We’re so pretty

Sloan bassist and front man Chris Murphy sounds grumpy and slightly foggy on the other end of the voice mail. “It’s 2:45. I know I’m a bit early, but I just woke up and haven’t had anything to eat yet. Oh, well. I’ll call you back at 3 and we can do this thing.”

When the phone rings at 3 p.m., he’s sounding peppier and will, by the time we hang up, be positively cheery, gushing about being in a band that almost lives two existences depending upon what side of the U.S.-Canada border it’s playing.

It seems that — after 11 years, six LPs, outliving Spin Magazine’s “Cute Band Alert” tag, countless dramas with record labels major and minor and a stint during which half the band members lived halfway across Canada from one another — Sloan’s finally in the catbird seat. Maybe the group can finally take full advantage of being rock’s favorite underdog story this time. The Toronto-via-Halifax quartet’s just re-released its latest album, Pretty Together, on RCA in the United States and abroad.

Where Sloan shines on Pretty Together is the slow songs. The songs that showcase its (gasp!) mature side. Here the band gets a chance to prove that you can be smart and clever without a hint of cloying arch-irony.

It’s the difference between writing about it and living it and writing about it. It’s what makes the mellow tunes on Pretty Together pretty great. And it’s also, one suspects, what makes the rock anthems so schizophrenic and lacking in energy.

“Pick It Up And Dial It” is chockfull of the sort of ironic arena-rock clichés Sloan manipulated so expertly on previous outings. (Example? “People, people, they say rock ’n’ roll is dead again/You tell me if it’s true,” delivered in an ace Paul Stanley vocal impersonation.) However, here it sounds a bit forced and disjointed. But, judging by live tracks copped from the Internet, even “If It Feels Good Do It,” the mildly schizo lead single, gels when there’s a crowd in front of the foursome.

Even Murphy, arguably the Sloan songwriter most prone to wordsmithery for its own sake, has synthesized his cleverness with poignancy — particularly evident on “The Other Man.” The tune is told from the perspective of the third side of a love triangle. “Dreaming of You” (a lush midtempo cut from guitarist Jay Ferguson) and “It’s in Your Eyes” from guitarist Patrick Pentland make the case for a tuning your ears toward the kinder, gentler Sloan found on Pretty Together.

“Well, my songs bring the average down in terms of rockers,” says Murphy. “Being 33, I was nervous to get too mellow, though, because then you become an ‘adult pop band.’”

When asked if this means becoming an MOR band being played on NPR, he chuckles. “I’ll play anything with an ‘R’ in it as long as ‘R’ means ‘radio.’

“The other thing is to age with some kind of grace so you’re not looking like a dork at 40 …”

From a man who routinely leads adoring hundreds of boys ’n’ girls in the band’s calling-card soccer chant of “Slooooaaann,” and indulges in lithe hitch kicks and other classic-rock moves, that’s a bold claim.

“I don’t feel ridiculous playing the music we do,” says Murphy.

“People would often say ‘I think it’s really funny that you do the ’70s rock thing.’ And we get the irony, but we like rock ’n’ roll,” he defends. “We’re not like some Spinal Tap-py rock band that doesn’t get the joke. We’ve seen the movie, we get jokes — but we still like rock music.

“AC/DC or Kiss — when they write lyrics they write ’em ‘ha-ha.’ It takes a certain humor to write ‘I’m in the bang with a gang.’ A certain sexist, misogynist humor, but self-aware nonetheless.”

Pretty Together, though decidedly mellower in many spots than Sloan’s recent rock-heavy predecessors Between the Bridges and Navy Blues, has generated a top-10 hit in Canada and given Sloan an opportunity to make further forays into the States.

“We’re in a luxurious position in Canada,” says Murphy. “We’re on TV and on radio. Other bands, from the States, that sell as many records as we do are working five jobs — but we make money in Canada.

“People in Toronto think we’re millionaires and commercial alternative radio loves us. We haven’t gone on to any other formats, so they love us. As a result, a kid listening to that would extrapolate that we’re as big as Linkin Park — not that I know who they are,” he grins over the line.

“So we have two realities: We have those kids thinking we’re a big band and they come to our shows with other big bands from Canada. The other one is we play in Nashville and someone comes to the show thinking they’re the only one who knows us. The shows in the States are cooler sometimes because of that. Because people come to the show feeling like they’ve discovered us,” he continues.

“They’re there and they wanna know if we like the Creation and the Move and are super-enthusiastic.”

This is the most pragmatic and glass-half-full spin one can put on the “huge in Canada, cult band in the United States” cliché those of us in Detroit are so familiar with. It’s also appropriate to Sloan’s maturation as a band that it has dropped any pretense of taking America by storm.

“We don’t really have any designs on conquering anyone,” says Murphy. “We’re just trying to survive and make good records. To tell you the truth, when we first started I wasn’t sure people would get it. But then we signed to Geffen and our first show in the States was an in-store in Detroit and tons of people came out and got it.

“I thought, ‘We’re going to be fucking huge!’ Jump cut to us floundering in obscurity 11 years later …”

In Sloan’s world, floundering in obscurity means being cited by the legions of new and old power-pop bands from coast to coast. It means being adored by enough fans worldwide to avoid day jobs or the unemployment line and earning another chance to strut its stuff on a major record. It means retaining enough control to release your own records on your own label in your home country. Pretty Together may have suffered from multiple release syndrome (that is, two “U.S. release dates” — one on the band’s Murderrecords, the latest on RCA), but Sloan’s ready to roll with the punches.

“All the hipsters who love us already have it,” says Murphy. “And now we have a chance to reach a wider audience too. I don’t think anyone would begrudge us a hit, but I don’t intend on packing it up if we can’t have a hit this time or next time. I mean, we make a living.

“My attitude is to always be ready, ’cause it always could be a good time to go back and make another record. I’m also prepared to work a single if I have to,” he continues.

“What the fuck else would we do with our lives at this point?”

Sloan will perform Saturday, June 1 at Phoenix Plaza Amphitheater (10 Water St., Pontiac) as part of the 89X Birthday Bash. Call 313-961-MELT for information.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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