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The Blueprint

 

The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site

Epitaph, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: December 31, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

On Reconstruction Site, the third full-length album from Winnipeg's The Weakerthans, John K. Samson finally distills the different elements of his songwriting voice into a cohesive and compelling signature. This won't mean much to 99.9% of the people reading this: The Weakerthans, like Samson's previous band, Propagandhi, aren't very well known, even among the indie-rock cognoscenti to whom their albums are best suited. But after the shaky, spiky quasi-punk of 1998's Fallow and the intelligent reflections of 2000's Left and Leaving, Reconstruction Site establishes Samson as a literate (at times, too literate) writer with a knack for marrying top-heavy ruminations to a complementary rock chassis.

This is best illustrated in the album's early going, particularly the stirring opener "(Manifest)," which drives home Samson's call-to-arms via a martial beat spiked with celebratory horns. "I want to call requests through heating vents," he sings in a reedy yet sturdy voice that echoes of bookish intellectualism, "and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No.'" Although the lyrics are highly abstract in their call for some vaguely defined action, Samson's rabble-rousing intent is clear.

As it is in the jagged "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue," the album's most obvious flat-out rocker. The narrative device comes across as a bit precious at first (the singer's cat enjoins him to "lick the sorrow from your skin"), but Samson makes it work: "And listen / About those bitter songs you sing / They're not helping anything / They won't make you strong." The song's plea for action is underlined by Samson's bright, clear choruses and some urgent, energetic riffing. To be sure, such unrestrained moments of rock-guitar finesse help moments of arch, incisive singalong braininess -- "Ask the things you shouldn't miss / Tape-hiss and the Modern Man / The Cold War and card catalogues / To come and join us if they can" -- go down much smoother.

"The Reasons" employs similar rock muscle, a less-strident declaration of -- love? fealty? appreciation? -- wrapped in lines like "But you never seem to mind / And you tell me to fuck off / When I need somebody to" and "I know you might roll your eyes at this / But I'm so glad that you exist." Here, too, Samson can't help flexing his penchant for metaphor: "How whole years refuse to stay / Where we told them to / Bad dog / ... How the past chews on your shoes / And these memories lick my ears."

Of course, Samson's love of lyrical dexterity, coupled with a reliance on highbrow literary references, often threatens to bring a song crashing down. "Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michael Foucault in Paris, 1961)" -- the title alone wobbles so precariously on the precipice of pretension and cleverness it requires a shot of Dramamine -- namedrops the author Jacques Derrida and Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in a spirited piece of whimsy that also includes a French-speaking penguin. The ballad "Time's Arrow" fares better, floating on a buoyant melody and a plaintive refrain ("Could we please turn around?"), while threatening to slide over into full-blown, eye-rolling affectation by the lyric sheet's highfalutin' Martin Amis quote. (Three other songs get such quotes attached, from the likes of James Agee and Catherine Hunter, to which the songs allude.)

So it's little surprise that the band fares better on songs relatively unburdened of such obscure, self-congratulatory cleverness, such as the quasi-country-ish "A New Name for Everything" and the codependent acoustic number "One Great City!" (which continues Left and Leaving's theme of interlocked place and identity, with weary yet accepting nods to the traffic and weather -- "A darker day is breaking through a lighter one" -- of Samson's hometown, derided with an offhand acceptance and resignation in the chorus: "I hate Winnipeg.").

It's in these numbers, as well as the understated, elegantly melodic "Psalm For the Elks Lodge Last Call" (an album highlight) and the brief, haunting "(Hospital Vespers)" and "(Past Due") -- which echo "(Manifest)"'s melody and cadence while expanding them into darker shades -- that Samson winnows down the arty intellectualism to relatable levels. At these moments, he allows his sharpened wit and tendency toward rumination to work hand-in-hand, offering concise, heartfelt examinations of the politics of place and personal relationships. Incorporating the best moments of the band's previous two releases, Reconstruction Site offers a clear blueprint for future efforts, built on Samson's instinctual mingling of liberal-arts smarts, poignant sketches of perceptive reflection, and a melodic infrastructure of pop and rock gestures.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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