Artist: The Weakerthans
Album: Reconstruction Site
Producer: Ian Blurton
Release Date: September 26, 2003
The Weakerthans are:
John K. Samson: Vocals, guitars
Stephen Carroll: Guitars, vocals, lap steel, pedal steel, keyboards, piano
John P. Sutton: Bass, vocals
Jason Tait: Drums, percussion, vibes, glockenspiel, keyboards
Let me first begin by stating that I may have should've put this review under the pop-punk genre, after all this album IS released on Epitaph home of acts like NOFX and Rancid and, the group's previous effort, Left & Leaving, was full of poppy melodies and sugary three-chord hooks infused with whimsful, emotional poetry. However, despite this the Weakerthans bear many traits that would certainly land them in Alt/Indie and in this case Reconstruction Site illustrates many of these: the cover and illustrations are done by Marcel Dzama, who is renowned among the alt/indie music industry (his latest work is Beck's Guero), the liner notes feature passages from several cerebral-minded pieces of literature, and the album features a heavy alt-country influence akin to groups like Uncle Tupelo.
Anyways, The Weakerthans, borrowing its name from a line of a dialogue from a film adaptation of Marguerite Duras' The Lover ("Go ahead, I'm weaker than you can possibly imagine."), is generally the brainchild of John K. Samson, better known in punk circles as the former bassist for political-thrash/punk powerhouse Propagandhi (a band which seems to be stalling quite leisurely on their upcoming release). The Weakerthans arose after Samson took an indefinite leave from Propagandhi to start a publsishing company as a means to indulge in his passion for literature. However the power of music was constantly nagging him back to the stage/recording studio and thus the Weakerthans were formed out of his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada sometime around 1997. Musically, the band is a major departure from Samson's former band. Where Propagandhi's sound is best described as intense and vicious punk infused with politically-militant and uncompromising lyrics, the Weakerthans are a much softer more introspective group that willfully indulges in poppy hooks, simple pop-punk chords and a more eclectic menagerie of sound that features acoustic guitar, piano, lap steel, glockspiel and many others. At the center is Samson’s poignant lyrics which still feature some political undertones, but with a more personal and introspective position. His style is very poetic and bittersweet without sounding melodramatic and forced. Though this sound formed early on in their previous releases Left and Leaving and Fallow, Reconstruction Site finds The Weakerthans in full bloom with a set of 14 brilliantly written and produced songs.
The album kicks off with "(Manifest)", a short minute and a half song featuring a barrage of ringing guitars over a rollicking perpetual drumroll as Samson treats the listener with some great lyrics and the first line in particular is great: "I want to call requests through heating-vents/and hear them answer with a subtle whipser, 'No. -- The break gives way to a simple but powerful trumpet melody."This song along with "(Hospital Vespers)" and "(Past-Due)" are part of a continuing reprise that threads the album in a very interesting manner. The next track is the main single (Which I'm assuming because on occasion I'll hear it on the radio) "The Reasons", a heavy pop-punk influenced rocker, that opens with a great guitar hook and features a very heavy and catchy chorus, accentuated with some great lead guitar licks that has a strong Pinkerton sound.
"Plea from a Cat Named Virtute" meanwhile is quite possibly the lyrical standpoint of the album as it gives a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective of Samson's own loneliness by taking the perspective of his cat. Despite the depressing manner of the song, the point of view taken gives it a very optimistic and positive view and when coupled with the intense distorted blasts of guitar in the chorus and the relentless palm-muted strumming in the verses, this is simply a great song. Samson cleverly states, "We'll pass around the easy lie of absolutely no regrets/ and maybe you could try to let your losses dangle off the sharp edge of a century/ and talk about the weather/ or how the weather used to be." A short break in the bridge which features some great reverberated piano gives way to a manic, feedback-drenched guitar solo that ends a great pop-punk song.
Though the album in the first half features these songs and some mellower moments like "Time's Arrow" and "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call", the second half of the album really takes off, beginning with the backwards-delay indulgence of "(Hospital Vespers)" and cuts right into "Uncorrected Proofs" a simple pop-punk rocker full of more poignant lyrics, catchy hooks and some great guitar leads especially in the bridge and outro. From this point on, the heavy alt-country influence of the album really begins to poke through as "A New Name for Everything" illustrates with the smoky lonesome bar atmosphere created by the tearful lap-steel melodies and relaxed shuffle rhythms. "Benediction" meanwhile features some more great lap-steel leads and some lightly distorted guitar strumming. The lyrics are also great, my personal favorite is the second verse:
"All the actors broke their legs, and its too late to postpone
The producer's getting high, and the audience went home
Smile and take your awkward bow. Turn and stumble off the stage
Let the rain be your applause, every encore soothe your rage."
This then leads into a distorted lap-steel solo that is simply orgasmic. The vocals meanwhile are nothing short of spectacular given their simplicity and catchyness, and the fact that it's a duet with Sarah Harmer.
"One Great City!" meanwhile is a nice mellow quiet song about Samson's love-hate relationship with his hometown of Winnipeg. Featuring only Samson's whimsful vocals and a bouncy folk/country-influenced acoustic guitar melody this song has a very personal feel to it. A great relaxing listen. Meanwhile "The Prescience of Dawn" is another Pinkerton-influence number featuring droning guitars, feedback, crashing cymbals and sudden shifts in dynamics from loud to soft. The closer "(Past-Due)" is a simple reprise of the intro with a some ringing vibes, reverberated Beck-like percussion, and a droning static synth line. A very poignant and appropriate opener.
However the album isn’t entirely perfect. The title track kind of sounds like a half-assed Bare Naked Ladies song while "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue" can arguably be a love-it or hate-it type of song. As well, Samson's voice can be a little grating after awhile and sometimes you may find yourself begging at him to lighten up a little bit (though he really isn't all that dark and gloomy as much as he is just merely introspective.)
Nonetheless this is just simply a great album: short, ridiculously catchy, heavy and loud in some parts, quiet and mellow in others, the lyrics are very intelligent and lovable and it features a very eclectic and varied sound that indulges heavily in folk and country. As well, this album has a distinct "Canadian" feel to it, that you can find in other acts like Hayden, the Tragically Hip and Sam Roberts. Being a Canadian this may be a little hard to explain for non-Canadians, but quite simply put it has a very rural, traditional, "Northern" sound to it: it sounds like the soundtrack to camping in Algonquin in the fall, heading up to the cottage in Muskoka in the winter, or hanging out on a dock on a summer night in the middle of nowhere. This is an album that grows on you and is a very fine piece of music as a whole for its consistency, while its catchiness can find one hitting the repeat button over and over again. With The Weakerthans and John K. Samson, the city of Winnipeg must be proud. Now only if Propagandhi will get around to releasing that new album of theirs.
Final Rating: 4/5
Plea From a Cat Named Virtute
One Great City!
The Prescience of Dawn