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Going ‘Steady’ with Sloan, plus five of the band’s underrated gems

The Modern Rock in Motion column centers on Sloan's 'Steady' album and other gems.

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By Peter Lindblad

Going Steady with Sloan requires a long-term commitment. Thirty years on from the initial shoegazing rush of Smeared, their addictively noisy and dreamy 1992 debut full-length, Canada’s greatest power-pop pushers continue to stick it out together, the four romantic cynics – all gifted songwriters and singers, all original members – wrestling with the vicissitudes and petty dramas of adulthood on a long, fuzzy bender of blissed-out, tuneful brilliance and getting high on their own endless supply of sweet melodies and knockout hooks.

What’s their secret to a successful marriage? If the sharp, high-definition Steady (Yep Roc Records), with its clean guitar crunch and bristling energy, is any indication, it’s a zest for life and an undying devotion to songcraft, along with an uncanny ability to mix confident swagger and savage humor with raw, self-aware vulnerability. For every one of Steady’s infectious, stomping riots and radiant blowouts, from the tight, exuberant snap, crackle and pop of a dizzying “Magical Thinking” to a raucous, strutting “Spend the Day” and the gnarly stabbing incident that is the undeniably catchy urban walkabout “Scratch the Surface,” there’s the strummed, aching tenderness of “Simply Leaving,” the wistful, cascading “She Put Up with What She Put Down” and the rolling, Queen-inspired piano tides of the gossipy ballad “Human Nature” adding notes of Beatlesque swoon.

Taut and tough, all tied up in terrific little knots of riffs, “Dreaming it All Over Again” is more of the latter, with a touch of The Posies’ swirling melancholy, yet it’s a brighter day for Sloan, replete with smart handclaps and breezy vocal harmonies. It runs the autobiographical line, “If you wait a while, then we’ll be back in style,” which may prove prophetic, because every compact pocket of Steady contains something clever, something charming or unexpectedly magical. Even when Sloan confronts pandemic exhaustion with the woozy, psychedelic-pop glory of “Close Encounters,” it comes off as mellow and sympathetic rather than preachy, walking the same path to enlightenment taken by XTC’s Skylarking. Steady as she goes, Sloan.

Grade: A-

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Steady is Sloan’s 13th album, and what a gift it is, the title a testament to the remarkable consistency of a quartet that includes guitarists/vocalists Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland, bassist/vocalist Chris Murphy and drummer/vocalist Andrew Scott. It’s among the Halifax, Nova Scotia outfit’s best, padding their already overflowing catalog, now as thick as an old Sears Christmas Wishbook. Surpassing 250 songs, with 30 singles having garnered airplay on Canadian Rock Radio, it is stuffed with sonic toys – some fizzy and rollicking, others offering a shoulder to cry on and still more that soar like anthemic rockets.

Nominated for scads of Juno Awards, taking home the hardware for Best Alternative Album in 1997, Sloan made a CBC critics poll of Canada’s top five bands ever. It’s easy to see why, what with memorable songs, such as “Underwhelmed” and “I Am the Cancer” from Smeared and “Money City Maniacs,” off 1998’s Navy Blues, living rent free for years in the heads of Sloan cult followers. “Losing California,” from Between the Bridges, and Never Hear the End of It’s “Ill-Placed Trust” and “Who Taught You to Live Like That?” stay in the guest room occasionally, with others like “People of the Sky” from Twice Removed and Pretty Together‘s “If it Feels Good Do it” coming in and out. But, what about some lesser-known cuts? Is the “no vacancy” sign on, or can they crash on the couch for a few nights? Here are some that could never overstay their welcome:

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“Bells On” – Twice Removed (1994, Geffen Records): It’s the calm before the strummed electric storm. All is quiet, except for rushing wind and distant street noise. Disinterested drums and lightly tangled guitars hardly pay any attention to post-funeral musings about whether an ex still cares, and yet, they provide the perfect backdrop for a grieving pity party of one. Then, the rising choruses kick in, huge and tormented, venting all the sexual frustration and confusion of youth as riffs explode. We’ve all been there.

  

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“Out to Lunch” – B Sides Win: Extras, Bonus Tracks and B-Sides 1992-2008 (2010, Murderecords):Born to boogie, the ramshackle “Out to Lunch” is a rip-roaring, utterly contagious romp that burns bridges with a troubled relationship – they never got along anyway – and hits the road. “Turning south, we’re headed for sunny shores,” Sloan sings, as they make their escape. There’s nothing but blue skies ahead, but it still has regrets. It’s nothing that living as a beachcomber for a few months won’t solve.

   

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“C’Mon C’Mon (We’re Gonna Get It Started)” – Navy Blues (1998, Murderecords): “Money City Maniacs” gets all the girls. It was on a beer commercial. It shot up into the top 10 in Canada. It’s muscular and confident, peacocking around like it owns the place. For all its downy buoyancy and upbeat charm, the bounding “C’Mon C’Mon (We’re Gonna Get it Started)” can’t find love and is still getting over that realization. Maybe that’s why it’s not as popular as its bullying Navy Blues companion, but it’s hopeful and ready to live again. Those tumbling, playful, bouncy piano chords could lift anybody’s spirits. “The only thing that’s left to do is cure the brokenhearted.” Mission accomplished.

   

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“Cheap Champagne” – Parallel Play (2008, Murderecords/Yep Roc Records): Pop purity, pristine and lovely, “Cheap Champagne” mainlines old Burt Bacharach recordings into its veins. Tinged with sadness, a jazzy guitar solo at the ready, it’s lush and sophisticated, showcasing another side of Sloan. It’s not what they usually drink.

   

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“Someone I Can Be True With” – Never Hear the End of It (2006, Sony BMG Canada/Yep Roc/Murderecords): Not many bands can get away with a line like, “She’s someone to watch ‘Gremlins II’ with.” They don’t break character, even though it’s funny and ridiculous, which makes it kind of great. From the sprawling, 30-song Never Hear the End of It, “Someone I Can Be True With” seamlessly segues into the wheeling “Right or Wrong,” but it can stand on its own two feet, couching its delicious misery and longing in a building mystery of claps and strings and strumming, gathering strength for its climb. It carries a lot of baggage.