The Classics 017

The Classics 017

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Ground Control revisits the Enclave release of Sloan‘s One Chord To Another, and attempts to illustrate just how important the album was not just for Canadian rock, but how it qualifies as a Classic rock album in general.

If you think about it critically, Sloan has been blessed with a succession of breakthrough moments over the course of their career. The first, of course, was Smeared; the band’s first full-length album marked the band’s emergence from the Maritime-Canadian underground rock scene to occupy a space on the scenesters’ fringe of the mainstream (early supporters included the members of Nirvana). Smeared was a big moment for a (then) little band, but Navy Blues changed the game as it was the occasion when Sloan won a celebrated place among the biggest names in Canadian rock; Navy Blues established the band as superstars as well as proving that all four members of the group were spectaclur songwriters. It was their “coming of age” moment, certainly – and that moment was a triumph too – but it’s unlikely that it would have or could have happened without One Chord To Another – Sloan’s third full-length release. It was on One Chord To Another that the great indie rock talent which had been exposed by Smeared was fine-tuned and honed with meticulous care by all four members of Sloan; there was a similar desire present in Twice Removed, but the band was still self-conscious and it showed on that album. One Chord To Another is the bold and sure presentation that the band really needed to release; no one holds back at all on this album, everyone just goes for broke. The twelve songs each bear elements of songwriting so fine that their calibre is only comparable to the work of top-tier rock royalty, but the way they’re written features a different style, sensibility and approach completely; here, Sloan has taken their affinity for The Beatles and turned the sort of prestine pop songs that the Fab Four were given to writing and set them on the twenty-five degree slant that the best Gang Of Four songs were always on. Played like that, songs like “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” and “The Lines You Amend” are simultaneously sweet and nihilistic, but there’s also no question that they’re forged of 24 karat gold. That kind of performance is brilliant, but the kicker is that those are only two songs of a thirteen-track record and they’re all of equal quality. Few records can claim that they’re as consistently great as One Chord To Another can.

While it certainly seemed a little “indie” when it first came out in 1996, the way “The Good In Everyone” opens the record – with a field recording of crowd noise and Toronto radio personality Barry Taylor introducing the band – actually feels pretty exciting and out of the ordinary now. When the guitars do punch in and swirl around tempestuously, heart rates will begin to increase from the confusion factor alone but, when all of the tumblers align at around the 21-second mark, the crunch and swing of the rhythm guitars is capable of getting even the most miserable of critics to swoon, even nineteen years after the album’s original release. Those guitars snap and swing with a perfectly hypnotic rhythm which compliments Patrick Pentland’s vocal beautifully (first words, “First off, here’s what you do to me/ You get rough, attack my self esteem/ It’s not much, but it’s the best I’ve got/ And I thought you saw the good in everyone” should appear alongside the lyric sheets for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden, “Super Bon Bon” by Soul Coughing and “Radio Song” by R.E.M. as the best examples of alt-pop of all time) and makes both a statement and a promise; Sloan had already released a couple of bonafide hits on their previous albums with “Underwhelmed,” “Coax Me” and “I Hate My Generation,” but “The Good in Everyone” signalled a jump to a whole other level, musically. It is captivating songwriting of a type seldom seen in rock.

…And immediately after making their big bang statement with “Good In Everyone,” Sloan shifts gears like a post-punk powered Beatles and knocks the hard luck/hard feelings anthem “Nothing Left To Make Me Want To Stay” out of the part. The first, most obvious and coolest thing about the second track on the album is that (more than was readily apparent on Smeared or Twice Removed) the members of Sloan are able to completely restructure themselves and pick up different instruments; now guitarist Chris Murphy takes the mic and spontaneously re-thinks the band’s sound, focus and direction into a tight, more Brit-pop sounding outfit. That change is impressive, sure, but more remarkable is the fact that the band adjusts smoothly and easily to the change and actually manages to dovetail the first and second songs so that they sound like they fit together tightly. Just as was the case on later Beatles albums when more adventurous songwriting was the rule, the sound and style of “Good In Everyone and “Nothing Left…” are completely different – but that counterpoint between them makes a fluid movement within the album’s play. There is no break or gaffe and it’s great.

With that first set of two songs locked in together,Sloan pushes further to see what’s possible on  One Chord To Another but, gratifyingly, the band’s ambition never fails them. Both “Autobiography” and “The Lines You Amend” reach for the pop songwriting crown held by The Beatles – and even make mention of it in the periphery of both songs (“Photographs” sung by Ringo Starr bridges the gap between smooth and awkward lyricism on “The Lines You Amend,” while “Autobiography” stands on the shoulders of “Paperback Writer” with a few years of wisdom and history learned between them) – and make believers out of young neophytes that pop songwriting didn’t die with John Lennon as easily in 1996 as it can now in 2015. Likewise, Sloan manages to turn the image of sweet, lovey songwriters that they had already cast themselves in on its ear for “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” and evenly mix some sweet and sour intentions (check out how The Beatles’ “You’ve got to hide your love away” line becomes “Hide yourself away” here). At every turn, listeners come to expect one great hook or track like that after another here, but the really cool thing is that Sloan manages to carry such a hefty expectation off effortlessly; it’s kind of astounding to hear.

When it was originally released in Canada on June 12, 1996, One Chord To Another really did break the band in the biggest possible way North of the forty-ninth parallel. Sure – Smeared and Twice Removed won the band some fans among the college rock crowd (and a few mainstream rock tastemakers too), but One Chord To Another was the touchstone which got Sloan onto rock radio airwaves during the average person’s waking hours and won a big base of fans quickly all across the country. The album helped Sloan cross the border into the U.S. market too; on March 11, 1997, New York-based indie label The Enclave domestically released the album, complete with a second disc of material which has remained unreleased North of the border ever since.

The second disc in the U.S. release of One Chord To Another (entitled Live At A Sloan Party) is a great goof which really shows off the bandmembers’ combined personality and sense of humor. Comprised of a few cover songs and alternate takes of album tracks, fans will be intrigued – until they realize that what they’re actually hearing are studio recordings mixed with crowd noise to make a faux live album. As soon as listeners realize that, they’ll get angry for a minute (novelties like this are often an insult to their intelligence, right?) before lightening up again when they realize that the performances are actually really good and were chosen very carefully to express fanship of the bands included. The way that such appreciation is conveyed is simple: none of the songs included were hits for any of the artists who originally recorded them. For example, the Roxy Music and Modern Lovers tracks included (“Over You” and “Dignified and Old,” respectively) are the definitions of deep album cuts, but they’re treated with such care in their performance that there’s no question they’re loved by the members of Sloan. In spite of the background noise mixed in after the fact, the care so evident in the presentation easily opens ears and wins the hearts of those who hear them, and the inclusion of a couple of alternate takes of actual Sloan songs (“I Am The Cancer” and “I Can Feel It”) feels like the hidden gift for ultra-fans to hunt down and treasure.

Now eighteen years after The Enclave’s release of One Chord To Another, the combination of the two discs and their mixture of good natured vitriol still feels fresh and exciting; on Disc One, listeners get the fantastic alt-pop of One Chord To Another, and they get some smirking, playful silliness on Disc Two. It still sounds great, all it needs now is a wider release. Here’s hoping that Sloan is preparing a reissue of One Chord To Another (maybe to celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary?) and this version of the album will be included with it. If you can’t wait that long, reader, start searching your secondhand record stores; if you can find this two-disc set, you’ll be happy you did.


The Enclave release of One Chord To Another is out of print, but there are currently several others available on Amazon.

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