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Love tracks

Sloan's soundtrack for the heart

by Camden Joy

[Sloan] Sloan are four boys from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their third CD -- One Chord to Another (The Enclave) -- will soon arrive in your store (March 4, to be exact). No one, it appears, has yet thought ill of them -- reviewers revere them, Canada canonizes them -- but they just can't "move Stateside product." Hence you don't hear them on the radio. Hence they are not on a major label anymore.

When first you hear Sloan, you think: now that's a melody! And boy, can they sing! You're thinking the Posies, maybe the Lilys. A few more times through the CD and you've made out some impressive words. Now that's a lyric! They've got advice and stories in these songs that merit harder listenings. Things rhyme in inventive ways. Characterizations are subtly brought out. Now you're thinking Robyn Hitchcock, early Nick Lowe, maybe Squeeze.

You remember hearing that every Sloan member can play any instrument. As well, they all contribute songs and take turns singing lead. Not that they are interchangeable. Chris the bassist, for example, has more the honey-haired heart-throb voice, whereas Jay the guitarist sings more like the pensive cast-off. But heck, all these Sloan boys are such smoothies you suspect no pop vocalists have been so committed since Trip Shakespeare went wherever they went.

So by now you've listened to "One Chord to Another" maybe six straight times and the sonic detective in you stirs, noting Sloan's unapologetic borrowings -- arrangements snagged from T. Rex demos, horn charts stolen from Chicago, a harmony passage directly lifted from the Beau Brummels. In engineering this stuff, someone has made dead sure the tones and colors, the instruments and vocals, all refer to wistful yesterdays.

Why? Abruptly it hits you: they've written a concept album about you, using the songs of your childhood! How thoughtful! There's a song about that girl who had to play recitals on cue whenever her dad said, and one about that tragic thing that happened with the "Junior Panthers" (track four) and that other girl that time, and another about what happened when a girl being taught guitar suddenly figured out how to go from one chord to another by herself.

So why have these boys done such a sweet thing?

In every fifth-grade class there's always one boy who doesn't understand that girls must be beat up because they're disgusting. This is the not-very-good boy whose heart pumps recklessly when seated at lunch beside a girl, whose eyes brim with tears in gym when no girls are near, who falls in a swoon when the school play demands they exchange a brief hug. In late autumn afternoons you see this not-very-good boy balancing girls gently upon his handlebars and bicycling them to the carnival, where the ferris wheel blurs its landing lights against the sooty ambers and oranges that make up Cincinnati's sunsets. This not-very-good boy: was that you? No, that was me: Ohio, the 1970s.

Girls of yore, you oh-so-complicated youths, whereto have you fled? Small-wristed creatures lost in the madhouses of furrow-browed adults, your watchful eyes so filled even then with the worries I could never see -- whose handlebars do you ride now, my troubled ones? No more can we be found tossing ping-pong balls at the goldfish bowls, pulling up fillings on Bazooka and banana Now & Laters, feeling the fall chill in our hair as relentlessly we circled about on the merry-go-round. I remain devastated still from when last we spoke, the final day of class and your family was moving that summer, and the smell of blazing asphalt overcame me, in the volleyball courts by the woodwind shack, as we dismantled our school clarinets, shaking out the spit and weeping forever goodbyes. Coquette! tease! arbitrager! If I had been a very good boy, I would have known you were disgusting and beat you up. But never have I made a very good boy.

Now I get locked in buildings, and made to type numerals in straight columns. But incessantly I kick across the toys that take me back to you. Are you still awake, Shaleese, or Celice, or Shelly, or whatever the hell your damned glorious name -- are you there listening to this new Sloan CD as I imagine? Yes? Ah, to be sure -- if we had known of Sloan when we were young, perhaps we would have simply put them in our mouths, for they seem to have a candy center. But now, dear, it's grown too late for such pleasures. Sloan understand that; and frankly they're more concerned with what happened to girls like you and to us not-very-good boys.

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