John K. Samson – Provincial

I was probably too hard on the last Weakerthans album. Reunion Tour found Winnipeg’s finest in a state of transition, gradually shifting their focus toward elegant hymns closer to Automatic for the People than the anthemic pop-punk on which the quartet had built its rep. By 2007 they sounded more convincing on the former, however, and if that’s where their passions lay, I suggested they should cut the cord already.

Being overly harsh doesn’t mean I was off base, though. Five years later, ringleader John K. Samson’s maiden solo voyage completes the transition. Provincial picks up precisely where he left off, the horn-laced funeral elegy of brief opener “Highway 1 East” sounding like a coda to the excellent “Utilities” that closed Reunion Tour. From there Samson shifts to a mournful Elliott Smith-worthy acoustic guitar paean on “Heart of the Continent,” and Provincial‘s songwriterly tone is set.

Samson can still fire up the guitar/bass/drums combo, but the infrequent loud ones now sound more like heartland rockers than emo calls to arms. He’s also added keys to the mix (check the straight ahead “Cruise Night”) and subtracted the steel guitar that often distanced the Weakerthans from the power chord pack. His gift for catharsis hasn’t abandoned him, as evidenced by the distortion pedal-heavy “Longitudinal Centre” (on which he sneaks in the wry zinger “I make a little list of sounds I found that comforted us in the past”) and the insistent one-chord barrage of “Highway 1 West.” It’s simply taking a more purposeful backseat.

What hasn’t changed is Samson’s literary bent – he’s as intent on crafting character sketches as he is melodies. He also remains resolutely Canadian, defiantly building most of these songs around regional points of interest such as an online petition to enshrine local hockey hero Reggie Leach. For the lovely closing piano ballad “Taps Reversed” Samson duets with wife Christine Fellows (another expansion of his sound) about a foreclosed house – the title referring to crossed faucets rather than the military sendoff, another example of the wordplay we’ve come to expect from him.

Samson is concurrently releasing a book of poems and lyrics spanning his career, and lines like “I know it’s annoying borrowing your brother’s car/ But mine won’t start/ And it’s Sunday” probably scan as well on the page as they sound opening a song. It’s nice to see him strike a successful balance between these pursuits.

John K. Samson