Photo: Catherine Stockhausen
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sloan. In the mid-’90s, the Halifax-born band was sometimes referred to as the “Canadian Beatles,” not just because some of their songs recalled ’60s pop and their tops were mops, but mostly because Sloan operated like a democracy: four songwriters that could sing and swap instruments. In fact, they did a much better job at sharing that role than the Fab Four (and of course, for a much longer period). From the outset, Sloan were unique. They still are.
Since 1991, few if any bands have managed to accomplish what Sloan have in their time. To date, they’ve released 11 full-length albums, three EPs, and an album’s worth of B-sides to go with all of the A-sides. With the exception of 2003’s Action Pact, every member has written a song on each album. And while they have yet to surrender to decades-old requests to follow KISS and release a solo album by each member, they did throw us a bone and deliver a miniaturized version of that idea with 2014’s Commonwealth.
Ask any fan what her or his favourite Sloan album is and chances are it wasn’t released this millennium. The band members themselves know their cachet may not be what it was 20 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to make new albums as they appease nostalgia seekers by revisiting their old albums, like the 20th anniversary celebrations of One Chord To Another. Some of those albums you may not have heard, but all 11 of them are worthy – even if it’s just for a couple of tunes.
The key to Sloan’s longevity is their songwriting multiplicity because each one of them is so distinctive. And of course, everyone has their favourite, which is all part of the fun. There’s Jay Ferguson, the erudite, ’60s soft pop connoisseur; Chris Murphy, the versatile smart aleck; Patrick Pentland, the power-chord-loving anthem maker; and Andrew Scott, the discreet savant.
This here is a list of what this guy feels are the best songs by each member of Sloan. It includes some of the hits, but not all of them because most of Sloan’s best songs aren’t the obvious ones.
“Snowsuit Sound” (from 1994’s Twice Removed)
Since I first heard it in 1994, this has always been my favourite Sloan song. Jay originally wrote this in the same vein as Smeared, all noisy and distorted, but only the bass survived. Instead he chose to use “Rolling Stones style chords over a Motown on-beat.” Even the approval of Ric Ocasek couldn’t convince the label to release it as a single. To quote another song from that record, shame shame, because “Snowsuit Sound” deserves to be heard by everyone.
“Junior Panthers” (from 1996’s One Chord To Another)
“The Lines You Amend” is probably the more popular choice from One Chord To Another but that album already had its share of buoyant pop songs to balance it out. “Junior Panthers” serves a major purpose, supplying the necessary ballad quota the album needed to fill.
As pristine as it sounds, in the liner notes to the recently released box set, Jay explains just how badly he played piano on this track, using some studio trickery to cut it up notes and paste them all together. There is a lot of talk about the heavy Beatles vibes that emanate from this album, but I think this is their Beach Boys homage. Those harmonic oohs and ahhs are an obvious touch, but the genuine heartache is a perfect evocation of Brian Wilson’s adolescent symphonies.
“Pretty Together (Demo)” (from 2001’s Comes With A Smile Vol. 3; 2010’s B-Sides Win)
Originally released on a compilation to a defunct fanzine called Comes With A Smile, “Pretty Together” found a second life on Sloan’s B-Sides Win comp and thank God for that.
This deep cut could be the best example of just how much good stuff that was left on the cutting room floor (see also the outtakes from One Chord To Another). And despite getting that “demo” relegation in its title, it carries a remarkable air of completion to it. That probably has to do with its minimal arrangement of vocals, acoustic guitar and piano. It’s basically Jay solo, delivering some of the best sunkissed melodies he’s ever laid down.
“Midnight Mass” (from 2009’s Hit & Run)
Another relatively unknown and stripped down gem by Jay, this one ended up on the digital-only Hit & Run EP. Though it has more components to it than “Pretty Together,” everything about this song breezes with subtlety: the four-part harmony that comes in at the end, that carefully plucked piano and the irregular drum pulse. It sounds like a Left Banke demo before all the strings would come in.
“You’ve Got A Lot On Your Mind” (from 2014’s Commonwealth)
Jay’s songs shone brightest on Sloan’s last record, which gave each songwriter his own side. None was brighter than this soft and golden AM radio nugget. It’s Jay at his congenial best, delivering an endearing chorus of adolescent affection in the line “P.S. I like you.” Were it released 40 years earlier, this would have challenged Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby” in the charts.
Honourable mentions: “Lemonzinger” (Smeared), “Right Or Wrong” (Never Hear The End Of It), “Witch’s Wand” (Parallel Play)
“Underwhelmed” (from 1992’s Smeared)
“Underwhelmed” isn’t just one of Sloan’s most popular songs, it also one of their best songs. In fact, almost 25 years after its release, the song sounds just as relevant now in this ’90s obsessed music landscape as it did upon its original release.
It’s without a doubt the favourite of most casual fans or nostalgia junkies and a toss up with “Money City Maniacs” for their signature song. A lot of it has to do with the language: lines like “her spelling’s atrocious” and “she rolls her rs, her beautiful rs” have become quotable phrases used by their fans over the years. Just put it on and try to fight the temptation to sing along. The song wins every time.
“Deeper Than Beauty” (from 1994’s Twice Removed)
The magic is in Murphy’s ramshackle approach to the vocals. It feels like one improvised take where he’s reminiscing about a girl he knew with “hideous glasses” off the cuff, while also drumming and strumming the guitar all on his own à la Bob Log III or Mayor McCa.
The arrangement itself is so simple and repetitive, and not even that melodic until the end, but anything more than a guitar and some drums and it would lose some of that titular beauty. In the liner notes to the Twice Removed box set, Murphy revealed that it was Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville that inspired him to strip it down.
“Stood Up” (from 1995’s Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”; 2010’s B-Sides Win)
Recorded when Sloan were on the brink of breaking up, Chris’s A-side made the most of the meagre 4-track set up with some Stones-y reverence that was a fast and loose stopgap between records. The rhythm has got swagger, but Chris doesn’t try to be Mick, and instead maintains more of an unusually sober expression. Sloan never really recorded another song like “Stood Up” and it remains a unique entry in their already expansive catalogue.
“The Marquee and the Moon” (from 1999’s Between The Bridges)
A paean to the Marquee Ballroom in their hometown of Halifax, this is a real standout from Sloan’s most underrated album. There’s a healthy dosage of nostalgia and gravity in Chris’s lyrics and tone, which is complemented by the arrangement.
The dual soaring guitars aren’t trying to as bristly as Television, who they also nod to in the title, but they’re just as hypnotic, continuing to ascend until the closing seconds.
“Someone I Can Be True With” (from 2006’s Never Hear The End Of It)
Chris has a few bright spots on the mammoth, 30-track Never Hear The End Of It (i.e. “Set In Motion,” “Live The Life You’re Dreaming Of”), but this one showcases the wit that has made him such an entertaining character. And quite frankly, there are just not enough songs that reference Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Honourable mentions: “I Am The Cancer” (Smeared), “I Love A Long Goodbye” (Pretty Together), “Your Daddy Will Do” (The Double Cross)
“I Can Feel It” (from 1994’s Twice Removed)
This one features Jennifer Pierce of Jale, Patrick’s newly ex-girlfriend at the time. I can only imagine how awkward it must have felt to record a duet so soon after the relationship ended. Obviously the heavy emotions at the time helped them nail those gooey harmonies though.
Ironically, “I Can Feel It” is a perfect song to mark new love. Were it half the speed, “I Can Feel It” would practically be a pretty straight country ballad, and lose some of its draw. But the jaunty tempo is part of what makes it such a perfect love song, not to mention the ideal closer for Twice Removed.
“Same Old Flame” (from 1995’s Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”; 2010’s B-Sides Win)
The AA-side to Chris’ A-Side, “Same Old Flame” shares some of Jay’s Keith Richards riffing, but packs stronger hooks and goes completely off beat with the rhythm section. Patrick’s lyrics are forthcoming in detailing – what I imagine are – the struggles that come with balancing life on the road and love back home. Considering the turmoil the band were going through at the time, it feels like an exclusive glimpse at a band about to temporarily split up.
“The Good In Everyone” (from 1996’s One Chord To Another)
Their “big shiny tune” is also a big shiny tribute to the band’s punk roots. They’ve admitted the inspiration came from a number of songs, including the Sex Pistols’ “New York” and “Submission,” the Damned’s “New Rose,” the Who’s “My Generation,” the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” and the Descendents’ “Myage.”
All of that rolled into a song, which is really only two minutes long. For a song to resurrect the band after a brief hiatus, however, “The Good In Everyone” packed just the right punch. The chorus is irresistible and the lyrics are so few, it is easily Sloan’s best example of an earworm. Plus, that accidental jerky intro and outro is genius.
“It’s In Your Eyes” (from 2001’s Pretty Together)
At this point, Patrick was writing the bulk of Sloan’s more riff-heavy rock songs. His fondness for power chords became his signature, but “It’s In Your Eyes” was a nice contrast to a lot of the anthemic thumpers he was coming up with. There are still some chunky chords and a very steady backbeat to it, but the sentiment running throughout both his voice and lyrics recall the wistfulness that Patrick called on so early on in the band’s recordings.
“Unkind” (from 2011’s The Double Cross)
This should have been a big hit for Sloan. Patrick’s, and possibly even Sloan’s, best single since “Money City Maniacs,” this is his songwriting formula hitting all the marks: the juicy riffs, the sing-along chorus, the stomping rhythm, it’s a bona fide rock anthem.
Honourable mentions: “Sugartune” (Smeared), “Losing California” (Between The Bridges), “HFXNSHC” (Never Hear The End Of It)
“Before I Do” (from 1994’s Twice Removed)
I feel like most bands would have relegated “Before I Do” as the album closer, but Sloan were wise to use it as the penultimate track on Twice Removed. As time has proven, “I Can Feel It” was a perfect way to finish off that album, but Andrew’s seven-minute sidewinder could easily have earned the save.
Apparently Slint’s Spiderland inspired the quiet-to-loud dynamic, and most likely that climactic ascension at the end. Because of patience it requires, that I’ve always found it to be the most alluring song on the album.
It might not score high with Amazon reviewers but “Before I Do” contributed one of the greatest nuances to Sloan’s most cherished albums. To me it’s far more memorable to me than his more conventional single, “People of the Sky.”
“A Side Wins” (from 1996’s One Chord To Another)
Jay calls this “Andrew’s ‘When Doves Cry’.” Lyrically, I think Andrew outshines everyone on One Chord To Another with this one. Then again, I’ve probably given way too much thought to B-side sout-shining their A-sides over the years.
It’s a song that feels like a drunk celebrating the underdog status on some dive bar’s back room piano. I don’t know if Andrew used an out of tune, upright piano on purpose or out of necessity, but I can’t imagine ever hearing “A Side Wins” in tune – nor would I want to.
“Sinking Ships” (from 1998’s Navy Blues)
Navy Blues is always regarded as the moment where Sloan turned up their amps and proved they were a rock band able to write stadium-ready anthems like “MCM” and “SSWSM.” But of course, Andrew completely turned that idea on its head.
“Sinking Ships” is the album’s black sheep and hallelujah for that. The lyrics are like the mutterings of an old, senile sailor. And like an old senile sailor, it goes off course a few times, bringing in some ripping guitar licks, three-part harmonies, rickety piano chords, trembling organ and horns, which appear like a lighthouse beam in the fog to bring it all home.
“I Can’t Sleep” (from 2006’s Never Hear The End Of It)
Andrew didn’t have any songs on 2003’s Action Pact, so he really benefitted from the no-holds-barred approach to its double album follow-up. While he has contributed most of Sloan’s longer songs over the years (i.e. “Forty-Eight Portraits”), he also owns the distinction of writing the shortest Sloan song ever released.
“I Can’t Sleep” is just one riff and one verse, with a running time of 54 seconds. It’s such a shot in the arm that it feels half that length. Perhaps that has to do with one-third of it being a wall of reverb-drenched feedback that emerges like a white out snow squall. On an album that was all about allowing the members to do as they pleased, Andrew celebrated such freedom with a raucous, punk quickie.
“Forty-Eight Portraits” (from 2014’s Commonwealth)
Every member of Sloan got his own side on Commonwealth. Jay and Chris recorded five tracks each, Patrick recorded four, and Andrew chose to make one Frankenstein jam that clocked in at just under 18 minutes.
Were it anyone else, this concept would have been a head-scratcher, but it just made sense for Andrew to sew together a patchwork of unfinished songs he had been kicking around. There is no chorus or even verse, it’s just this beautiful mess that ebbs and flows from start to finish.
Hands down, this is the most challenging song Sloan have ever recorded, a feat that only Andrew could achieve.
Honourable mentions: “People of the Sky” (Twice Removed), “Sensory Deprivation” (Between The Bridges), “The Dogs” (Parallel Play)