Review Summary: I’m not sure that after listening to this album you’ll know exactly what it’s like to live in small town Manitoba, but if anything, this album gives us the little melancholy glimpses of everyday life that go beyond latitude and longitude.
I've never been to Manitoba. I rarely leave my hometown of Buffalo, NY, and despite many saying Buffalo might as well just be in Canada, I've really only been to Canada to visit nearby Niagara Falls before going across the border required passports. While I've never been there, I think I share the same love/hate relationship with my city of Buffalo that John K Samson does with his hometown of Winnipeg, like in the song "One Great City." I love it here, I love my hockey team (no matter how difficult that may be to do at times), but I can't help but feel like it's not going to take me anywhere. Obviously in John's case it did, and on "Provincial" he writes about the towns that got him where he is. Featured on "Provincial" are some songs written about some made up people in some places I've never been to, but anyone can relate to them regardless of their point on a map.
I think at some point everyone's felt left out like the teacher in "The Last And", angry like the student in "Master's Thesis", or stuck like the character in "Heart of The Continent". John K Samson is one of those musicians who writes lyrics that make you feel like you can refer to him by his first name. Maybe it's how his voice reminds me of how a kind old turtle would talk, or how the GTA reference in "When I Write My Master's Thesis" reminds me of the hours spent shooting blocky police officers, or how his stage presence reminds me that a famous musician can be just as awkward as me, but he just seems like an old friend. His lyrics are charming, depressing, and constantly floating in the back of your head when you're in the right mood. With this release, he proves to remain a lyrical powerhouse in the indie/folk community.
One qualm some may have about this album is that some of the songs have been released before. I was going to give this album a 4.0, but the reason I didn't is because almost all of them offer something new. Just because they've been released before doesn't make them any worse,, and I found that some of those songs are much improved. I was constantly skipping the City Route 85 version of "Grace General", finding it to be one of his weakest solo releases. The Provincial version of "Grace" proves to be much improved, it's haunting, the strings and horns are beautiful, and the backing music compliments the lyrics wonderfully. It's quite different from the acoustic version previously released, and the new instrumental arrangement adds to the song tremendously. There's also "Stop Error" which originated as a vocal only song, with John accompanied by a choir, but now changed into a plucked acoustic piece, and “Cruise Night” which was given a heavy makeover splashed with electric guitar and a driving drum track.
But then on the other side of the spectrum is "The Last And." I don't think anything about it was changed, but then again I can't think of much that should be. It's a song about one teacher's crush on another, the protagonist feeling like he's the other's "ampersand." And yes, this is an ampersand, “&”. The ampersand is our last resort when saying "and", and the teacher feels like he's just as overlooked by his crush as an ampersand is by us. I've always thought of "The Last And" to be one of John K's best releases, so maybe it's a good thing he didn't change anything about it. With its brushed drums, stand-up bass, plucked violins, light piano, and beautifully depressing lyrics, despite being the same as the "Provincial Road 222" version, I can't think any less of it. Another song I found nearly unchanged (save the title) was “www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” or “Petition” because there’s no ***ing way I’m saying that every time I refer to the song. Despite how ridiculous the title may seem, the URL takes you to a petition page John set up to induct former NHL player Reggie Leach into the Hockey Hall Of Fame alongside the lyrics to the song. The only difference in the song I could find was the small section of marching-style drums. It’s damn catchy though, and I’m constantly accidentally telling people that I, the undersigned, put forth Reggie Leach’s name into the Hockey Hall of Fame, even though they have no clue what I’m talking about. “Heart of the Continent”, a companion piece to “One Great City”, also doesn’t have too much changed, save some minor musical differences, but they’re all for the better. The main finger picked guitar line is the same, but the background instruments add to the song well. While these songs have been released by John before, the ones that have changed have been for the better, and the ones that haven’t didn’t really need to.
Now as for the new songs, they’re exactly what we expect from John K, which is by no means a bad thing. “Highway 1 East” kicks off the album with John’s vocals about a character in the middle of nowhere, backed by a horn section, in a musical arrangement that I feel would work really well backing “Bigfoot!” off of the Weakerthans’ latest studio release, Reunion Tour. “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” was the first song off of the album to be streamed, and I spent quite a bit of time blasting it through my ***ty computer speakers, dancing along to the catchy guitar rhythm. It’s a somewhat heavier song similar to the likes of some of the songs off of “Left and Leaving” or “Fallow”. The guitar part drives the song alongside the drums, pushing the fun folk punk track right into “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”. This song is just a good old stripped down folk song. It’s slow, sad, and beautiful, sandwiched between the two loudest songs on the album. The top piece of bread is “Longitudinal Centre”, quite possibly the heaviest song John’s ever released, except for his short time as the bassist in Propagandhi. It sounds angry, it’s got distorted guitars, cymbal crashes, and John’s friendly-turtle voice singing the loudest we’ve heard thus far about being stuck directly in the center of the continent. The second last song is “Highway 1 West”, whose chorus is one of the strongest parts of the album for me. I believe this song is about the character crashing his car on Highway 1 West and getting stuck in the middle of a highway in the middle of nowhere in Manitoba. I don’t know why, I just ***ing love the chorus to this song, it’s right next to “Petition” in the category of John-K-Samson-Songs-That-Constantly-Get-Stuck-In-My-Head. It’s simple; it’s loud-but-not-too-loud, and the lyrics are the kind that always end up coming back to me. The album closes on a light note with “Taps Reversed”. It’s a duet with Christine Fellows, John K Samson’s wife. A piano-only track is something that I don’t think the Weakerthans could pull off, but John and his wife execute very well. John and Christine’s voices complement each other’s’ well.
John K Samson released the album that defines his old solo work consisting of almost exclusively acoustic guitar mixed with a splash of Reunion Tour-esque Weakerthans. I’m not sure that after listening to this album you’ll know exactly what it’s like to live in small town Manitoba, but if anything, this album gives us the little melancholy glimpses of everyday life that go beyond latitude and longitude that John has become an expert at crafting.