It’s already been four plus years since the last Weakerthans record. If I weren’t aging quickly myself, that would feel like a long time. While I’m not sure what’s up with their status as a band, ringleader John K. Samson set aside time in early 2011 to record his first solo record, Provincial.
The frontman, known for his somewhat nasal voice and his descriptive lyricism, doesn’t stray far from familiar territory on his solo outing, and several of the tracks were issued previously in 2011 as a series of 7” releases. Instead of going bold new places, Samson uses the solo outing to strip things down. The instrumentation is less eclectic than Weakerthans records and the songs are typically reliant on Samson’s ability to spin a yarn and maintain lyrical warmth. The songs are relatively sleepy, and the general sound isn’t a stretch from the band’s 2007 album Reunion Tour. The primary difference is that the album feels a touch more personal—it’s all on Samson’s shoulders here, even when there’s a full band backing him. When guest vocalist Christine Fellows joins in for a beautiful harmony in “Taps Reversed,” it still feels like Samson’s record. In this track, his lyrics personify a broken-down, indebted home, yet the tone is as much homage as it is lament.
The slower, more minimal pace is a walks a tightrope. If I were to review Reunion Tour, I would cite similar aspects as its primary faults. On this record, however, the balance is better achieved and, perhaps, better suited to a solo release. Songs such as “Grace General” and “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” are slow paced and something of a drag, but the more up-tempo and louder instrumentation that surrounds them in memorable tracks like “Cruise Night” and “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” keeps the energy flowing. Despite being probably 60-70% sleepy, ballad-esque tempos, the sequencing on the record achieves a steady ride that’s neither somber nor excited, but it reaches both ends of this spectrum, spending the majority of its time somewhere in the middle.
At times the songs feel a touch overdone. “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” starts strong with a storytelling element that both references citing sources as well as gunning down victims in Grand Theft Auto. The tone is varied, non-direct, and real. Later, when the chorus harmonizes a repetition of “citing sources,” though, it feels a bit forced, as though the purpose of the song is to create a grad student anthem rather than to share a new perspective or explore character. Some of the language is just too clunky to flow, even by Samson’s previous body of work.
But, as a whole, Provincial works. The themes explore the land surrounding his Manitoba home, varied highways and arteries, and how they intersect with his personal life, both metaphorically and directly. It’s not his best work by any means, but it’s an above average release that will tide over fans and may inspire new ones.
6.8 / 10
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