Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Artist of the Day: The Weakerthans

Some bands just seem to unfairly slip under the radar, and Winnipeg rock band The Weakerthans embody that. Not only are they Canadian, which ensures that any chance of exposure was fairly negligible, but oddly they toured so relentlessly in their prime that even in smaller cities it was hard to get particularly excited about their concert announcements. In fact, in their hometown they're well known for often playing free concerts in libraries. Perhaps most unfortunately, their style from a musical perspective is very easily dismissible. The indie side project of Propagandhi bassist John K. Samson is too simply described by comparing them to who they sound like; I've heard both "Pinkerton meets Transatlanticism" and "landlocked Decemberists" before. However, to judge The Weakerthans based only on these qualities is to miss out on one of the most talented lyricists in the indie-rock canon, and at least two extraordinary albums.

Samson, or John K as he's known among fans, livens up the band's generally by-the-books guitar rock with detailed and carefully selected lyrics that communicate imagery, emotions, and metaphors. The two best examples of this are two interconnected songs: "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute", and "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure". The first comes from 2003's Reconstruction Site, probably their best album. In an album filled with loneliness, "Plea" finds the sweet spot between upbeat and crushingly depressing. Describing the life of an aimless person who only "drinks and watch TV" from the point of view of a cat frustrated with how he sleeps all day and never eats. The perspective never feels tacky or cutesy, focusing less on Virtute as a cat and more on him as a fly-on-the-wall to someone cripplingly isolating himself. The guitar riffs are very early-Weezer, but come very naturally and compliment the deceivingly heavy subject but still feline-based subject matter. The song has become a fan favourite, and singer-songwriter Frank Turner, a noted fan of the band, has a Virtute tattoo and often plays the song in-concert.

Four years later, on Reunion Tour, Samson broke a few hearts with the sequel. "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” is a low-key, acoustic track about Virtute running away, framed as her finding a more exciting place to live: a construction site (maybe an homage to the old album title). Samson's lyrics have never been more effective; while “Plea” focused on hiding a dark underbelly beneath bouncing percussion and appropriately feeble cat jokes, “Departure” doesn't pull any punches. “I can't remember the sound that you found for me” ends the song, the sound being “Virtute”, which she hasn't heard since her owner ran down the street yelling it. The song is effective and tear-jerking, while not exploiting emotions or abusing melodramatic cliches. Samson's lyrics are poetry with a backdrop of indie-rock, and for that reason six years after their last album The Weakerthans are still highly regarded in Canadian and increasingly international circles.

While all of their albums are absolutely worth listening to, Reconstruction Site is easy to get lost in. Speaking as someone who ignored the band for ages and put off listening to them for even longer, The Weakerthans and John Samson especially combine intelligent poetry, intellectual subject matter, and a raw, relateable emotional energy to rise above the pack and carve out a special niche in the often homogenous mud of Canadian indie-folk.

No comments:

Post a Comment