Skip to main content

Rock Bottom: Sloan

Every musician hits a bum note once in awhile. Sometimes they hit a whole album full of them. Those unlovable efforts are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with. Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the All Music Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon (for the fan perspective). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll declare the worst. I may not agree with the choice, in which case I'll offer an alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) compilations (greatest hits, b-sides, remixes),  2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into different genres (i.e. classical).

* * *

In the last couple of decades it's become a record geek cliché to claim that an artist's first album is their best, so much so that it serves as a cheat for those who are underinformed but don't want let on. For example, you could have basically zero knowledge of 1990s punk outfit Braid's recorded output, but still state, "They made a better record than their first" and sound like you know what you're talking about.

This has not always been the case. From the 1960s through to the 1980s it was all but expected that an artist would take at least a couple of albums to find their footing. Think of any major act from those decades and you'll find very few instances where their first album is considered their best. I believe this was a result record companies investing in artists over the long term. There was an expectation that musicians would grow into stardom.

That model fell away in the 1990s, and the pressure on artists rose significantly. Musicians on major labels are now generally expected to hit a home run on the first at bat. This is a big factor in the first album cliché. So is a general hipster sense of everything older being better.

Well, Sloan are decidedly old school, influenced by 1960s garage bands, the British Invasion, and 1970s glam and power pop. So it makes sense that they'd buck the trend and have their first album, Smeared, generally considered to be their worst.

All Music Guide's Steven Thomas Erlewine gave the album three stars, calling it "a bit of a mess" because of its uneasy combination of the band's two influences at the time, the old-school ones listed above and the more de rigeur genres of shoegaze and noise rock. Amazon reviews sit at a three-and-a-half average, with "Derek V" echoing Erlewine's feelings. He wrote ,"Their original sound is all but lost under heavy overproduction that turned their song into something geared towards the popularity of early 90s Grunge." Production aside, some felt the songwriting just wasn't quite developed yet. "Mike Stone"'s generally positive review admits, "the latter half of the album is filler."

Surprisingly, I agree with all of this, though "Derek V"'s assertion of "overproduction" is a misnomer. Smeared came out on Geffen in 1992, a direct result of the post-Nirvana frenzy to sign "alternative" bands. Sloan had recorded the album in a living room in Halifax with their own money, and Geffen released it as is. It isn't as thought the band went into an expensive studio with a big name producer to make themselves sound current. The sound is DIY.

That said, the straightforward, simpler songs have stood the test of time. Opener "Underwhelmed" is still a crowd singalong to this day. "500 Up" and "Sugartune" also stand out. Thankfully they served as a blueprint for the Sloan we came to know and love.

One person who doesn't agree is the band's guitarist, Jay Ferguson. In a 2015 Noisey article in which he ranked the band's albums, Jay placed Smeared at 8 out of 11, ranking only Parallel Play (2009), Pretty Together (2001), and Action Pact (2003) lower. He said, "I still love Smeared...there are certain songs that I'm not crazy about, but it's probably the most current, of-the-time record we've ever made."

He's pretty much alone in his opinion, though. The closest competitor to Smeared in terms of the numbers was 2011's The Double Cross, which scored a full star higher. The fact that that record was second-to-last, I definitely don't agree with, but we'll get to that in Sloan's Rock Solid.


Popular posts from this blog

12 by Weezer

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... I decided to take an unconventional route for this 12 by, and pretend Weezer have already released a "greatest hits." Here's what I think that would look like:  1) "Buddy Holly", 2) "Undone - the Sweater Song", 3) "My Name Is Jonas", 4) "The Good Life", 5) "El Scorcho", 6) "Hash Pipe", 7) "Island in the Sun", 8) "Dope Nose", 9) "Keep Fishin'", 10) "Beverly Hills", 11) "We Are All On Drugs", 12) "Pork and Beans".  Here's a different take: 1. " Say It Ain't So"  (from Weezer , 1994)  A little bit heavy, a little bit catchy, quiet-loud dynamics. So basically, it's Pixies lite. The song is interesting lyrically because it's basically nonsense until the "Dear daddy..." bridge, which lets out a t

12 by Jenny Lewis

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... Completely separate from Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis has put together an impressive oeuvre that is very difficult to winnow down to just 12 songs (if you include her work with Rilo Kiley, fuhgeddaboudit). But I've made what I feel is a valiant attempt. Because I admire Jenny's lyrics so much, I'm going to limit my commentary to a favorite couplet from the song. (If you have Amazon Music Unlimited, you can listen along here .) 1. "Rise Up With Fists!!!" (from Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "But you can wake up younger, under the knife / And you can wake up sounder, if you get analyzed." 2. "Melt Your Heart" (from  Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "It's like a valentine from your mother / It's bound to melt your heart." 3. "Born Secular" (from Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "God works in mysterious ways / And God give

12 by Vicious Vicious

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... If you need a reference point for the work of Vicious Vicious mastermind Erik Appelwick, the most appropriate would be Beck. Like Mr. Hansen, Minnesota-based Appelwick has the ability to navigate between making you laugh and making you cry and making you want to dance, and embraces genres from country to R& B to folk to pop.  I've included songs from the two albums Appelwick did under the name Tropical Depression, because honestly there's not a lot of difference between that and Vicious Vicious.  I very literally  wrote the book  on Appelwick, so please feel confident you are hearing from an authority here.  If you have Amazon Music Unlimited, you can listen to an alternate version of list here  (sadly, not all of VV's music is on the service). 1. "Shake That Ass on the Dance Floor" (from Blood + Clover , 2003) A loungy, laconic come-on