Thursday, July 23, 2020

20 years of the Weakerthans' Left and Leaving

When people talk about Canadian rock music in the early 2000s, they talk about Montreal, where Arcade Fire and others turned international eyes and ears toward Canada en masse. Sometimes they talk about Toronto, with its various Broken Social Scene satellites and a lot more. They might even talk about Vancouver, where in 2000 the New Pornographers unknowingly launched the idea that the pseudo-socialist country in North America was full of indie rock “collectives” containing multiple songwriters and singers.

But the record that launched one of the most creatively fertile musical periods in Canada’s history didn’t come from Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. It came from smack dab in the middle of the country, where the music industry dare not tread, where the hipsters dare not look: Winnipeg. The record is the Weakerthans' Left and Leaving.

In 2000, rock music was in the era of rap rock and fourth-generation grunge. Popular punk had become rote and largely juvenile. Garage rock was thriving, but fairly far underground. In the next two years, there would be a so-called “rock revival,” most of which was welcome escapist fantasy in a post-9/11 world. But in the final week of July 2000, a poetic punk band from Winnipeg struck different chords entirely, and released one of the greatest albums of 
the coming decade

“The Weakerthans”-- not a terribly inspiring name. It’s the Canadian insecurity complex incarnate. It’s a name chosen by a band in a Prairie province far removed from the corridors of power, in a country that plays inevitable second fiddle to the superpower to the south. It’s a band whose lyrics could, at an extremely superficial level, be heard as yet another adenoidal adolescent pining for the girl to whom he’s pushing a political pamphlet.

But rarely had the broken sounded so bold. Rarely had the weak sounded so strong. Sure, the characters who populate the Weakerthans’ 2000 album Left and Leaving are, in their own words, defeated, exiled, heartbroken, poor and lonely. In the hands of a lesser writer, they might be either obviously autobiographical, or empty abstracts: anonymous huddled masses. In the pen of singer/songwriter John K. Samson, though, those lives are rich and full, brought to life with Dostoevskian detail, their circumstances universal. That portraiture extends to the music behind him as well: rousing punk anthems with chunky guitars countered by tender ballads that made the band folk festival favourites, all coloured by unusually interesting percussive patterns that contributed colour to the sonic palette rather than simply backing rhythms.

This was not another shitty emo band. These were not mall punks on the Warped Tour. This wasn’t screaming for your attention. This wasn’t even Fugazi or Bad Religion. This was something that could only have come from Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

Winnipeg’s socialist tradition is taught in classrooms across the country, in the story of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It’s not remotely surprising that the Weakerthans took their name, in part, from a line in “Solidarity Forever”: “What force on earth is weaker than the feeble force of one?” (Though I’m entirely unclear why this would inspire anyone to name their band the Weakerthans.) Samson’s inspirations include Billy Bragg; Bragg in turn was inspired by bands like the Clash. Bragg eschewed the idea of being backed by a punk band, and opted to play solo electric guitar instead. Samson wanted to be both Bragg and Strummer; the Weakerthans are what it would sound like if Bragg was actually backed by the Clash, alternating ferocity and fragility, with political sloganeering backbenched in order to examine ennui and daily compromises.

The Weakerthans had debuted in 1997 with Fallow, which was received mostly by fans of the band Samson had just left: Propagandhi. He was the third bassist to join the core members, who formed in Portage la Prairie and played their first show at Winnipeg’s Royal Albert, but he was with the band during their international breakthrough. That happened when they befriended Fat Mike of NOFX after sharing a bill at the Royal Albert. He put out the first two Propagandhi records; the second, 1995’s Less Talk More Rock, is considered a game-changer for the 90s generation of Warped Tour kids (not that Propagandhi played Warped), its provocative radical politics an anomaly in the scene. The album featured two Samson songs, “Gifts” and “Anchorless.” The latter was mere small-town malaise next to the rest of the material, written by a band that quoted Noam Chomsky, advocated veganism, and called out the misogynist, homophobic macho culture of punk. But because Propagandhi stood out so far from their peers, Samson had a lot of clout in punk circles. He reprised “Anchorless” on Fallow, which was released on Propagandhi’s then-new label, G7 Welcoming Committee. For much of the Weakerthans’ career in the U.S., Samson was forever referred to as the “ex-bass player in Propagandhi.” But much of Fallow--particularly the devastatingly beautiful ballad “None of the Above,” featuring a decidedly non-punk pedal steel guitar--proved that Samson was on a much different path. 

Left and Leaving came out July 25, 2000. The Weakerthans were on the cover of Exclaim magazine, a free national music monthly in Canada, but few other outlets were paying close attention, other than CBC’s nascent and niche Radio 3 service (to this day, host Grant Lawrence cites the Weakerthans as his favourite Canadian band ever). Within a year, however, mainstream artists like Gord Downie and Sarah Harmer were champions. A young Ontario band called the Constantines was taking careful notes as they prepared to record their debut album. The Weakerthans toured Canada with the non-punk likes of 90s vets Rheostatics and Lowest of the Low. The album landed on the radar of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe and was nominated for a Juno award. It was no longer the cherished secret of punks, poets, and people likely to buy anarchist books--people like Samson himself, who co-ran Arbeiter Ring Publishing. And it spread through word of mouth: this was an independent band raised on DIY methods and ethics, and existed outside corporate culture. If you heard the Weakerthans on the CBC or campus/community radio and wanted to buy Left and Leaving, you had to find a physical copy (or, uh, find it on Napster, which was just gaining steam). Once you found it, you cherished it for the rest of your life. 

Hyperbole alert, but hear me out: The first three songs on Left and Leaving are perhaps the greatest opening salvo in Canadian guitar rock music. 

“Everything Must Go” begins with a minor-key fanfare of sorts on electric guitar, four bars that give way to unaccompanied bass chords that underpin Samson’s voice singing about a garage sale to “pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” eventually offering a “complicated dream of dignity” in return. Jason Tait enters with a syncopated boom-bap beat on the brushes, with a sprinkling of sizzle cymbals, and later plays a vibraphone solo. The chorus boasts a soaring melody, in which Samson sings of a place "where awkward belongs," and how “recovery comes to the broken ones.” After it ends with a shower of cymbals and Tait’s snare run through distortion, it gives way to a four-count on an open hi-hat announcing the punk flurry of “Aside,” with its fire-alarm guitar riff. That song’s bristling musical confidence contrasts with lyrics about agoraphobia and “leaning on a broken fence / between past and present tense” (a line Gord Downie quoted on stage during the Tragically Hip's induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame). 

Both “Aside” and the third track, “Watermark,” feature Stephen Carroll’s nimble guitar work, injecting countermelodies and flourishes when not doubling up Samson’s rhythm guitar and John P. Sutton’s bass for extra chunk. Throughout, Ian Blurton’s production gives the guitars the glory they deserve, with clarity that never sacrifices the sense of volume. The entire record rings with the immediacy of a live performance, but with the attention to minute detail required of any great recording, like the way the bell of Tait’s ride cymbal is amplified anticipating the bridge in “Aside” before shifting to a triangle playing eighth-notes at a key moment of transition. (Hot tip, guitar bands: hire Ian Blurton to produce your record. He's available.)

Great band, great songs, great production: that describes a lot of beloved records. But the left turns in Left and Leaving always surprise. The whirly tube (corrugated plastic toy) solo in “Elegy for Elsabet.” The malletted toms accompanying beat poetry on “Without Mythologies.” The barroom piano and weeping violin on “Slips and Tangles.” The line about the mayor “killing kids” in the beautiful acoustic “My Favourite Chords,” which also features a musical saw. All these are interspersed with punk songs not particularly far removed from Propagandhi’s musical template, albeit at slightly less frenetic tempos. Each member of the band sees Samson’s lyrics and melodies as a black and white picture with which to imbue colour, no matter the tempo or style. 

No one outside Winnipeg would have considered the Weakerthans a so-called “supergroup” like the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene, but their collective pedigree in their community went beyond the obvious Propagandhi connection: Tait’s skate-punk band Red Fisher was a popular Prairie favourite, and featured John Sutton in its later years, while Tait also played with Stephen Carroll’s Painted Thin, a band that once released a split CD with Samson’s first solo recordings. That these four men ended up pooling their strengths in Winnipeg’s greatest band at the time--in a fertile scene that also spawned Greg MacPherson, the Bonaduces, Sixty Stories, Novillero and more--seemed inevitable. 

Though there are no duds in their discography, the Weakerthans never sounded better than they did on Left and Leaving. The album’s lyrical tone anticipates the band’s trajectory: many of the songs are about a complicated relationship with one’s hometown; “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” presages Samson’s 2003 song “One Great City,” an equally empathetic and scathing municipal anti-anthem. (The Winnipeg Free Press this year named “One Great City” the best song ever written by Manitobans, tied with the Guess Who’s “American Woman.”) Left and Leaving documents a transitory time in one’s mid-20s when friends are leaving: to other towns, to other lives. 

The title track in particular, the album’s centrepiece, set to a descending chord pattern and a percussive brush pattern with a triplet skip at the end of each bar, registers deeply with any Canadian who doesn’t live in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. “My city’s still breathing, it’s true / through buildings gone missing like teeth,” sings Samson; writer Sheldon Birnie would later borrow the phrase Missing Like Teeth to title his book about 90s Winnipeg music. Samson, the eternal Winnipegger, is deeply committed to being a regional writer of universal truths, and there’s no better example than “Left and Leaving.” 

Shortly after the album came out, Tait and Sutton moved to Toronto; Sutton left the band after 2003’s Reconstruction Site, and was replaced by Torontonian Greg Smith. Auxiliary players from Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa floated in and out of the band. (Who's left and who's leaving?) Samson’s writing became more adult, less understood to be autobiographical, more of a short story writer, always with an abundance of empathy. His writing changed and evolved, but it didn’t get better--because it didn’t have to. He was fully formed at 27 years old, with an album that perhaps he could only have written at that age. The same age Joni Mitchell was when she wrote Blue.

Listening to Left and Leaving now, it’s not remotely dated. It’s a timeless rock record, musically and in its production. There are lyrical elements that speak particularly to the melancholy of youth, but are hardly exclusive to that time in one’s life. In “Fire Door,” Samson sings about one emotionally stunted character’s “forty years of failing to describe a feeling.”

Twenty years after Left and Leaving, the strength of the band called the Weakerthans’ is that they never failed at anything, least of all the ability to describe a feeling.

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