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Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site
Posted: December 31,
Kevin Forest Moreau
On Reconstruction Site, the third full-length album from
Winnipeg's The Weakerthans, John K. Samson finally distills the different
elements of his songwriting voice into a cohesive and compelling
signature. This won't mean much to 99.9% of the people reading this: The
Weakerthans, like Samson's previous band, Propagandhi, aren't very well
known, even among the indie-rock cognoscenti to whom their albums are best
suited. But after the shaky, spiky quasi-punk of 1998's Fallow and
the intelligent reflections of 2000's Left and Leaving,
Reconstruction Site establishes Samson as a literate (at times, too
literate) writer with a knack for marrying top-heavy ruminations to a
complementary rock chassis.
This is best illustrated in the album's early going, particularly the
stirring opener "(Manifest)," which drives home Samson's call-to-arms via
a martial beat spiked with celebratory horns. "I want to call requests
through heating vents," he sings in a reedy yet sturdy voice that echoes
of bookish intellectualism, "and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No.'"
Although the lyrics are highly abstract in their call for some vaguely
defined action, Samson's rabble-rousing intent is clear.
As it is in the jagged "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue," the album's most
obvious flat-out rocker. The narrative device comes across as a bit
precious at first (the singer's cat enjoins him to "lick the sorrow from
your skin"), but Samson makes it work: "And listen / About those bitter
songs you sing / They're not helping anything / They won't make you
strong." The song's plea for action is underlined by Samson's bright,
clear choruses and some urgent, energetic riffing. To be sure, such
unrestrained moments of rock-guitar finesse help moments of arch, incisive
singalong braininess -- "Ask the things you shouldn't miss / Tape-hiss and
the Modern Man / The Cold War and card catalogues / To come and join us if
they can" -- go down much smoother.
"The Reasons" employs similar rock muscle, a less-strident declaration
of -- love? fealty? appreciation? -- wrapped in lines like "But you never
seem to mind / And you tell me to fuck off / When I need somebody to" and
"I know you might roll your eyes at this / But I'm so glad that you
exist." Here, too, Samson can't help flexing his penchant for metaphor:
"How whole years refuse to stay / Where we told them to / Bad dog / ...
How the past chews on your shoes / And these memories lick my ears."
Of course, Samson's love of lyrical dexterity, coupled with a reliance
on highbrow literary references, often threatens to bring a song crashing
down. "Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michael Foucault in Paris, 1961)"
-- the title alone wobbles so precariously on the precipice of pretension
and cleverness it requires a shot of Dramamine -- namedrops the author
Jacques Derrida and Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in a spirited
piece of whimsy that also includes a French-speaking penguin. The ballad
"Time's Arrow" fares better, floating on a buoyant melody and a plaintive
refrain ("Could we please turn around?"), while threatening to slide over
into full-blown, eye-rolling affectation by the lyric sheet's highfalutin'
Martin Amis quote. (Three other songs get such quotes attached, from the
likes of James Agee and Catherine Hunter, to which the songs allude.)
So it's little surprise that the band fares better on songs relatively
unburdened of such obscure, self-congratulatory cleverness, such as the
quasi-country-ish "A New Name for Everything" and the codependent acoustic
number "One Great City!" (which continues Left and Leaving's theme
of interlocked place and identity, with weary yet accepting nods to the
traffic and weather -- "A darker day is breaking through a lighter one" --
of Samson's hometown, derided with an offhand acceptance and resignation
in the chorus: "I hate Winnipeg.").
It's in these numbers, as well as the understated, elegantly melodic
"Psalm For the Elks Lodge Last Call" (an album highlight) and the brief,
haunting "(Hospital Vespers)" and "(Past Due") -- which echo "(Manifest)"'s
melody and cadence while expanding them into darker shades -- that Samson
winnows down the arty intellectualism to relatable levels. At these
moments, he allows his sharpened wit and tendency toward rumination to
work hand-in-hand, offering concise, heartfelt examinations of the
politics of place and personal relationships. Incorporating the best
moments of the band's previous two releases, Reconstruction Site
offers a clear blueprint for future efforts, built on Samson's instinctual
mingling of liberal-arts smarts, poignant sketches of perceptive
reflection, and a melodic infrastructure of pop and rock gestures.
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