John K. Samson - Provincial
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Record Label: ANTI-
John K. Samson has nothing to prove.
To describe him as a “well-established” musician would be an understatement. He has one of the most beloved indie rock albums of the past decade under his belt in The Weakerthans’ 2003 release Reconstruction Site, as well as critically-acclaimed records under that moniker such as Left and Leaving and Reunion Tour. He also contributed to the first two Propagandhi albums, which are highly regarded within punk rock circles. If you’re looking for a guy who commands respect in the Canadian music scene, look no further.
Accordingly, the fact that he’d stick to the formula that made his work in The Weakerthans so successful isn’t surprising. Although Provincial is the first solo album Samson has released (not counting 1993’s Slips and Tangles, which saw a limited cassette-only release), it should sound familiar to those who have followed his career. “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” sounds like it would be right at home on an album like Reunion Tour. “The Last And” seems like it could have come directly from Left and Leaving. “Heart of the Continent” wouldn’t sound out of place next to “One Great City!” from Reconstruction Site. The album may not mark a vast departure for Samson, but it doesn’t need to. The majority of the songs on Provincial are shining examples of a skilled song-writer at the top of his game.
The biggest difference between Provincial and Samson’s work in The Weakerthans is his willingness to experiment with song structure. “Stop Error” features melodies that would sound at home in a Baroque-style choir song (and was recorded as one for a previously-released EP). “Highway 1 East” and “Taps Reversed” also stray from more traditional structures. However, the strengths of Provincial usually occur when Samson sticks to the verse-chorus form that he is most familiar with on songs like “Longitudinal Centre,” “Petition” and “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”.
If Provincial has one glaring weakness, it’s a lack of cohesiveness. The album doesn’t have any real flow, which is likely due to it being largely a compilation of previously released tracks. Earlier versions of seven of the twelve tracks had already been widely available. This includes all six songs from Samson’s recent EPs City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222. Although all of the previously-released tracks have been rerecorded and feature either some additional or removed instrumentation, only “Stop Error” marks a significant difference from its original form. While many of the songs share themes related to Winnipeg’s roads and highways, many of them seem musically unrelated. Additionally, “Highway 1 East” and “Taps Reversed” aren’t bad songs by any means, but neither work as very good bookends. Despite the strong quality of the individual tracks, it just doesn’t have the feel of a solid album.
Lack of flow aside, Samson’s fans will not be disappointed in Provincial, especially given that it’s been more than 4 years since The Weakerthans last released a new studio album. The album’s few shortcomings are no reason to sit this one out. “The Last And", “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”, and “Heart of the Continent” are among the best songs that Samson’s ever penned. And given his impressive career, that’s really saying something.