The Double Cross (XX)
[Yep Roc (2011)]
There’s always been a pop clowns aspect to Sloan, obvious since their first full-length release. The opener from 1992’s Smeared, “Underwhelmed,” a lyrical spitball with honor roll sonics, joked that “I told her ‘affection’ had two f’s/especially when you’re dealing with me.” Such bluster was the youthful band-defense of a dork in glasses and also right in line with the verbal hijinks of their obvious prankster heroes. The glasses were on the very real clown front and center, Chris Murphy, singer and composer of more than a few of Sloan’s niftiest jams. Murphy operating is a thing of beauty, whether as hyper-McCartney-ing bassist or restless observer. He has an unselfish command that makes you wish he were a friend of yours. And he’s hilarious.
The more defining likeness of Sloan to their heroes is that of a band full of songwriters. Jay Ferguson, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott are the others, and each has a number of classics pinned to his strap. So there may be, at the heart of the Sloan method, a blessing that’s also a curse: An unfailing ability to release records stuffed with ideas and layered in rock history goes largely un-noted because it is unfailing. It’s the kind of dream-team approach we’re not so impressed by anymore. They’ve stayed together twice as long as many similarly endowed acts―maybe it’s because they’re Canadian.
That isn’t to say that it’s KISS-solo-records time. Sloan are smart to have made some archly titled “event” records that keep them in the conversation; to wit, 1996’s One Chord to Another (by that they meant every chord) and 2006’s Never Hear the End of It (30 songs in 75 minutes). And now we have an archly titled event record linked to an actual event: their 10th original record, released on their 20th anniversary, The Double Cross (XX).
Leading off a record with a pop masterpiece never hurts (Sloan have long since perfected the art of track sequence, and there’s almost always a mission statement at the front [see “The Good In Everyone” and “Flying High Again” from the aforementioned records]). “Follow the Leader,” the first track here, is one of several Murphy tracks over the years to tackle conformity, and it’s a perfect example of the melodic inventiveness that Sloan so breezily pull off with envy-inducing regularity. Accompanying that melody are a thick double-time snare, some faux-manifesto wordplay (“I find every day someone gets in line”), and perfectly punched guitars and organ. Sloan have slyly come of age. The styles stand alone more than ever but coexist more comfortably than ever, too. The record shimmers, whether on Ferguson’s deceptively twee feasts (the spooky nostalgia of “Beverly Terrace” [whose coda cannily brings back a Murphy track from earlier in the record], the gorgeous “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal” [friends blow away, blow away, blow/like a cloud/kids go away, go away, go/it’s allowed]); or Pentland’s current Cheap Trick-ery (the very uncheap first single “Unkind,” the 1:22 of “I’ve Gotta Know”); or Scott’s Dylanesque, zeitgeist-tangled romps (the epic “Traces” [another steady dose of awful TV shows/crowning brand-new has-beeners/and if I seem delighted/I have to get you to check my pulse/it feels low down to the ground/and now my money’s gone/as I been payin’ for some better results]). The sequence on XX often blurs as the conclusion of one track becomes the establishing shot for the next. Much like, say, the Coen brothers, and in a much more difficult art form to sustain, Sloan seem to have been born to make art together and are eerily incapable of doing it badly.
In this approach is a career, if you’re lucky. Such a dovetailing of songwriters is almost impossible to conceive of and sustain as a duo, let alone as a four-piece band. Sloan continue to make the strongest records of any of the leaders of that 1990s power-harmony-pop revival that included Aimee Mann; Matthew Sweet; Teenage Fanclub; The Posies; Sam Phillips, Weezer; and, eventually, Fountains of Wayne.
The cover art for their 10 records cunningly illustrates the Sloan system: There’s always a new color, a new arrangement of the players, and a new impression for the present mission, but each time there are the four faces of Murphy, Ferguson, Pentland, and Scott. It’s an approach to cover art that’s not unlike that taken by the band of songwriters that ruled the decade when Ferguson would’ve come of age had he been “born in the ’40s” as he daydreamed during “I Hate My Generation” from 1994’s Twice Removed, a record that only sounds more like one of the definitive statements of the scuzz-pop early ’90s with every passing year. The Double Cross isn’t a definitive statement as much as a reminder that Sloan aren’t playing at this.
—Jacob Luckey (Lawrenceville, NJ)