by Rob van Alstyne
The Weakerthans music is smart, not in a nerdy math-rock time signature kind of way either, but rather the sort of uncompromising flat-out literary smart that seems downright alien to most rock music. The fact that the band's dense word play comes packaged in a folksy rock/pop-punk package makes it all the more intriguing. It isn't surprising to learn that according to singer/guitarist John K. Samson's calculations the distance between punk rock and Virginia Woolf isn't particularly vast.
"I think my primary affections lie with literature," admits Samson. "I own about 300 percent more books than I do records---literature's just the art form that I relate to best. I'm not going to say that any art form is better than the other. I think that artistic expression shouldn't be separated in any way, that all the arts are equally great and have equal potential. It's sad that some forms of art are so marginalized today, literature is just really marginalized right now, and that kind of allows music to just saturate the world, which can be a bad thing because it's just so easy to contrive and create something that someone in an office knows will sell a million copies. It also provides a great opportunity, though, for musicians to kind of communicate through the cracks, and melody is just such a mysterious powerful thing. Literature and music are always connected for me. We'll always try and do things like have a bookmobile with us on the road. It's an important part of who the band is."
Samson's attempts at "communicating through the cracks" of our admittedly music saturated world as demonstrated on his group's newest record, Reconstruction Site (Epitaph), affirms his claim that melody is a powerful mysterious thing. Whether focusing on their bread and butter up tempo past ("Uncorrected Proofs" wouldn't have sounded out of place on their 1997 debut) or trying on new guises (the pedal-steel and keyboard driven "New Name for Everything," solo acoustic "One Great City," or studio sound collage of "(Hospital Vespers)"), Samson and his band of Canadian cohorts (John P. Sutton-bass, Jason Tait-drums, Stephen Carroll-guitar, pedal and lap steel, keyboards) keep strong melodies and engaging words at the fore throughout.
Samson's reedy tenor belts out memorable lines by the dozen on Reconstruction Site ("So put on those clothes you never grew into/And smile like you mean it for once"), and his narrative eye continues to evolve. The record features an array of exotic characters in its storylines (including a cat bent on acting as a motivational speaker to its owner). Among the more compelling experiments is "Psalm for Elks Lodge Last Call," a wistful pseudo-waltz written from the perspective of a fraternal organization's elder reminiscing about his bygone companions. Or so it would seem... "The song 'Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call' on the new record is ostensibly about the Elks," says Samson. "But in reality it's about the punk music community. A fraternal organization like the Elks is a lot like punk rock, both groups are things that you walk into and are immediately a part of---you belong unquestionably and won't have to be by yourself ever again if you don't want to. There are great things about that and awful things about that. It's certainly shaped who I am. I'm a punk rocker but I don't want to spend my life with 17-year-old-boys. I'm interested in human beings, I don't want to only speak to or listen to people who are exactly like myself."
Whether breaking down the barriers between intelligent word play and bouncy power pop or melding a punk ethos with pretty ballads, Samson clearly invests great care in the messages behind his music. Does he ever worry that some of the kids pogo-ing in the crowd aren't necessarily picking up on the words in The Weakerthans pastoral-punk hybrid songs?
"It's kind of frustrating to think that people might not be paying attention to the lyrics," Samson readily states. "It gets too depressing if you start to actually think about it. It's just part of the irony of any kind of cultural production, which is that it has to be bought and sold in this society. You get really frustrated thinking things like, is this doing anything? Are these CDs better off as drink coasters? If you're playing in a room of 100 people, though, you know that there's some percentage of people who genuinely get what you're doing. What I always say is that 80 percent of being in a band is totally embarrassing, and the other 20 percent is what makes it worthwhile. Those 20 percent moments are often so rewarding that you can forget about the rest of it."