Their adventures in the greater alterna-rock world may not have left an enormous cosmic dent anywhere else, but Sloan — from the East Coast maritime city of Halifax, Nova Scotia — is a name Canadians know. Through their gold-in-Canada records, their Murderecords label and a strong gravitational influence on the modern sound of their region, the needlessly humble and exceedingly versatile quartet has not only made the great Northeast a better place in which to shake and pop but also helped haul Canadian rock into synch with the Anglo-American hipoisie.
The six-song Peppermint EP was recorded quickly, cheaply and casually at co-producer Terry Pulliam’s Halifax home and demonstrates most of the quartet’s best attributes in raw form: thick, noisy storms of guitar energy, gently alluring melodic vocals (with guest help from Jennifer Pierce of Jale), the self-effacing diffidence and clever wordplay of “Underwhelmed,” the friendship observations of “Marcus Said,” the surging melodic power of “Sugartune.” All three songs, and nine others cut at the same time, were later cleaned up and edited by remixer Dave Ogilvie for inclusion on Smeared; the others (“Pretty Voice,” “Lucky for Me,” “Torn”) are no less nifty for having been left behind.
When Ogilvie finished remixing the tracks that became Smeared, the band’s sloppy, inexperienced punk enthusiasm had been decanted into sparkling, sublimely balanced punk-pop power that reveals the multiplicity of Sloan’s influences. Very nearly a stylistic sampler of early-’90s cool bands, the group mixes up the sounds of My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Velvet Underground, Cheap Trick and others, adding the diversity that comes from the incredible gift of having four singers-songwriters. The elements Sloan combines should compete and cancel each other out, but the resulting songs somehow became double-strength artistic achievements. The whoosh of feedback that howls through the pretty “I Am the Cancer” does nothing to untie the song’s emotional connections; the nerdy dictionary exercise of “Underwhelmed” makes a failed student flirtation sound even more unjust; the Sonic Youth guitar bed of “500 Up” only contributes to the wryness of the lyrics’ trendinista jibe (“But all they really care about is cutting their hair / And letting it grow”).
The album’s semi-acoustic “What’s There to Decide?” joins “Underwhelmed” on the subsequent EP, along with two newly recorded items. “Amped” is in the Smeared spirit, but the eight heavy-bottomed minutes of “Sleepover” points to a new set of influences and ambitions driving Sloan.
Released after a sizable recording gap, the mature, pensive and eclectic Twice Removed presents a very different picture. Gone are the dense skeins of squalling noise and specific sonic citations, replaced by carefully intertwined, spaciously electric arrangements, evanescent ’60s harmonies and trickier rhythms. As on Smeared, Sloan (working here with producer Jim Rondinelli) treat each song as a distinct undertaking, holding on to a central reserved guitar-pop tone while allowing each member’s creations to find their own shape. Although the credits specify lead singer not author, guitarist Jay Ferguson, bassist Chris Murphy, guitarist Patrick Pentland and drummer Andrew Scott clearly take turns at the creative controls, with mixed but predominately good results. Amazingly, the album holds together — complex, subtle, rich in ideas and fascinating in its shy, sardonic unhappiness. Murphy’s “Penpals” stitches together awkward phrases from foreign fan letters (“I have only thirteen years and I am crazy of you…send me documents”), finding charm, not humor, in their linguistic lapses. In “Bells On,” he quietly lists a litany of trouble (“While I’m at this funeral / You’re in New York / I’ve been divided by grieving / You’re sleeping with a mutual friend”) before unleashing his anger: “If you had a funeral / I’d be there with bells on,” he sneers, and then dances on with a merry la-la-la refrain. His “Coax Me” also deals with death, but absurdly lightens the load with orange juice and Consolidated (“It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans”). “Think I’ve lost my sense of humor,” warns Pentland in “Worried Now,” suffering mightily from the high anxiety of being told not to worry. Ferguson begins the jagged guitar and fuzz-bass of “Snowsuit Sound” with a bad memory — “Pushed off of the silver swings / I got my braces full of sand” — and then lets things get worse from there, allowing the song to nearly reach the halfway point before suddenly unveiling one of the most heavenly refrains Brian Wilson overlooked when he was writing music for Jan and Dean.
The group spent much of ’95 playing farewell shows and pursuing outside interests (variously managing the Inbreds, drumming for Super Friendz, playing in the Sadies and working at Murderecords). After all that, however, Sloan picked themselves and continued unabated. They released a new 45 (“Same Old Flame” b/w “Stood Up”) late in the year and finished recording a third album. One Chord to Another shrugs off the band’s brief retirement with audible nonchalance and renewed zest. A happy result of confident and mature pop artistry, the (mostly) low-key songs restate the debut’s youthful innocence with refreshing stylistic simplicity, horns and gorgeous harmony arrangements underscoring the canny ’60s Beach Boys/Beatles sensibility that pops in and out of the record.