The Weakerthans

Left and Leaving
(Sub City)

It's easy to sneer at the bulk of Canada's cultural offerings -- Bryan Adams, Paul Shaffer and Loverboy come immediately to mind -- but in the mid- to late '90's, the maple leafers offered what seemed to be a harbinger of brighter things to come in the form of Propagandhi.

On its first two records, How to Clean Everything and Less Talk, More Rock, Propagandhi pushed a highly literate, politically soaked "animal-friendly, anti-fascist, gay-positive, pro-feminist" dogma on the kids. With songs like "Nailing Descartes to the Wall/(Liquid) Meat is Still Murder," ". . . And We Thought That Nation-States Were a Bad Idea" and "I Was a Pre-Teen McCarthyist," at the very least Propagandhi made an effort to educate the increasingly apathetic teenage punk-rock masses.

Sometime around 1997, Propagandhi's bassist, John K. Samson, decided to shoot his creative load in a different direction, abandoning the band's pummeling hard-core for a more pensive, sensitive mode. He assembled the appropriately named Weakerthans.

Oh, Canada: The Weakerthans -- nice guys.
Oh, Canada: The Weakerthans -- nice guys.

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There are few comparisons to be made between the two outfits, as is obvious on the Weakerthans' sophomore effort, Left and Leaving. Politics have been abandoned for emotive poetry about relationships and the like, set to folkish sounds that owe more to Johnny Cash than Minor Threat. The Weakerthans want to make it clear that they are a literate kind, in both the lyrics, which include astute gems like, "You breathe in forty years of failing to describe a feeling/I breathe out smoke against the window, trace the letters in your name," and the quotes they use to preface songs in the liners -- passages from Marx and Engels, Catherine Hunter and W.H. Auden.

The album opens promisingly with "Everything Must Go!," a subdued ballad with tinkling guitar chords that ambles along soothingly. The lyrics are endearing and intelligent, describing a "Garage sale/Saturday/I need to pay my heart's outstanding bills," where "a sense of wonder (only slightly used), a year or two to haunt you in the dark, a slave-wage forty-hour work week," are all available for a price.

From there, the record's quality dips and rises repeatedly. "Aside" could be a bad Get Up Kids song, with simplistic chord progressions and clichéd lyrics like, "Rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony/Get clobbered on by courtesy, in love with love, and lousy poetry." "Pamphleteer" (this prefaced by the Marx/Engels quote about man being compelled to face himself . . . heavy) is a touching romantic paean, using political dogma as an allegorical device, again getting slightly too cute with lines like, "How I don't know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you/How you don't know where you should look, so you look at my hands."

The problem with the mediocre songs on Left and Leaving is that they're unremittingly dull and self-indulgent; the music is unremarkable, the lyrics full of poetic pretentiousness. The problem with the pretty, touching songs is that they're immediately forgettable. There's a complete lack of bombast, which is intentional, no doubt, yet there are no hooks either, nothing that sticks with the listener.

Though it's hard to be too critical of such a nice record, one that contains nothing but admirable, literately ambitious expressions of emotion, Left and Leaving is poetic bubblegum; it seems more thought went into making the words sound intelligent than the meaning behind them. No, it's not as bad as Bryan Adams' "Run to You," but it does little to redeem Canada's reputation as an artistic wasteland to the north.

 
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