ARTS

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January 12, 2007

Below the border, Canadian popsters fail to push themselves above the pack

When aliens descend upon the rubble once known as the planet Earth and come across the great tomes of rock ’n’ roll, how will a band like Sloan appear in their eyes?

Quite prominently, if it’s somewhere north of the 49th parallel, as the Halifax natives are one of the most successful bands in Canadian history. Stateside, however, their legacy is more ambiguous: Are they a lesser form of bland, poor-little-rich-girl rock, the likes of which include Ben Folds, Guster, and (gasp!) Dave Matthews Band, or are they among the quirky, inspired members of the power-pop underground, such as Camper Van Beethoven or Teenage Fanclub?

Fortunately for Sloan, they have a few things going for them that land them in the latter camp. For one, they’re Canadian, and if the Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and the thermostat are any indication, everything’s cooler in Canada. Also, they’re relatively obscure, which gives them the indie cred that Guster doesn’t have, whether Sloan wants that cred or not.

After a decade of vagabondage since being booted from Geffen, Sloan has finally found an ideal American label, the semi-major Yep Rock Records. Not wanting to get too complacent, Sloan banked their legacy on the 30-song, self-recorded Never Hear the End of It, which is up there with Hail to the Thief as one of the most gnawingly cheeky album titles of the decade.

We get a lot of short songs through the cramming of 30 songs into 80 minutes. Considering that all four members of this Minutemen-worshipping band contributed songs to this long album, you would think Sloan was trying to create their own Double Nickels on the Dime. Far from it; no sooner does the album start than we get the Beatles-via-Big Star melodic progression that has defined the last 30 years of power pop.

In fact, perhaps what’s so striking about this album is how standard it sounds despite the ambitious fluff. There are hooks a-plenty, and every standard pop effect, from hand-claps to fades, are found in spades. And while none of the music is particularly innovative, it almost never disappoints.

Aside from bad timing (they emerged when the angrier grunge was dominating the airwaves), perhaps what’s kept Sloan from stardom is the lack of any standout qualities to its sound, despite being one of the most graceful power-pop bands of the past 20 years.

The first two tracks properly address the State of the Union of Sloan, first with what they hope to make people do (“Turn on the Radio”) and then with what they hope they’re not doing themselves (“Fading into Obscurity”). Despite only a few short, punchy songs separating “Fading into Obscurity” from the minor-key “Something’s Wrong” and “Ana Lucia,” the first two tracks are so uplifting that even the darker songs still manage to keep you bouncing right along. Throughout the album, the lyrics are frank, smart, and endearing, but listeners will probably get too lost in the innumerable catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies.

While overall Never Hear the End is quite consistent, the songwriting runs into a couple of roadblocks in its shorter songs. Instead of aiming for a more disharmonized, lo-fi approach, too often the shorter songs feel like a three-minute pop song cut in half. The fact that many of those songs initially offer so much potential is particularly disappointing.

Ironically, the longest song on the album, the five and a half minute “I Understand” is one of the album’s flattest songs, and could benefit from having a couple of minutes shaved off. If better balanced, Never Hear the End could be a truly excellent album.

On the other hand, some of the shorter songs are fantastic, such as the beautiful “You Know What It’s About” and the atmospheric “Golden Eyes.” Unfortunately, those songs are not effective enough to prevent some cynics from keeping Sloan out of the Guster pile. Which is a shame, because Sloan has been a consistently appealing band that didn’t get the attention it deserved in the 1990s.

But one of Sloan’s biggest problems has been its lack of ability to push itself one step above the rest of the pack, which has kept the band from enjoying the status similar bands, such as Fastball and Fountains of Wayne, were able to obtain. With only one song, 1993’s

“Underwhelmed,” barely making the Modern Rock chart, Sloan has never had a runaway hit like Fastball’s “The Way” or Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacey’s Mom.” With no such track to be found on Never Hear the End, their eigth studio album on their third label, it’s beginning to look like the hit they’ve always hinted at will never actually arrive.