Let me check my punk-rock history fundamentals: Wasn’t ’70s rock the dire offal of a bloated industry beast? Weren’t its coke-addled artists out of touch and unable to speak to teen angst as they regurgitated Tolkien from a decadent dreamworld? Then along came the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Modern Lovers, among others, to save us from desperate boredom by pouring punk’s acid on the open wounds of society? So the myth goes.
Not so fast. The transition from classic rock to punk rock was never so neat. There’s too much evidence of a continuum, a dialogue between underground rock and the complacent radio rock it rose against. The naked self-indulgence of Blue Öyster Cult begat the agitprop of Gang of Four. Johnny Rotten might have hated Pink Floyd, but he secretly worshiped Can. Before Joe Strummer got his mohawk, he was a folkie and a hippie. The craft and artistry of even the most derided mainstream ’70s popular rock acts are imprinted on today’s guitar-wielding artistes and inspire them with fat, warm sounds and expressive solos. Sloan’s new album, Navy Blues, confirms the theory that young rock ‘n’ rollers are currently mining ’70s sounds because they suspect that, after all, the ’70s were a real good time.
Throughout the ’90s, Sloan, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, has produced brilliant but confounding guitar pop that should warm the hi-fis of many a bong-hitting teen. The band came up at a time when the Sonic Youths and Dinosaur Jrs were inking major-label deals and Seattle tastemaker Sub Pop was harvesting the hot talent in Nova Scotiabands such as Jale, Zumpano, Eric’s Trip, and Hardship Post. When Halifax was the next Seattle, Sloan looked as if it would become the new Nirvana.
In ’92, when Sloan was at the top of the heap in the hinterlands, its home-recorded debut album Smeared was snatched up, mixed in Hollywood, and released by DGC. The record’s strange gloss and chameleonlike variety didn’t make a huge impression here, but it went gold in Canada. The next album, the more intimate Twice Removed, wore the band out; it was critically well-received but not a commercial success. Sloan then returned to the indie label the band members run themselves, Murderecords, the imprint that graces the early singles that made Sub Pop see stars. 1997’s One Chord to Another found the band wading as deep into ’60s rock as its eclecticism would allow: fuzz tones, harmonies, and overtly Beatlesque songcraft. One Chord had a few rockers, “The Good in Everyone” and “G Turns to D,” to balance the meandering “The Lines You Amend.” That summer, hipsters seemed to be discovering the British Invasion, looking at their Sebadoh records in mild bewilderment. The consciously old-school-sounding, self-recorded, and boldly retro Chord came at the right time, except when you consider that Sloan’s U.S. label, The Enclave, dissolved soon after the record’s release.
Navy Blues plays much like Chord, but in the aforementioned ’70s universe. It could serve as the soundtrack to a more nuanced version of the movie Dazed and Confused. In it, we find Sloan embracing the golden era of FM radio: BTO, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Wings, and Steve Miller. It’s like a spin of the dial. The disc trades in Chord’s raw garage sound for fatter sonics. The pianos are tuned this time, and they predominate more than ever. The opener, “She Says What She Means,” pulls out the riff that sounds as if it’s been the band’s rehearsal gag all these years. It’s slightly gimmicky, like Rundgren jamming with Foreigner. Is it the right time to reintroduce a hook like this one without irony? Sloan thinks so.
To celebrate the indirect side of album rock, Sloan asked us to “raise a glass to the B-side, the unamplified” in a chorus on Chord. The toast continues on Navy Blues. There are no throwaway tunes, but few will strike you as terribly immediate. As an album track, “Sinking Ships” is a fine moment, a standard bluesy verse/chorus structure broken up by horns and a featherweight interlude. Sloan prefers to insert several left turns before any payoff”Keep on Thinkin’” is catchy but unnaturally simple for the band. The hooks and the repetitive, giddy choruses always comeas in “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon we’re gonna get it started, The only thing that’s left to do/is cure the brokenhearted” from “C’mon C’mon (We’re Gonna Get It Started)”but you may just have to wait.
Navy Blues, in an endearing White Album way, has its awkward moments. A honky-tonker called “Chester the Molester” can’t really ever work in this world, can it? These are pop musicians flirting with hard-rock conventions, but they’re also ex-punks weaned on NoMeansNo, writing with a sweaty live performance in mind. The first single, “Money City Maniacs,” strings together numerous tight-trouser-rock clichés, even referencing the band on tour. The record sends us out gracefully with an orchestrated light-rock bookend, “I Wanna Thank You.”
Sloan cultivates a strong sense of internal democracy, much like Teenage Fanclub. Everyone writes and everyone sings, even drummer Andrew Scott, so there’s no lead persona to key in on. Together, the band members navigate their way just beneath the surface of the rock lexicon, a thousand nautical miles left of center. They have mastered a pseudoclassicism that they count on to rein in their out-there songs, placing themselves securely in rock’s recycling industry. Still, over numerous listens, Navy Blues holds together unexpectedly well. It’s a deep, wide rock recordself-assured, diverse, and colorful, and never fatally kitschy. It shouldn’t be filed away, because, like the ’70s music whence it comes, it will likely come up as a reference again and again, at least until that new New Romantic wave really hits. CP
Sloan performs at the Metro Cafe Wednesday, Sept. 23.