Sloan's One Chord To Another

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Whatever the holy grail secret is for a band to attain cult status, the Canadian power-pop outfit Sloan has used it to keep going for 25 years with an unchanged lineup. Throughout this period Sloan has achieved varying degrees of success, with hockey-stadium rock anthem “Money City Maniacs” as a staple. What allures long-term and obsessive fans is the breadth of sound and genre permeating their discography: everything from power-chord-laden pop-rock from Patrick Pentland, romantic songs with jangly lead guitars from Jay Ferguson, nihilistic self-reflection from Chris Murphy, and sludgy yet suave numbers from Andrew Scott. Twenty-five years after forming, the band unfortunately still plays venues that host burgeoning indie bands, but Sloan’s gusto lies in its ability to make solid and beautiful records.

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In 1996, Sloan’s third album One Chord To Another arrived as the band’s most sharp and melodic work. That’s not to discredit 1994’s Twice Removed (a fantastic record), but the significance of One Chord To Another is still palpable in its current work 20 years later. When assessing Smeared and Twice Removed alongside their more recent foray into rich suites and booming harmonies, found in tracks such as “Fading Into Obscurity” and “Forty-Eight Portraits,” Sloan’s status as a power-pop powerhouse—as opposed to a grunge-inspired rock band—really begins to flourish.

Though analyzing a record track by track is often the best approach to dissecting it, Sloan’s selling point lies in its rotating lineup, as each individual member writes and sings their own songs. Though they have their own stylistic preferences, the genius of the band is that each member’s contribution meshes together cohesively; there’s more depth to a journey when seen through the eyes of four people instead of one dominant lead singer. This egalitarian method boasts each of their musical prowesses, even going as far as splitting their income equally so no one member is perceived as more “important” than the other.

One Chord To Another stands as a unifying album after the band’s transition from major label Geffen, to breaking up, and then reuniting to self-release (and engineer) their material. Subsequently, this album signified a rebirth of sorts for Sloan, and no one pried this theme open more than bassist and occasional drummer Chris Murphy. He’s contributed the most to the band in terms of songwriting, sometimes lending a hand to Pentland and Scott, making him the lead singer by proxy.

Notions and experiences of adolescence run rampant throughout Murphy’s songs on this album, as he discusses his innermost anxieties while effortlessly carrying it all with his signature youthful charm. In “G Turns To D,” his unwavering stubbornness and ill-thought out attack on an ex-lover who’s making a record is just one example of his venture into this world of immaturity. Fluctuating between being bitter and not caring about this is perhaps microcosmic for his thoughts on the band’s career. Murphy follows this up in “Nothing Left To Make Me Want To Stay,” elaborating by making the statement “Growing up was wall to wall excitement” and revoking it with “Growing up was pretty dull / I often at times exaggerate.” As both songs are punctuated with punchy drums and slick chords, we get a feel for this angsty young anger building up inside him, but it’s not harsh by any means. After all, Sloan had a chance at mainstream success, but the band members stuck to their guns and made the music they wanted to make, instead of continuing with Smeared’s post-Sonic Youth and Sugar sound.

As he realizes that perhaps this is the life he is destined to live, Murphy resigns to despondence with “Autobiography.” The bouncing bass line possesses some groove that somehow echoes the pain in his voice as he sings, “I stayed in school this long but still no one will tell me why / They figured who would know better than I?” Though he hones apathy reminiscent of Paul Westerberg’s lyricism in The Replacements, there’s somewhat of a silver lining as he pleads with the listener (and perhaps as a reminder to himself) “Don’t let people walk over you / Because that’s just what they’ll do.” In Murphy’s pleonastic approach to this line, he reminds just how easy it is to succumb to the wrath of those who don’t have your best interests at heart. The song is still sad nonetheless, but there’s touch of ebullience in the final chords when he sings that lyric as the chords change to C, F, G.

Rhythm guitarist and bassist Jay Ferguson once summarized his output as “fruity pop songs” in an interview with Tom Scharpling on The Low Times podcast. That might be true on the surface, but this is also coming from the miserable man who declared that he hates his generation on Sloan’s previous record. While the self-proclaimed fruity sweetness may have evolved since then, single “The Lines You Amend” marks the first instance where Ferguson started paying homage to his past as a Beatles-obsessed tween working in a Halifax record store.

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A deceivingly fresh and joyous sing-along ditty, the song actually serves as a letter to a close friend who committed suicide. Whether Ferguson was showing off his encyclopedic knowledge or shouting out the least popular Beatle (perhaps alluding to how he comprehended the band’s status in the North American indie community), he adopts a conversational tone to describe how “You’ll always come to mind whenever I hear that song / The one about photographs / Sung by Ringo Starr / Especially in the chorus part you always said / ‘Now, don’t you start!’”

In its optimism, it’s a celebration of life: Even though the person in question was suicidal, he experienced joy with them. This is portrayed in the infectiousness of the song itself—soft acoustic guitars float as Ferguson and Murphy’s voices create lush melodies. Even in the music video, Ferguson lip syncs “It doesn’t matter now / ’cause all you wanted to do was die” with a huge grin on his face.

Unofficially known as the hitmaker for Sloan, Patrick Pentland’s songs possess a catchier quality, but that’s not to say they lack any of the lyrical substance his bandmates have. “Can’t Face Up” is perhaps one of the strongest songs he’s ever written. Evoking the exuberant harmonies the band has become known for, Pentland tells of a virulent relationship he just can’t seem to shake. Tethered with a simpatico lead guitar that cuts itself with a rough edge, the song toes the line between the destructiveness of a bad relationship and the addictiveness of ignoring the red flags.

A huge success for the band, the pounding opener “The Good In Everyone” opens and closes with a crowd screaming for Sloan (and in particular, Chris Murphy). Although this could immediately be read as a self-congratulatory pat on the back, what strikes the listener most is the hopes and dreams that lie in those few seconds. Out of the four songwriters, Pentland’s songs are closest to “rock” in terms of genre, and in particular, the sort of music he writes belongs to a stadium band. As the album’s first song, it conveys his longing for this future, only to be torn down by Murphy’s pessimism later in the album. Though they are opposing viewpoints, they’re symbiotic in nature, and this duality allows Sloan’s multiple songwriters and their various perspectives to shine.

Drummer Andrew Scott’s overall contribution to Sloan’s discography might be low in quantity but the quality stands as second to none. Described as the band’s secret weapon multiple times by all members, Scott’s songs are rough diamonds (rather than diamonds in the rough). The inconsistent double vocal tracking on album closer “400 Metres” is reminiscent of George Harrison’s on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” However, he forgoes Harrison’s softness for a sardonic yelp on the line, “I know I said I had a good time / But now I’m sprawled across the finish line.” It’s messy and lacks synchronicity but it fits so well, complementing these tight, almost jangly guitars that exude a nonchalantly cool flair in line with Andrew Scott’s cryptic and brooding demeanor.

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Often focusing on self-reflection and the extremely personal in his songs, Scott vows that “I’m sortin’ out my flaws / Because I’m runnin’ last place and the look on my face says / This record’s disappearing and my system’s on the mend / But I’ll never know who wins until I make it to the end.” Though it appears to be an about-face on his support of the underdog on earlier track “A Sides Win” where he sings “I raise my glass the B-side.” He knows that no matter the quality of his band’s material, there will always be some obstacle preventing them from achieving their full potential.

This very sentiment still haunts the band’s career 20 years since its release: One Chord To Another has rightfully earned its place as a triumphant album, but it still never quite managed to break into the mainstream. After fighting many external obstacles to find its feet, the band found them with this record. After selling out a deluxe reissue this year, Sloan is currently touring the record in full to crowds of lifelong fans and those who haven’t kept up with their more recent releases. What keeps One Chord To Another relevant today and unites fans young and old is its tale of finding yourself in a world that works against you.