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Underwhelmed? Not!

[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Good news for refugees living in the megalopolises of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver because they couldn't get a job, a lover, a recording contract, or something else important in the Maritimes, Newfoundland, the Prairies, the North, or anywhere in small-town Canada they happen to be from: The tide is turning! It's finally becoming possible to make it without moving to a big city.

The preeminent exemplar of this overdue redistribution of opportunity is Sloan, a four-piece guitar-rock band from Halifax. A talent scout from Toronto's MCA Records saw Sloan's live show down east last year, loved it, and sooner than you could say "squid-jigging grounds" Sloan found itself signed to a direct contract with DGC, David Geffen's "alternative" label in California. And the boys in Sloan didn't have to move away from Halifax to do it.

All this happened pretty fast, leaving just enough time to tour across the country and release a six-song independent EP, Peppermint, both of which were mere prologue to the début album Smeared. Recorded all the way back in late 1991, it's full of the kind of soaring/gliding guitars that make you want to hum along. But you'll be too busy singing along, for Sloan are purveyors of memorably dense and charmingly logocentric lyrics. Not always, of course, but many of the words, in effect, are about words, as in the single that put the boys on the map, "Underwhelmed." This ditty is all about saying the wrong thing to your girlfriend (transpose genders if desired) and is brilliant in its ironic evocation, through wry turns of phrase, of teenage verbal klutziness:

She was underwhelmed, if that's a word. I know it's not 'cause I looked it up. It's one of the skills I learned in my school. I was overwhelmed – I'm sure of that one 'cause I learned it back in grade school when I was young.... She pulled out a story about her life. I think it included something about me. I'm not sure of that, but I'm sure of one thing: Her spelling's atrocious! She told me to read between the lines and tell her exactly what I got out of it. I told her 'affection' had two Fs – especially when you're dealing with me."

Then there's "Sugartune," allegedly a song about the breakup of a relationship (yawn) but more entertainingly interpreted as a pæan to a friend entering detox, or maybe to someone about to have an abortion. With its arching guitars and vocals (the latter synching with the former at song's end, as if in onomatopoeia), its deceptively cheery-sounding chorus, and its overt self-referential dedication to That Special Someone ("I wrote for you this Sugartune to help you through what you've got to do"), "Sugartune" harkens back to heartbreaking one-hit wonders like "Billy, Don't Be a Hero." But here we're dealing with boys who have the expansive wall-of-sound chords of their guitar heroes (Johnny Marr, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth) embedded into their very DNA. Far from being ugly, all those guitars can only come off sounding as charming and sincere as the lads who strum them.

And as further evidence that Generation X and camp are overlapping social movements, guyish, long-haired drumstick manipulator Andrew Scott is thrilled to be on the same label as Cher. "We're in her class. She sits up at the front of the class and we sit at the back of the class with all the alternative bands," he says, wringing the metaphor to death. "She sits up there with Axl and we're transfer students still getting to know everybody. I want her to dress with jeans with holes in them, a baseball hat on backwards, and a flannel shirt – Grunge Cher."

Hey, I'd buy that for a dollar. Maybe we can photograph her on horseback like on the cover of Half-Breed. Enough with the infomercials, Cher, honey. You've got a date with Sloan!