Best of 2012: Let’s have more songs about roads, please
The motivation behind a solo record is different for every artist who splinters off from the confines of their established band to go it alone. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke felt there wasn’t enough jittery, spastic electronic music in the world; Edwin left I Mother Earth to make sure teenage girls had enough schmaltzy life-affirming MAPL-eligible anthems.
As far as I can tell John K. Samson hasn’t really stated publicly his own reasons for leaving his bandmates in The Weakerthans and going solo (the group hasn’t been entirely dormant in the four years since they released their last album; they recorded the resplendent Falcon Lake Incident with Jim Bryson in the interim). When he began releasing what was originally described as a “series” of 7″ EPs in 2009 they were described as sets of songs inspired by prominent roads in Manitoba (City Route 85 is Portage Avenue, one of the main roads through Winnipeg). That source of inspiration carries through to Provincial, Samson’s first solo long-player — especially the half-dozen songs that were already released on those 7″ singles. But he’s also finding more to write about in the land and people that dwell within those grids and highways.
Provincial is the very definition of a concept album, structured in a very rigidly-thematic way that actually becomes somewhat detrimental. Because the songs are so anchored in the actual, physical space of Manitoba “Highway 1 East” and “Highway 1 West” serve as the entry and exit points of the record with the songs in between tied to specific locales and regions. While it makes perfect sense on paper it also makes the sequencing a bit jarring, as some stretches of songs don’t flow well or transition smoothly from one to the next. A minor quibble, but one that could potentially take the listener out of the moment if they aren’t invested in the artist or the larger idea.
Sequencing aside the songs collected here are typical Samson: evocative, emotionally rich, and detail-oriented.
As mentioned “Highway 1 East” is the entrance music, of sorts, echoing tracks like “(Manifesto)” from Reconstruction Site in it’s brief, almost introduction-like length. Instead of the galloping drums or bursting horns it has a much quieter arrangement of muted brass and distant guitar that carry an absolutely beautiful minor key melody through a brief 84 seconds to a surprisingly abrupt end. There’s virtually no indication that the song is over until the next begins, the last note left hanging as the listener waits for another to arrive. It’s awkward and almost feels unfinished.
The remainder of the songs generally fall into two categories that will be familiar to fans of The Weakerthans: gentler finger-picked acoustic numbers and “Aside”-style rockers. Previously-released “Heart Of The Continent” is in the former category, the cadence of its guitar work very reminiscent of “One Great City,” “Psalm For The Elk’s Lodge Last Call,” or even “Left and Leaving.” “Letter In Icelandic From Ninette San” and “Stop Error” are similarly structured. “Longitudinal Centre” is a full-out rocker that features some of the gnarliest guitar tone of Samson’s career and “Highway 1 West” has crunchy power chords and HUGE, stomping drums that cannot be denied.
“The Last And” is the highlight for me, a brilliant divergence from expectation. The bulk of the re-recorded song is built from brushed drums, double-bass that’s as slow and robust as molasses, piano, cello and plucked strings (maybe even ukulele). The song sees Samson writing from the presumably-female perspective of a teacher spending some lonesome free time at school. The last lines of the song reveal she’s pining after another faculty member, maybe even the principal, that she’s apparently had an affair with. “Sometimes in the staff room I catch your eye,” he softly sighs. “But why’d it have to end? I know from how you worry at your wedding band that I’m just your little ampersand.” It’s the kind of story-song Samson is so adept at, singing about emotions that have been sung about a million times before in a wholly unique way. Using language as a metaphor or a tableau from a school lunch room fixes the story in a direct way to a real, relatable world that we have all experienced before.
That’s the genius of Samson as a songwriter: he’s primarily a gifted storyteller who also knows how to create a captivating melody. He understands that the devil is in the details and he makes sure there’s no shortage of them. At the same time, however, he’s conscientious about overburdening the listener and deftly chooses the language or imagery that provides the most impactful emotional connection.
Consider “Cruise Night” and its vivid retelling of weekends spent as a teenager cruising the main drag; it’s inspired by Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue but it’s also about Regina’s Albert Street and every other prairie town where kids fought boredom by wasting fossil fuels, only stopping to turn in the other direction or pick a soda up from the Dairy Queen. Less universal but equally vivid are songs like “Heart Of The Continent,” which describes the oppressive conditions of the more desolate and Arctic parts of the province, and “Letter In Icelandic From Ninette San,” one of two songs that centers around Manitoba’s Ninette Sanitarium. It is a now-abandoned tuberculosis hospital that is credited with doing much of the work that would eventually help end the persistent spread of TB. Samson is concerned with telling the story from the inside, chronicling the grim acceptance of eventual death and perpetual agony of a patient confined to the hospital. “In another year I’ll be buried or shivering here, coughing at the grey spittoon painted orange by the harvest moon….Go stand up straight in the place you’re longing for and don’t write to me anymore,” the protagonist insists in his last letter home.
As melodically rich as these songs are Samson’s work always proves most rewarding to those that are willing to dig deeper into the meaning of the songs. Provincial is no exception. His obsession with roads, how they both feed and siphon prairie communities and inform every step of their resident’s lives from birth to death, is poignant at a time when rural populations are dwindling and urban centers are almost uniformly proving that they’re unsure or unable to deal with the inevitable growth that comes along with those shifting demographics. It’s simultaneously timely and timeless, a collection of stories that express the universality of the human experience despite the fact that they’re intensely specific, even provincial, in nature (pardon the pun).
Perhaps more importantly: as terrific as the record is it also gives fans hope for the future. Regardless of the reasons for Samson going solo he’s proven that he’s more than capable when left to his own devices. The sonics of Provincial run parallel enough to the group’s work that, should the unfortunate day come when The Weakerthans’ disband, we can rest easy knowing that the architect of their sound will still be able to provide us a sufficient approximation in it’s wake.
3/7 Kingston, ON at The Grad Club
3/8 Ottawa, ON at Mavericks Bar
3/9 Montreal, QC at La Sala Rossa
3/18 Hamilton, ON at The Casbah
3/20 London, ON at The Aeolian Hall
3/21 Guelph, ON at E-Bar
3/22 Toronto, ON at Great Hall
3/27 Winnipeg, MB at West End Cultural Centre
3/28 Regina, SK at The Exchange
3/29 Edmonton, AB at The Royal Alberta Museum Theater
3/31 Vancouver, BC at The Biltmore
4/13 Calgary, AB at The Palomino
4/12 Kamloops, BC at Hero’s Pub
4/14 Saskatoon, SK at Amigos Cantina