THE WEAKERTHANS CD release at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Tuesday (August 26). Free. All ages. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
Don't be surprised if you see grown men weeping at a Weakerthans show. There's something about the Winnipeg folk-punk foursome's tunes that packs a gut-wrenching wallop. It's there in the sepia-toned snapshots of buildings crumbling across a bleak Manitoba landscape, in the bittersweet wistfulness of singer John K. Samson's tenor, in the keening guitar washes and shuddering marching-band drumbeats that haunt their songs like memory ghosts.
An ex-Peg-punk-turned-T.O.-academic pal of mine confessed to me a few weeks ago, "I've started listening to Left And Leaving again," referring to the band's 2000 breakthrough album. "Don't be surprised if you hear I've slit my wrists and moved back to Winnipeg."
Pretty brutal, huh? That's why it's so startling to hear the Weakerthans sounding almost chipper on their jaw-droppingly good new Reconstruction Site (Epitaph) disc.
While there are still twinges of loneliness, existential anxiety and frustration on the record, the overall tone is hopeful. Even - gasp! - jovial at times.
"We love to laugh, and that's something I feel didn't always translate before," admits lyricist Samson, using the halting cadence you hear in his singing, from his home in Winnipeg. "It was a breakthrough for us."
The same subtly absurd sense of humour that inspired the Marx-loving punk kid to name his dog Lefty shines through on perennial live fave One Great City!, a piss-take on his hometown's chipper motto, with homespun fingerpickin' and shout-along "I hate Winnipeg!" chorus. In other quirky tunes Samson imagines a cat castigating his angsty owner, or a fictional meeting between flamboyant pomo theorist Michel Foucault and a senile polar-explorer.
While long-time fans might miss the mopiness of Left And Leaving and the Weakerthans' debut, 1997's Fallow, Reconstruction Site offers the sound of a band fleshing out an already solid sonic skeleton, adding layers of atmospheric percussion and tinny horns (!) to the wispy indie punk foundation they established on their first two records.
Samson credits producer Ian Blurton ("one of the most interesting musical minds I've ever encountered," he says) with helping the band move into more experimental territory. Blurton convinced them to play and record the haunting Hospital Vespers entirely backwards, and they flipped the loop around while mixing. The final track conveys the sensation of melting into a vortex of echoey hospital corridors.
Another change for the Weakerthans was their decision to let Epitaph release Reconstruction Site. Their first two albums came out on collectively operated Winnipeg indie G7 Welcoming Committee, founded by Chris Hannah and Jord Samolesky of Samson's old band, influential agit-prop punkers Propagandhi.
"We've been doing it for so long that it doesn't seem like a rags to riches story. It's more like durable clothing to more durable clothing," laughs Samson, adding that they financed and recorded the record themselves before hooking up with the impressive indie label.
"Because they're so large, people forget that Epitaph's not associated with any major label," he continues, ruefully admitting that the band is shouldering even more of the admin responsibilities than before.
Samson stresses that the decision to split with G7 was mutually amicable, and, though they've left the little collective, their leftist philosophy remains intact. Aside from an appreciation of Epitaph's rich roster, part of the label's appeal was its punk politics.
Samson has a particular elegance in communicating visceral social(ist) critiques without resorting to dogma, and that wins him the respect of other politically conscious songwriters like Luke Doucet, who mentions Samson in the same breath as Bob Dylan.
"John's Social Democrat dissension is effective," offers Doucet. "Every time I listen to Left And Leaving I discover a new interpretation of the metaphor. It's not a unidimensional thing, not a question of seeing the truth and moving on, which gives the art longevity."
The grace of his prose, honest and imagistic without seeming precious, is what sets Samson apart as a writer. With a few deft scrawls he evokes the kind of vivid images - a little boy with cake in his hair under a table, a tired shoelace, history as a bad dog chewing up shoes - that keep you up all night scouring the Internet for lyric sheets. He's the type of guy it's hard to write about, simply because you feel that, despite your best efforts, he'd do a much better job of it.
And that emotional sucker punch comes from Samson's ability to translate abstract feelings into something more concrete. It's no surprise that his mission statement for the album, a quote from cultural philosopher John Berger, is all about pinning things down in their rightful place.
"That's a lot of what the record is about," he offers, "trying to reclaim, restructure, reconstruct our world into something that's just and beautiful. I'm interested in the connection between memory and time and place. I want to make people feel that they exist outside of everything our society constructs, that there are moments where we can map a place and be able to navigate it ourselves."
For all their growth as a band, that commitment to mapping a geography of experience is what settles Reconstruction Site into a comfortable trilogy with the Weakerthans' earlier work. And for all Samson's attempts to move forward, his poetry is inevitably haunted by the ghost of his hometown.
"With Reconstruction Site, I started out with almost a manifesto that it wasn't gonna be entirely about Winnipeg," Samson laughs sheepishly (see sidebar this page). "But I have a feeling it just is. Even when I'm writing about a senile old man wandering the streets of Paris, encountering Michel Foucault in a French restaurant in 1961, I'm imagining it in the Exchange District. It's like a film set of Paris somewhere in Winnipeg! But there's a power in inventing and editing a place to form it into something useful. For me, Winnipeg is a simple tool, a way to access the world.
"'And as for myself, I am always forgetting what it was I wasn't going to write about, what I wasn't going to say again.' That's the epigraph to a song on our new record called Uncorrected Proofs, told from the perspective of a failed short-story writer. The quote is from a writer named Catherine Hunter, and it pretty much sums up Winnipeg for me.
"I'm always coming back to trying to figure out why I love and hate this place."
Marcel Dzama (left), Propahandhi and Malefaction prove the 'Peg produces great art.
ONE GREAT CITY! For all the grumbling you'll find on a song like One Great City!, Samson admits Winnipeg's a pretty cool place to be a grassroots - and socially conscious - artist. The city has a history of leftist politics dating back to the 1919 General Strike, and the University of Winnipeg's strong department of labour studies serves as a breeding ground for punk activist shit-disturbers. No wonder the Weakerthans' former label, founded in 1997 by members of Propagandhi to establish an infrastructure for nascent activist music, has flourished. G7 Welcoming Committee collective member Derek Hoag says the thriving local music scene owes a lot to its geography.
"We're this wasteland in the middle of nowhere, with super-long, really cold winters and short summers. There's not much to do except be in a band or get involved in local politics."
G7 has helped cultivate the diverse local scene, providing a home to socialist metalheads (not a contradiction in terms) Malefaction and folk-punk philosopher Greg MacPherson along with higher-profile acts.
"In Winnipeg we can incubate for years playing bad music till we get better," chuckles MacPherson. "The bands I've seen in Toronto are often gimmick-heavy and short on substance, because you need some flash and pizzazz to get people's attention in a city that big."
Even without the glitz, Peg artists are getting attention. Hipster mags like testosterone-fuelled Toro tip the downtown Exchange District as the coolest thing since trucker caps, local visual artist Marcel Dzama (who created Reconstruction Site's cover art) and his Royal Art Lodge pals have snagged international buzz, and Guy Maddin and the rest of the influential Winnipeg Film Group cultivate untested new talent.
That artistic drive is nothing new, says Hoag.
"In the early to mid-70s, the punk scene here was world-renowned. Minor Threat would play here with crusty old punk bands like Personality Crisis and the Raggedy Anns . But because of new media, people are more aware of the quality now."
As for Samson, he scoffs at his city's sudden cool cachet.
"The market's tried to sell this place, and in the end it's not that saleable. It's hard to sell Winnipeg, cuz as much as you try it's always gonna be 30 degrees below zero in February. So it's kind of got this built-in market-proof feature."