sloan somehow still managed to escape being embraced by a mass audience, but with this album they further cemented their legacy as one of the best if sadly overlooked bands of the 1990s.
Pretty Together (Murderecords ‘01) Rating: B-
Sloan's impressive winning streak came to a crashing halt on Pretty Together, for several reasons. For one thing, the album is more serious and mellower than previous albums, lacking the band's customary playfulness and earnest attempts at rocking out. After all, "more mature" doesn't necessarily mean better, in fact it can be pretty boring, which is far too often the case here, particularly on side two which is overstuffed with limp "soft rock" ballads. There are some good songs, such as the loud power pop opener "If It Feels Good Do It," which would make Cheap Trick proud, and "The Other Man," a wonderfully moody pop ballad whose clever lyrics you won't soon forget. There are other solid songs as well, such as "Dreaming Of You," a dreamy semi-ballad, "It's In Your Eyes," a beat-driven, catchy mid-tempo pop tune, and "Your Dreams Have Come True," whose memorable horns separate it from the pack. Elsewhere, too many of these songs see Sloan in a lethargic, going through the motions mindset, and there are more songs here that I actively dislike than on any other Sloan album thus far, particularly "Pick It Up and Dial" and "Never Seeing The Ground For The Sky," a pair of loud, obnoxious, hook-free arena rockers. Even a song as slyly seductive as "Who You Talkin' To?" is too easy listening for its own good, as any edge the band once had appears all but gone on this album, replaced by a more middle of the road delivery that would be more palatable if the songwriting was stronger. Sloan are still too talented to make a bad album, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call Pretty Together a good album, as it too often devolves into easy listening mush, resulting in the first truly disappointing Sloan offering.
Action Pact (Murderecords ‘03) Rating: B+
After collectively overindulging their inner wimpdom, Sloan came back with loud guitars aplenty, ready to rock out and atone for the tempered failure that was Pretty Together. Action Pact isn't Sloan's best bunch of songs, and at this stage of the game there's a certain formulaic same-ness to much of what the band does, but this is still a consistently entertaining batch of tunes. Comprised primarily of short, punchy rockers primarily written by Chris Murphy and Patrick Pentland (five songs apiece), the band's increased heft might actually be off putting to some of their pop loving audience, as hard driving songs such as "Hollow Head" and "I Was Wrong" suggest the Foo Fighters, "Ready For You" has AC/DC-like riffs, and "Who Loves Life More?" contains a near-metallic churn. Songs such as "Backstabbin'" and "Reach Out" are definitely overly generic and repetitive, but the album has its fair share of highlights as well. For example, there's the big riffs and hooky layered vocals of "Gimme That," the fast-paced yet moody "False Alarm," with its singable "it's been so long" chorus, and the powerfully building, genuinely exciting "Fade Away," which is also notable for its heavily accented vocals and wailing guitars. Elsewhere, "Live On" and "Hollow Head" are deceptively catchy, and the two mellower attempts (far fewer than usual) are worthwhile as well, "The Rest Of My Life" being their moving mid-life crisis song, while "Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore" is a memorably cynical semi-ballad. As noted, the band has their generic shortcomings, and there aren't too many songs here that I'd consider classics, but this was still another very good Sloan album that was a nice rebound after flubbing their last attempt. After all, Sloan remains very much a song oriented band, and this album is action packed with good songs. Note: Producer Tom Rothrock was given free reign to pick and sequence the album’s songs, hence the uneven songwriting contributions.
A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 (Murderecords ‘05) Rating: A
Cleverly named after one of their previous songs ("A Side Wins," duh), A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 is comprised of 14 previously released singles along with two new songs, the so-so "All Used Up" and the very good "Try To Make It." Simply put, if you only have room for one Sloan album in your collection then this should be the one, since it gathers many of their biggest and best songs all in one place, smartly sequenced in chronological order when they were released. Of course, I feel that all of Sloan's albums thus far (barring Pretty Together) are well worth having, but for those who are curious about the band, or if you just want the majority of their very best stuff (a few exceptions aside) from the period chronicled, then you've come to the right place. Sloan may have never won over the pop charts like they deserved to, but they were one of the better pop rock bands from 1992-2005, and this album, which essentially takes two songs apiece from every album from Smeared through Action Pact (though One Chord To Another gets three and Action Pact only gets one) while also adding the two new songs, provides all the proof you'll ever need.
Never Hear The End Of It (Murderecords ‘06) Rating: B+
When I heard that Sloan's new album contained 30 songs and ran on for 80 minutes, I had mixed emotions. Part of me was glad that Sloan was obviously shaking up their tried and true formula, but given that I'm not a big fan of super-short songs or really long albums, I had reservations about the album as well. However, as usual I tried to approach it with an open mind and let my ears do the deciding, and what I've decided is that the band's approach has its plusses and minuses. On the minus side, I concluded my Action Pact review by saying what a song oriented band Sloan are, and now they've made me look foolish by releasing an album that's not so much about individual songs but about creating an overall tapestry of songs and sounds. As such, this album is very difficult to review and takes quite a few listens to fully assimilate, in part because there are some obvious throwaways or mere song fragments, which I find frustrating. On the plus side, I like the way some of these songs are inextricably linked together (such as the way the sparse, Lennon-esque acoustic ballad "It's Not The End Of The World" seamlessly leads into the moody, Paul-like piano pop of "Light Years"), and the band's newfound freedom has obviously inspired them, as there’s no shortage of standout songs, such as "Flying High Again," "Who Taught You to Live Like That?," "Listen To The Radio," "Fading Into Obscurity," "Right Or Wrong," "Before the End of the Race," "I Understand," "Can't You Figure It Out?," "Set In Motion," "I Know You," and "Last Time In Love" (for starters). Some of the other songs will likely grow on you as well, as this album offers something for everyone. That said, there's no doubt in my mind that this aptly titled album offers up too much of a good thing, and that it could've been significantly strengthened by being trimmed considerably.
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