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Border Patrol

May 23, 2007

Power-pop bands are a nobly geeky bunch dedicated to an anachronistic ideal of melodic rock that is about as likely to take the charts these days as a barbershop quartet. While most of them play out their Beatlemania fantasies in indie-rock clubs, Sloan might be one of the only English-speaking power-pop bands to know what it’s like to be a bona fide phenomenon in its home country. And that’s mainly because, well, Sloan is Canadian, but also because it’s pretty damn good. Here in America, where Sloan got dropped from its major-label deal over a decade ago, though, the band still tours small clubs like Washington’s Black Cat, where it played last week.

Though its members may be rock stars somewhere not very far away, Sloan is still a dorky power-pop band. Even the most charismatic member of Sloan, frontman Chris Murphy, essentially looks and sounds like Dana Carvey doing his Paul McCartney impression while wearing the Church Lady’s glasses. But Andrew Scott, a fantastic drummer in the Keith Moon tradition of controlled flailing, gave the band’s Black Cat show too much bombast for it ever to lapse into mere wussy harmonizing. And Scott and guitarist Patrick Pentland have both gone gray, which cements the band’s dignified onstage air of elder statesmen and makes them a bit less gawky.

A couple years ago, Sloan released a greatest-hits compilation, and it was starting to look like the band’s best days were behind it. But that was before the band’s eighth album, Never Hear the End of It–an ambitious 30-song set that’s the sound of an aging band throwing every idea it’s got against the wall, including poignantly self-conscious lyrics about beating a midcareer crisis by addressing it head on–was released in the U.S. back in January. From the minute the Nova Scotia quartet took the stage at the Black Cat, it looked proud of its recent achievement, opening and closing its set with the songs that bookend Never Hear. Although the album is filled with shorter Abbey Road-style vignettes strung together as a seamless whole, the longer, more complex songs like “I Understand” and “Another Way I Could Do It” are what connected best live.

Of course, Sloan has many older songs worth playing, too, and fit a number of them into its set, including nearly half of its high-water mark, 1996′s One Chord to Another. The show also featured that rarest of events–an encore that felt spontaneous. Apparently Scott was off having a smoke when the rest of the band was ready to come back onstage, and so Murphy and Pentland took requests from the audience for a few quick voice-and-guitar renditions of fan favorites, like the dogged-out-by-Leslie Feist anthem “The Other Man”, before pulling the rest of the band together for the big finish. Considering that the ship sailed on any odds of “breaking America” a long time ago, it’s nice that Sloan still bothers to come down to the States to play for whoever shows up, especially when it’s got much bigger crowds waiting back at home.