Sharing The Wealth
Sloan is a very rare and unique sort of band. Comprised of four equally gifted, and prolific, singers and songwriters, their albums have always resembled something more like a collection of tracks from four different solo albums, stitched together into a harmonious whole. They often work on their own, utilizing their colleagues to flesh out their songs and find clever ways to run their songs together. This worked for ten albums over twenty years. While Sloan may not be huge in the States, they have been wildly popular in Canada, with good reason. Their albums are spectacular.
For album #11, however, Sloan had a new trick up their collective sleeve. Rather than jumble the various members’ works into an album, the plan was to do a double album and give each member one side of the vinyl to do whatever he liked. Somewhat inspired by the four Kiss solo albums from 1978, but scaled down to a more manageable length, the result showcases the band’s individual talents but also makes Sloan seem stronger for it.
Commonwealth is Sloan’s second double album. Their first, 2006’s Never Hear The End Of It, is a 30-track puzzle of song fragments and experimental bits, amidst more standard songs. It is a bit of a mess, though I suspect that was on purpose. Commonwealth, however, feels cohesive. Even though it’s a double album, the running time is not that long – each member gets about 18 minutes or so to put together his own suite of music.
This is a smart move, not only artistically but financially as well. While they are no big-business band, Sloan still is a brand name. There is no universe where a Chris Murphy solo album, for instance, would sell more albums than Sloan. So to do it this way alleviates, at least to an extent, the drive for any of the members to step away on his own because they still get to have artistic control while working within the ever-democratic Sloan process.
Of course it really all comes down to the music. And once again, these four dudes really nail it.
Side one belongs to Jay Ferguson. With his light, almost feminine voice and bouncy pop songs, Jay’s tunes often tend to fluff out the band’s albums. Like the rest of the band, not all of his songs fit within a particular sound or style and sometimes he’s been capable of heavy hitters as well as airy danceable numbers. Here, however, he really stretches out, especially on the dark, moody “Three Sisters”, which has a feel that is not unlike “Because”, from Abbey Road. Jay flexes his pop muscles on “You Got A Lot On Your Mind” as well as the rocking “Cleopatra”. He closes out his side with the gentle “Neither Here Nor There”, which rounds out his suite perfectly.
Chris Murphy takes control of side two and continues to prove himself as the band’s chief pop tunesmith. “Carried Away” kicks things off with one of the most stuck-in-your-head choruses he’s ever written before getting pensive on “So Far So Good”, a dark, piano-driven piece that features a rare political angle. “Get Out” rocks pretty hard before Chris moves back to the pop realm with “Misty’s Beside Herself”. Closing out the side is “You Don’t Need Excuses To Be Good”, which features that sort of 70s Detroit Rock that Patrick Pentland is usually known for.
Speaking of Patrick, side three is all his and he proceeds to do what he does best – rock out. Kicking off with the dark, heavy “13 (under a bad sign)”, it’s soon understood that this is the side to put on when you want to cruise the main drag. This continues with the rockin’ “Take It Easy” before things slow down to an almost Pink Floyd vibe with “What’s Inside”. While Murphy is historically the most prolific writer in the band, it’s usually Pentland’s songs that become the singles. He closes out his side with the latest in that string, “Keep Swinging (downtown)”, another perfect slab of 70s AOR rock that makes for excellent road trip jams.
Now, most bands let the drummer add his songs just to humor him but Sloan is not most bands. Andrew Scott’s songs have always been some of the most accomplished and diverse music Sloan ever recorded, from punk anthems to sophisticated workouts. On side four of Commonwealth, Scott rose to the occasion, delivering an 18-minute, side-long tour de force called “Forty-Eight Portraits” that shows the man to be a true artist. While it is one continuous track, the piece moves like a puzzle from idea to idea and every one of them is a miniature stroke of genius. There is one point where the song moves through a verse of “Delivering Maybes” (his brilliant album-closer from 1999’s Between The Bridges) before moving into another realm of the song. While he usually prefers to work alone, this time he calls in outside help, from Chris Murphy taking over some vocals, to a small choir of children who sing the final major segment. This is one of those pieces that takes time to sink in but each pass is another revelation.
It’s hard to pick a winner here. Each side is masterfully crafted and contains some of the best music to ever grace a Sloan record. Perhaps as far as constructing a suite of songs, Jay’s side might come out ahead. But Chris’ flows well too. Patrick’s does exactly what it needs to do and Andrew’s pushes the boundaries of the band’s work further than it’s ever gone.
While this album recalls The White Album in its scope and Abbey Road in its delivery, one thing that sets it apart is that there seems to be no disharmony within the band. This is just another phase of their long career and, even though this point has been 23 years in the making, I would not bank on this being the last of Sloan.
Written by: Chris Anderson