Left and Leaving
REVIEW: Weakerthans: Left and Leaving
Weakerthans: Left and Leaving (G7 Welcoming Committee, 2001)
Since Crankenstein keeps making cracks about Emo bands and everyone's misplaced adoration for them, I thought I'd do him a favour and give him an authentically "emo" target. So here it is.
The Weakerthans are not only one of Canada's best emo acts, they're also one of Canada's best indie acts. Spawned by a former member of politi-punk band Propagandhi, they have gained a reputation both here and abroad for their insightful lyrics and crunching guitar riffs. Inhabiting the hazy reason between punk, rock and folk, this album is a melodic, introspective journey that's great for both those afternoons where you need something loud, and those cool lonely evenings at home.
First off, for the uninitiated, I had better give my own definition of that dumb-but-ubiquitous genre known as 'emo'. The term does indeed function as an abbreviated version of 'emotional', and it is frankly an absolutely moronic name for a style, presumably thought up by some drunken punk who wanted to pigeonhole all those lame "emotional" punk bands.
Unfortunately, the brand of "emotional" (aka "sappy") doesn't really cut it. Not all emo is written by sensitive guys, nor does all of it reside in the domain of the heart-swelling climax or gut-wrenching truisms. For the most part, emo seems to simply be a slightly slowed-down version of punk, with more complex vocal harmonies, a softer, rock influence, and a propensity, yes, for folksier lyrics. It's a clumsy term, often applied to any band that both rocks out and sings of the shy teenaged experience. I've heard it applied to everyone from Yo La Tengo to Blink 182. The former is good, the latter is not.
Left and Leaving, released in 2000, is an engaging ride into a realm of extremes. At the one pole are acoustic guitar ballads in the vein of Bob Mould, at the other is almost Weezer-esque pop-punk. The lyrics are tight (although vocalist John Samson sings that he relies "a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony") and deft, at times simple songs of confusion or departure ("Aside"), at times quietly meaningful takes on social issues. The foremost of these, "Exiles Among You," looks at the issue of the homeless without being heavy-handed, and insightful mental images ("But she sits down on the sidewalk/And bites her bottom lip/And spends the afternoon willing traffic lights to change") reward the careful listener. Each of these styles are incorporated into both the louder and softer songs, giving an unpredictable variety to the tracks.
Samson's angular, sarcastic delivery is at first distracting, but after a few songs one grows accustomed to it, finding warmth in the nooks and crannies of its idiosyncracy. The band excels as a unit, drums and guitars varying in timbre and energy, never lagging in the slower songs, and easily rising into the domains of rawk when called for.
Given the album's consistency, its highlights arise when particular lyrical strains appeal.
From "Pamphleteer": "I don't know what I should do/With my hands when I talk to you/You don't know where you should look/So you look at my hands."
This kind of easy approach to songwriting recalls Elvis Costello, and makes the album a comfortable listen, not relying on your ability (or lack thereof) to translate poetry into meaning. The melodic guitar riffs are entertaining on their own, and the band has a great propensity for finding delicious chord progressions. This is exemplified in "My Favorite Chords", where, you guessed, it, Samson sings a ditty over his favourite strums on an acoustic guitar. "These are my favourite chords/I know you like them too/When I get a new guitar/You could have this one./And sing me a lullaby/Sing me the alphabet/Sing me a story I haven't heard yet."
The album only falls down on the last track, "Slips and Tangles", where the Weakerthans try to tackle a sad, country-tinged song. Accompanied by a weak violin, the drums shuffle along, and Samson's lyrics feel simplistic oustide of their accustomed pop setting. A piano tinkles listlessly, and it simply sounds for a moment like these guys are trying a bit too hard. Rather than injecting their music with other influences, they're squeezing their sound into another container, and it doesn't work. (In stark contrast, rumour has it that Coldplay and At The Drive In are collaborating on a country album. Given the quality of the country number that Coldplay banged out Monday night, that project looks to be quite exciting.... Or did At The Drive In just break up? Erghhh...)
On the whole, however, Left and Leaving is a triumph and a joy, and it will appeal to both emo-kids and singer-songwriter junkies.
YLTIYL: Jimmy Eat World, The Odds, Twice Removed-era Sloan, Arco, Starlight Mints, American Football, Get Up Kids, Jets to Brazil, Captain Jazz, Sunny Day Real Estate, Our Lady Peace (cough).