My L.A. Takeaway
In the spring of 1997 I visited California for a rock filled vacation with my brother. We were ostensibly going to visit our roommate Cole who was recording an album in Los Angeles with his band Sweet Water. The trip started with a stop in San Francisco where we met up with some friends and saw the Screaming Trees for my birthday. This was the first (of many) shows I saw on the Dust tour, and the first time I saw Josh Homme, who even as a touring guitarist, seemed like a bona fide rock star. The show was to be the first of two club shows in San Francisco, but the next day Lanegan was arrested for possession. But by that time we were already in LA.
Sweet Water was working on their third album, titled “Suicide” and produced by Dave Jerden. The band had recently been signed to the Enclave, Tom Zutaut’s new label. Zutaut had signed Guns N Roses and Motley Crue when he was in A&R.
When the band wasn’t in the studio we experienced all that Hollywood had to offer: taking in rock shows at The Troubadour, The Key Club, and Hard Rock Café, as well as a benefit show at the Viper Room. Adam, the singer from Sweet Water, had run into David Cross at a hardware store. And after chatting for a while Cross recommended checking out this new comedy duo called Tenacious D. Tenacious D was one of the acts at the Viper Room so we decided to go. Mike McCready was in town and came along with us. Consequently we were immediately led to the green room where Tenacious D waited. They were supposed to be going on in 30 minutes, but their set kept getting pushed, so they bided their time chatting with us.
As it turned out we weren’t the only ones there to see Tenacious D. So many people had shown up to see them that they ended up headlining the show over Beverly D’Angelo. A year later I would move to LA, and after seeing Tenacious D again, I would tell Mike about their new set and songs. Pearl Jam was going to be touring soon behind the Yield Album and he thought it’d be cool to have them open for them in LA. A few months later I would see them open for Pearl Jam at the Forum. But that’s another story.
This was obviously a great trip, with a lot of great music, but what has really stuck with me all these years is that this was also the trip that I was introduced to the band Sloan.
Sloan is a band from Canada and was also signed to the Enclave, and their CD “One Chord To Another” was sent to Sweet Water along with a bunch of other albums by Enclave artists including Fluffy and Belle and Sebastian.
What struck me about this album was the variety and the diversity. In certain ways it reminded me of two of my favorite power pop bands, Big Star and Badfinger. Like both of those bands, Sloan is comprised of four singer-songwriters, each with different tastes and very different voices which blend perfectly together.
I recall sitting around the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank listening to the record and thinking it was the coolest record I’d heard in a long time. There were power pop songs, rock songs that sounded kinda like the Stones, as well as songs I didn’t really know how to describe other than either “Indie” or “alternative”.
When Cole got back to Seattle I intended on copying the CD, if not outright stealing it from him, but somehow he hadn’t ended up with a copy. Two years would go by and I’d keep thinking about how great that album was and wishing I had a copy. But I could never find it at any of the local record stores. It wasn’t until being back in Seattle for the holidays that I managed to find a used copy. There wasn’t a price on it and the owner had no idea who they were or how the CD got into his store. He questioningly asked if $3.50 sounded like an ok price.
Once back in LA the album was on heavy rotation. Even though I couldn’t find “One Chord to Another” their other albums were available at my local record stores and I quickly snatched up their follow up, “Navy Blues”.
Navy Blues sounded nothing like “One Chord To Another”, although it was just as eclectic. Instead of Stones influenced songs there were riff rockers similar to AC/DC as well as Queen-like piano ballads. But also in there were songs with tempo shifts and key changes. In certain respects it was a much more commercial sounding record, but at the same time it still had a lot of quirks.
The more I dug into the band the more their individual personalities became obvious. Both the Stones and AC/DC influence seemed to come from lead guitarist Patrick Pentland. The moodier, artsy-er, and almost avant garde songs, came from drummer Andrew Scott. Bassist Chris Murphy tended to write the more Power Pop songs, although his real signature is his tongue in cheek lyrics. And rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson tends to favor Beatle-esque pop.
They followed Navy Blues up with “Beyond The Bridges” which at the time was their most current release. Beyond The Bridges was a concept album, and their first record where songs flowed directly into one another. But being a concept album, there wasn’t the same quirk to it. Instead it was just a great classic rock album. Unfortunately, Sloan had already toured through LA behind this album, so I would have to wait a little longer to see them live.
With 2001’s “Pretty Together” I finally fell in sync with the band. It was their first release I was waiting for, and consequently I got to see them live at the Troubadour in LA. “Pretty Together” was their first record where all four members of the band contributed an equal number of songs, and it was also a leap artistically. There were acoustic ballads and even some jazz tinged songs.
Between their distinctive voices and the variety of genres and styles they all write in, a Sloan album is never what you expect, and as they’ve gotten older they’ve become more adventurous. Their 2006 album, “Never Hear the End Of it” was a double disc with 30 songs, most of which ran into one another, only stopping at what would be the end of each of the four record sides.
In fact, their least popular album, 2003’s “Action Pact” suffered from this lack of variety. The band had hired Tom Rothrock to produce and allowed him to choose what songs made the record. He chose the most commercial songs, leading to 5 songs apiece by Murphy and Pentland, 2 by Ferguson and no songs by Scott. The album if filled with great songs, but they all feel too similar. They’re either rock or power pop, and while a good collection of songs, one of their least interesting albums. In fact, I don’t think they even toured the states behind this album. I know I didn’t see them, and until recently had only heard one or two songs performed off this album.
But that recently changed when they played three songs off the album – one each by Murphy, Pentland and Ferguson - while supporting their latest album, 2018’s “12”. The songs were a nice addition and fit in well with the rest of the set as they were dispersed throughout the set.
Sloan is definitely an album band. Their singles alone don’t do them justice. In fact, there have been a few times where the singles were my least favorite songs on the album. But they’re a band where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I don’t know how these four ended up together and striking this balance, if balance is even the right word. They all have such different tastes and sensibilities that they all bring something unique and different to the table that makes one another’s songs better, whether it’s the part they’re playing on a song, harmonizing on vocals, or duetting as a counterpoint on one another’s songs. And while it’s obvious who the song writer may be on any given song, and that the song most closely echoes their personal sensibilities, it’s also obvious how the others contributed, added and augmented the song in the studio.