Sloan
Twice Removed
Geffen

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
Over Christmas
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.
So maybe she was into him, maybe she wasn’t.  But they once had a thing.  Over a peaceful guitar-bass-drums, Murphy delivers the verses, before we kick into gear for the chorus of sorts, which is really nothing more than a ‘La la la’ affair.  At any rate, Murphy then begins to think of the melodrama of love and funerals:
If you had a funeral
I’d be there with bells on
If 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.
Pentland delivers one of the rockingest track of the album, ‘Worried Now,’ wherein he fears he lost his sense of humour.  Pentland’s voice is the sweetest of the Sloan lads on this album, and while this is a rocker, that’s all relative to the larger sound of the album.  But Pentland also tended to write the best hooks, and ‘Worried Now’ has one sweet one.

 

‘Deeper Than Beauty’ is another Murphy gem.  Over a driving beat from Scott, the guitars are sharp and jangly, and Murphy takes his voice up a register to pen a love song to a girl whose beauty makes him wonder how she keeps the boys at bay, and when she lets her hair down, it makes him wonder what makes men commit crimes.  But, her glasses, oh, her hideous glasses!  This is just a fucking killer track.

 

‘Snowsuit Sound’ is from Ferguson, and he delivers a rocker here.  And another song of unrequited love, as he had her once, and she left, and he can’t get her back:
Pushed off of the silver swings, I got my braces full of sand
When 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?

Scott’s ‘Before I Do’ is perhaps the longest Sloan song in history, coming in around seven minutes long.  It is a soft/loud/soft kind of song, but it is also a masterfully written song, which is a hallmark of Sloan.  And thus, we don’t notice the conventions of song-writing the Sloan lads make use of in their music.  After simmering for a bit, just over a minute-and-a-half in, Murphy’s drums kick, and then Ferguson moves to bass, Scott takes rhythm guitar, and Pentland lays down the lead, and we get a good rocking end.  Scott and Murphy’s vocals are woven over each other, another Sloan hallmark, as the guitars, bass drums build to a crescendo.

 

The album then ends with a sweet little ditty from Pentland, ‘I Can Feel It.’   This is one of the best songs he ever wrote.

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.

The band took it hard and even broke up in the aftermath, before eventually coming back together in 1996 for One Chord.
But it’s the legacy of Twice Removed that echoes its brilliance.  Chart Attack is kind of like the American Billboard, and in 1996, 2000, and 2005, it surveyed its readers for the greatest Canadian albums of all-time.  In 1996 and 2005, Twice Removed topped the list.  In 2000, it was Joni Mitchell’s Blue atop, with Twice Removed third.  It has been honoured with a legacy version of the Polaris Prize.  I’m not sure that the band ever became millionaires off this album, though.  And if the music biz was based on merit alone, Sloan would be spoken of in the same sentence as The Tragically Hip as the greatest Canadian band of all-time.
As for the aftermath, Sloan delivered a series of brilliant albums to finish the 90s, from One Chord to Navy Blues in 1998 (this one will definitely be another edition of Classic Albums here at The Typescript) and Between the Bridges.  I kind of lost Sloan in the 2000s, for reasons I can no longer recall, though I was a big fan of their 2003 album, Action Pact.  But they also began to make it in the US in the 2000s, their albums finally charting south of the 49th parallel (yeah, I know, most of Eastern Canada is below that line, but it is the border between Canada and the US from the Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean).
In 2013, Sloan went hardcore.  This was totally out of left field, but they emerged with a double-sided single, ‘Jenny’ b/w ‘It’s In You It’s In Me.’  And this led to a frankly fucking brilliant covers album, where they took on everyone from Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Black Flag, the Angry Samoans, 7 Seconds, and the Circle Jerks.  And the thing is, this is a pretty damn good collection of hardcore covers.  Who knew Sloan had it in them?  The album came as a bonus with the purchase of the ‘Jenny’ single, along with a t-shirt, which I’ve long since lost, I think in moving from Boston to Alabama.  Twelve songs, 18 minutes.  The cover, though, is the best, as they recreate the legendary Minor Threat album cover.
And they keep on keeping on, their most recent album, the appropriately-named 12 arrived in 2018.  It is a stunning album in its own right, and their highest charting album in the US, hitting 11 on the Heatseekers charts.  There is some irony in the fact that their last three albums are their highest charting ones in the US.  In Canada, somehow they’ve never had a number one, cracking the top 10 only once, with Navy Blues.