When Sloan opens for Jet on Sunday night, those who have never heard the band before will think it's part of the garage blues bandwagon. Action Pact (Koch), Sloan's new album, is certainly in that vein, but "Murder City Maniacs" and much of 1998's Navy Blues combined riff consciousness and pop hooks before Jet had even formed. Then again, Sloan's low-fi production of 1996's One Chord to Another predated indie pop in 1996, and in 1992, when the Canadian quartet (now living in Toronto) signed to Geffen Records during the frenzied quest for the next Nirvana, they were already making pop songs with dynamics.
"It was totally exciting," singer and guitarist Jay Ferguson recalls. "We're from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and nobody had ever heard of us before, and all of a sudden we're being courted by Geffen Records. We loved Nirvana, we loved Sonic Youth; it was the ultimate major label to be on at that time. It was like a dream."
The first album, Smeared, had the anthemic "I Am the Cancer" and the clever "Underwhelmed." Sadly, the latter title also summed up Geffen's attitude toward Twice Removed, the follow-up. For all of the album's wit and intelligence, it lacked Smeared's noise. "I don't think they could really see the logical continuation in order to market the second album," he says. In fact, the label asked them to redo the record, an option they passed on. "At that point it was getting frustrating. We put it out as is and they really didn't promote it at all, but we kind of knew that was going to happen." Then Sloan broke up.
"We didn't know if this was really what we wanted to do for the rest of out lives," Ferguson says. After all, a lot had happened in a very short time. They were 22 or so when they signed and around 25 when they broke up, and though that sounds young, Ferguson puts it in perspective of the Smiths. "I'm a big Smiths fan, and the band was over by the time Johnny Marr was 24," he says. "They started making records when he was 19. That blows my mind." After a year apart, the band re-formed and began recording One Chord to Another, a collection that suggests the band was never what Geffen thought it was. The grunge-lite production never resurfaced, but the consistently intelligent, British power pop did. "We offered it to Geffen out of good faith, but realized it wasn't going to get promoted, so we went with the Enclave label instead," Ferguson says.
From that album on, Sloan has been consistently writing songs with choruses that surprise and melodies that seem more natural with each listen. They may never be as big again as Jet is right now, but after their earlier experience, they've become philosophical about that level of success. "I think there's a lot of good bands out there, but it's more about timing than the music, to be honest," Ferguson says. "You have to have good records, but there's a lot of bands making great records that aren't getting noticed. It's happened to us. We really benefited from it in the early '90s. In Halifax we got out, but there were other bands we knew at the time that were getting no attention at all, and in our minds they were just as good as us or as interesting. It just happened that we were the ones that won the Wheel of Fortune, or it landed on us."
Various Artists -- Sahara Lounge, Nuevo Latino and Travel the World With Putamayo (Putamayo): Initially, the charm of these two albums and DVD of contemporary world music is how alien they seem. The combination of electronica and foreign voices and instruments seems oddly rootless because most of us don't have much access to the music's roots. After a few listens, these start to sound like the equivalent of the Now That's What I Call Music series, collecting the should-be pop hits of the day and style. Tracks based on Latin rhythms with verse/chorus structures dominate Nuevo Latino, meaning the only thing truly different about them is the language. Sahara Lounge is more ambient, with more instrumentals and a heavier reliance on regional instruments for texture and character. Much of Sahara Lounge is surprisingly attractive, particularly on "Hanina" by Egyptian Mohammed Mournir with German DJ Jasmon. The DVD compilation of Putamayo videos is, well, a compilation of videos, and they're not significantly more imaginative than American videos. "Nari Nari," set in front of the Taj Mahal, is so over the top in its embrace of the Indian movie musical tradition, it's almost worth the price of the disk, and Gotan Project's "Santa Maria (Del Buen Ayre)" is a beautifully geometric video, as tangoing couples seem to embody love, hate and every emotion in between.
- Jay Ferguson (left) and Canadian power pop band Sloan are making their first appearance in New Orleans Sunday.