Sloan exploded out of the Halifax music scene in 1991, signed to the Geffen Records imprint, DGC, created to curate the next Nirvana or next Seattle. And for a brief minute, Halifax was it. Halifax had a lot in common with Seattle in a way. It was an isolated city at the far fringe of the continent. In fact, it’s even more isolated than Seattle, which is near enough to Portland, OR, and Vancouver. Halifax is the only city of any real size in Atlantic Canada and it is approximately 11 hours away from Boston and 12 hours from Montréal. And, like Seattle, an indigenous music scene exploded on the East Coast of Canada. The Halifax scene wasn’t all grungy and dirty like Seattle. Rather, the Halifax scenesters were poppier, sort of, and more melodic. It was more lo-fi, it was stripped down. It was guitar, bass, drums.
Sloan were the giants of the scene, but there were other luminaries. There was Eric’s Trip, originally from Moncton, NB, and signed to Sub Pop. There was Jale, an all-woman band, also signed by Sup Pop (as an aside, the original drummer was Alyson MacLeod, who is the little sister of my good friend, filmmaker G. Scott MacLeod). There was also The Hardship Post, originally from St. John’s, NF (Alyson MacLeod left Jale to join this band in 1995). Then there was Superfriendz, Thrush Hermit, and many more. Halifax did not pan out as the next Seattle, of course, but all these bands became things in Canada, and even sometimes in the US, especially the bands on Sub Pop.
And so Sloan. Comprised of Jay Ferguson, Patrick Pentland, Chris Murphy, and Andrew Scott, the band burst onto the national scene in Canada in 1992 with the killer track ‘Underwhelmed,’ originally from an indie ep release, Peppermint, but re-recorded for their excellent début on DGC, Smeared. But whereas Smeared was a blast of lo-fi fuzz and pop, Sloan recalibrated for Twice Removed.
All four members switched instruments all the time, though, in theory, Ferguson and Pentland are the guitarists, Murphy the bassist and Scott the drummer. But all four write songs, all contribute to albums. And thus, they move around, especially when Scott is on vocals. All four have distinct voices and song-writing styles. Murphy is the rock star, Pentland is the thoughtful one, Ferguson is a rocker, and Scott’s songs, complete with his distinct tenor, tend to be more story-driven. Anyway. Whatever. Twice Removed is not Smeared redux and, boy oh boy, DGC was pissed. As it searched for the next Nirvana, DGC wanted grunge, grunge, grunge! And Twice Removed is a beautiful, harmonious, pop guitar oriented album The music is clear and crisp, the guitars aren’t distorted. And so, DGC basically released the album and walked away. This was also Sloan’s last album on the label, by 1996’s One Chord to Another, they were back on their own indie label, Murderecords.
But, man, what an album this is! The album starts off with Murphy’s ‘Penpals,’ is a reminder of the the pen pals we Gen Xers had as kids. For you young whipper-snappers out there, a pen pal was another kid in some other part of the world that you wrote letters to and they wrote back. Usually this was organized by our schools. In Grade 4, I had an Australian girl pen pal. I don’t remember anything else about her. The broken English of the lyrics was taken directly from a series of fan mail letter to label mate, Kurt Cobain.
Ferguson’s ‘I Hate My Generation’ is the first of a series of brilliant songs on this album, and a wonderful send up of the so-called Slacker generation of the early 90s:
What could you both possibly share?
Other than the color of your hair?
Sean said, “We both play guitar”
Oh, Sean. You slay me.
Murphy’s ‘Bells On’ is the next killer track. I have heard this song no fewer than about 45 million times in the past 26 years since the first time I heard it. Me and Mike lived in The Pad in 1994. It was a ground-level basement pad off Oak St. in Vancouver, and on Boxing Day 1994, two of our upstairs neighbours, Harvey & Andrea, wanted to take advantage of A&B Sound’s Boxing Day blowout whereby if you bought something like 100 or 500 CDs (I honestly can’t remember), you got a free CD player. It doesn’t really seem like a great deal in retrospect. At any rate, they asked Mike and I for a list of music, and this was on my list. And so, that night, me and Mike and Christine, my girl at the time, listened to our loot.
Twice Removed was one of the ones that stayed on heavy rotation in The Pad. And ‘Bells On’ was our collective favourite. Mike and I had a soft spot for sweet songs, melodious and beautiful. Christine like unrequited male love, a recurrent theme on the album. Murphy tells us a story about he and this girl who may or may not be into him, we could never tell:
While I’m at this funeral
You’re in New York
I’ve been dividing my grieving
You’re sleeping with a mutual friend.I dreamed that I kissed your mouth
And you thought about me
Oh, you might know who I am
But I know who you are
Your heart is in your art
And mine’s in New York.
If you had a funeral
I’d be there with bells onIf I had a funeral
Would you even care?
Would you wear your silver dress?
Would you actually wear lipstick?
Would you lie upon my grave?
And be there with bells on
So you could ring me from this life?
From this life
So you could ring me from this life.
Pushed off of the silver swings, I got my braces full of sandWhen all I ever wanted to do was hold on to your hand
Lost you once, I never had a second chance
Would you have changed your mind with a second glance?
The amazing thing about Twice Removed is that as sweet as it is, it doesn’t leave us with cavities, it doesn’t ruin our teeth. Sloan at their peak were master songwriters, all four of them. And they are amazing musicians. The fact that all four contribute songs means they never get stale, and they also clearly enjoyed making this album. DGC’s non-interest in it was, ultimately, the label’s loss. The album didn’t exactly light the world on fire in 1994, only reaching number 25 on the Canadian album charts. Judging by my American friends now, living in the US, they never even heard this album. More’s the shame.