With rock music in such of tizzy of testosterone-fueled throat straining, it's easy to see why Canadian alternative rockers Sloan are sometimes dismissed as retro-pop. Their sound is big -- pushed over the top by the sort of sonic confidence that characterized McCartney's Wings or even later-era Who in their '70s album-rock heyday. With each of their six albums, Sloan has made a strong case for their place in the '90s music-history books with strong songcraft, broad textures and ambitiously conceptual experimentations. Just don't call them nostalgic.
"I read one review recently," says Jay Ferguson, the band's guitarist and vocalist, "And it said something like: 'Sloan, y'know the melodies are really good, and I like two or three songs, but it sounds like an old record. ... so I hate it.'"
Which makes for an interesting point, really. If a band chooses to cast its material through production values last seen in an era long gone by, do the songs, themselves, fall out of the present and into some tributary context?
"Between the Bridges," Sloan's fifth and most satisfying studio release (it was preceded by the double-disc, live retrospective "4 Nights at the Palais Royale" last year), does indeed conjure the FM impulse of yore with the guitar punch and winding vocal sincerity of a breezy convertible. But the record goes one better, innovating within the tested rock frames, utilizing complex vocal harmonies and chord structures. The cuts on "Between the Bridges" -- although extremely current in substance -- seem quite comfortable in the punchy hiss of retro-rock dressing. It's as if this is how it was meant to be.
"There are some who say that in order for music to be really forward looking, it has to be difficult or obscure -- like Tortoise," says Ferguson. "I think, in a way, a lot of modern R&B -- just the production on things like Destiny's Child and the Brandy and Monica single ... I think that music is so inventive."
Sloan, then, chose to walk that fine line between musical invention and pop accessibility -- always with one eye on the future, the other on the past within the present -- something they have done so since they formed in Nova Scotia eight years ago. And although their musical output said otherwise, the band was largely considered power-pop. But that was more for their label associations at Geffen (Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Nirvana) than from anyone having ever heard their records. Ferguson, along with Chris Murphy (bass, vocals), Patrick Pentland (guitars, vocals) and Andrew Scott (drums, vocals), formed Sloan with more of a guitar-based pop thing in mind, a la Ride. In 1992, the band's American debut, "Smeared," was released on Geffen to critical praise and minor, college-chart success. The follow-up, "Twice Removed," continued Sloan's travels down the quirky pop path but ultimately failed to reach a large American audience.
"Being attached to Geffen, you're attached to so much of their roster of that period," explains Ferguson. "It's not like we were palling around with them, hanging out at Geffen parties."
By the time of their third U.S. release, Geffen had lost interest in the band and most of the staff that had supported them had moved away. Sloan, forced from the label in the Universal merger, was sent packing to reconsider their musical purpose.
"It was just frustrating," Ferguson says. "So we kind of broke up."
It ended up being more of a hiatus though, as the band resurfaced two years later on its own label, Murder Records, with the full-length "One Chord to Another." Even with independent distribution, the record did extremely well in Canada and won praises the world over. It was as if autonomy had brought with it a new direction for Sloan.
"It made us realize that, y'know what, here's where we do well in America. We do well on the East Coast," explains Ferguson. "America, to me is four different countries. You can completely be huge in one area, and be unknown everywhere else. I think it really made us think: How should we do this properly?"
And with the radio climate being so inhospitable to new (or old) styles of music right now, the grass-roots approach seems to be most appropriate for Sloan's musical dynamism. Not that a little radio success would disappoint anybody, though.
"If this was our first album, I might feel differently," says Ferguson. "But if we were to have a hit radio single right now, I wouldn't mind -- because it doesn't really change anything."