A review of Sloan's "Action Pact"

To start this review, I'd like to thank RCA records for having the "foresight" to discontinue their American distribution deal with Sloan, making this CD nearly impossible to get without paying through the nose for an import (I found a Canadian site that sold it and accepted US dollars, so I didn't pay as much as the Amazon people who bought it as an import). Fuck you, RCA.Give these guys more of a chance. You knew that with bands like Fountains Of Wayne, The Strokes, Jet, and The White Stripes screaming up the charts that power pop is on the upswing, and yet you decided not to keep Sloan on your roster of artists. Really smart. Especially since they made one of the best albums of 2003.

Oh, and to Sloan - thanks for pretty much ignoring your American fans this time around.

UPDATE 7/04: Sloan did end up getting a U.S. Distribution deal, with Koch Records (the same label as "The Wiggles", strangely enough), and they played a show in Orlando with another great rock band, Jet, which I was able to attend. It rocked. Out loud. Thanks, Sloan!

Some people do still care about rock music, and I think that the Canadian band Sloan has been at the forefront of the retro-modern rock revolution since their seminal 1996 album "One Chord To Another". They've released some classics and some not-so-classics in the time since, including the "best-of-genre" 1997 record "Navy Blues". Over time, the albums got a little lighter every release, typified by 2001's experimental "Pretty Together". Produced by Tom Rothrock (who worked with such great pop people as the late Elliot Smith), "Action Pact" is a return to their hard-rockin' past with a nod to the future. This stuff doesn't sound old, but some of it could have easily been released 25 years ago and probably been a hit.

The album starts off with a classic Sloan rocker - "Gimme That" - snapping you to attention with an urgent chorus and then explaining itself with its melodically dense B section. Next, "Live On" has a mid-tempo slam to it that is very 70s-rock. Think a slower, more serious AC/DC mixed with a little Cheap Trick. Yet another melodic part with a clever harmony creates the hook that'll keep you coming back to this track.

"Backstabbin" is kind of like a dark version of a heavy metal song - tons of attitude, simple riff. Kind of like Kiss, but much more serious, and better "craftsmanship" songwriting-wise. It has cool harmonies, and a great hook. "Backstabbin', yeah, backstabbin'!"

The first single (released only in Canada) off the record is "The Rest Of My Life" - it has that trademark Sloan shuffle - a la "Everything You've Done Wrong" from the aforementioned "One Chord To Another". It's a great song about realizing that you're not going to be the man you once thought you'd be, and finally accepting it. I especially like the little bum-bum-bum-bum arpeggio motif. I figured this one out on guitar and bass, I liked it so much.

The next song on the record, "False Alarm", is a serious stylistic shift, as all guitarist Jay Ferguson's songs are...his "baby boy" vocal style and pulsing rhythm with jangly guitars on top instantly tell you that you're listening to one of his songs. One of these days I'm going to make a collection of all his tracks on one CD so I can go to sleep. His stuff is dreamy and very 80s, in a Cure/Smiths sort of way. It's a little lighter than I like to take my Sloan. This one has nice harmonies, and a pleasant melody. I like the little bass thing before the guitar solo - Chris Murphy is cool.

The next track, "Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore", is pretty mellow and dramatic - sounds like something out of a movie. It's quite obviously a Chris Murphy creation - the sly lyrics and playful phrasing give it away. I like the way the song transitions into a big-arena-sounding part (think the end of "Hey Jude") right before it mellows out again and ends. Just really clever and cool arranging. I wonder how much of that is Tom Rothrock's "just right" production or Sloan's creativity.

"Hollow Head" starts of kind of punky, but quickly diverts into power-pop anthem territory and segues into a great hooky chorus that's longer than you expect. I especially like the little blasts of upper-register guitar that punctuate the musical interlude between chorus and verse. Patrick Pentland's vocals are passionate and rocking, and the harmonies that follow the lead are perfect. The guitar solo is like it's own little melody part (as most really good solos are), and really adds punch to the middle of the song. I especially like Andrew Scott's drumming on this track - his tom fills are pure Keith Moon craziness, and fit perfectly in with the lyrics.

The next song, "Ready For You", is by far my favorite on the album for a variety of reasons. One, great melody. Two, cool riff - so AC/DC, and yet not. Three, AWESOME hook. I also adore the lyrics - check out this couplet:

"My life is so lonesome, now I know you exist.
We could talk on the phone some, but I'd rather we kissed."

Rhyming "lonesome" with "phone some"? Pure Chris Murphy craziness, and he's a man after my own heart. Instead of moon-june rhymes, he gives us something a bit more interesting. About the only thing I hate about the song is that it's so short. I wish it could go on and on...

"I Was Wrong" starts out with an angular guitar riff that segues into an almost celebratory verse with a sunny melody. It's kind of Green Day (though I know that there's no way that that's where it came from), but the massive layered harmonies in the chorus lead into a bridge that has two melodies going along with the big harmonies. It'd be interesting hearing how they'd approach it live, even with all of them singing. Just a killer tune.

Following "I Was Wrong" is "Who Loves Life More". It has kind of a baroque melody, in that it's complex and ornamented. The song is really dramatic, it's got a "big rock" sound to it, much like "Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore". It features some clever interplay between guitarists Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland, and just somehow manages to drone along and yet move forward at the same time. They layer the melodies from the verse closely right after the drum break and lead into the final choruses to take you on a ride out of the song. It's really a "build and release" kind of song - starts off with a steady hard groove, gets huge in the middle, and then at the end brings you back to that first groove to send you home.

"Reach Out" is another anthem. It's one of the more ill-conceived songs on the album in my opinion. It's kind of boring until you get to the middle when the drums get crazy and the vocals cry, "REEEEAAAACH OOOUUUT!". And then it's over. Quickly. In this case, not such a bad thing, because it leads you into another dreamy Jay Ferguson song that kind of sounds like the first one on this album. It's a good way for the album to say goodbye, but I think another rocker would have been cool to close out the disc.

I had a really hard time with this record when I first bought it. I bought it from a great retailer in Canada who sells to U.S. customers (thereby saving myself $10 american in import costs), and at first, I wasn't thrilled at all. In fact, I really didn't like it much. I "expected better" from Sloan. After putting it away for a month, I decided to give it another try, and this time, I was ready for it. I fell in love with the record, and though it still doesn't rank up there with Sloan's greatest stuff (to me, Navy Blues and One Chord To Another), it's a strong comeback after the mostly lackluster "Pretty Together". Of course, I'm such a Sloan whore that I loved that one, too, but overall, it's not quite up there with the rest of their catalogue.

Sloan gives a crap about making a great album that rocks (and not so much in a "metal" way), is cohesive, and has smart lyrics. I wish there were more bands out there as brave as these guys. Thanks for making me smile, Sloan.

(note: This review was written before the Koch Records version came out with the two additional tracks)

Rating: COOL