Rock CD Review: Canadian Pop Rockers Sloan Share the “Commonwealth”

So how do four young guys successfully build upon two masterworks while simultaneously facing possible enervation due to record label woes and botched stateside promotion?

Sloan plays Great Scott at 1222 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, MA on Thursday, November 13. 18+/9 p.m./$15.

Cover art for Sloan's "Commonwealth"

Cover art for Sloan’s “Commonwealth”

By Blake Maddux

Long before the Canadian invasion, which included pretty much every indie act that is worth mentioning from the past decade, there was Sloan, who skillfully combined pop acumen and rock ‘n’ roll muscle.

Thankfully, Sloan is still standing, and if the band’s new album Commonwealth is any indication, the group is in it for the long haul.

When one rattles of the four or five best songs from each of Sloan’s first 10 full-length studio albums, he or she arrives at a box-set worthy number of gems that belie the fact that the band often struggles to pull off a top-to-bottom awesome set of new material.

Having said that, and I might be among the minority of Sloan fans who would, one could never fairly accuse this veteran Canadian quartet of being inconsistent, unwilling to experiment, or unable to surprise. While not extraordinarily prolific, Sloan had managed to produce some of its best music in defiance of seemingly long odds.

In 1996, Sloan followed up their 1994 sophomore effort Twice Removed with One Chord to Another, which is their generally agreed upon best record despite the fact that Twice Removed would later be twice voted (in 1996 and 2005) the greatest Canadian album of all time. Thus, the band released back-to-back tours de force in what is typically the nascent stage of a music career.

So how do four young guys successfully build upon two masterworks while simultaneously facing possible enervation due to record label woes and botched stateside promotion?

Well, if you are Sloan, you shoot back with the remarkably confident one-two punch of Navy Blues (1998) and Between the Bridges (1999), the latter of which would – in 2006 – become the inaugural entry in The Onion’s A.V. Club’s Permanent Records column.

Soldiering on more-or-less unabated in the early aughts, Sloan unveiled the massive 30-track epic Never Hear the End of It in 2006. That the band was not creatively exhausted in the wake of its release was a further testament to its admirable durability. In fact, 2008’s Parallel Play and 2011’s The Double Cross (as in XX, the Roman numeral for 20, as in the band’s twentieth anniversary) were each as good of an entry point into Sloan fandom as any previous release had been.

The source of Sloan’s success is really not a secret. They take ample time – usually at least two years – in between new releases and are a genuinely democratic unit in which each member is a songwriter with a distinct voice. To these guys, “egos” is a four-letter word in more ways than one.

Which brings us to this year’s Commonwealth.

It has always been the case that each of Sloan’s four members makes at least two or three songwriting contributions to every new album. On Commonwealth, Sloan demonstrates its far-reaching ambition by allowing each member his own “side” of songs: guitarist Jay Ferguson and bassist/sometime drummer Chris Murphy – both pop classicists with somewhat upper-register voices – each serve up five and the harder-rocking, deeper-voiced guitarist Patrick Pentland forks over four. Drummer/sometime guitarist Andrew Scott’s lone composition, meanwhile, affords him more time (nearly 18 minutes) in the spotlight than the other members’ multiple songs. (Hopefully this will not relegate “Forty-Eight Portraits” to least-listened-to status.)

No matter who is writing the songs, however, Sloan erects an impenetrable wall of tension out of the retro and contemporary elements that were the band’s trademarks well before fellow Canadian pop-rockers The New Pornographers honed such a combination to their own brand of perfection.

Sloan -- the greatest Canadian rock band ... period.

Sloan — a great Canadian rock band.

Whether Commonwealth will win Sloan a hoard of new fans is a moot point. The fact is that it will tickle the aural palates of those who anxiously await the band’s new releases and invariably show up at their shows at one of any given city’s cozier venues, e.g., T.T. the Bear’s Place, Brighton Music Hall, or Great Scott. (But then, they did open for The Rolling Stones for a few shows back in 2005, including two at Fenway Park.)

However, for those who have yet to have the enviable experience of hearing Sloan for the first time, Commonwealth is – just like pretty much every other one of their albums – a fine place to start.

As painful as it can be for older favorites to be crowded out of live setlists in order to accommodate new songs, my guess is that Commonwealth tracks such as (to merely scratch the surface) “You’ve Got A Lot on Your Mind,” “Carried Away,” “Misty’s Beside Herself,” and “13 (Born Under a Bad Sign)” will be so warmly welcomed that the absence of other songs will go more or less unnoticed.

And if they decide to play every last note of “Forty-Eight Portraits” (and I hope that they do), they will surely understand if more than a couple of fans step aside for a few minutes in order to hit up the bar or check out the merch table.

There are a few minor quibbles to be had with Commonwealth. Ferguson’s “Cleopatra,” which has been released as a single, relies too heavily on excessive giddiness. Murphy’s “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good” is catchy enough, but the vocals are a bit awkward.

Nit-picking aside, the members of Sloan have – more than two decades into their careers – earned the right to pat each other on the backs while quoting the titles of three new songs: “We’ve Come This Far,” “So Far So Good,” and “Keep Swinging.”

Here’s expecting that the album that these guys release around or shortly after the time that Americans – to quote one of the aforementioned songs “elect another liar” — will be as good as or better than this one.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.

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