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Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

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With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Categories
Albums Randomness

New release: One Great Tribute! A Love Letter To The Weakerthans

So here’s something I don’t make a habit of doing very often on these pages: a review (of sorts) of a newly-released album. I figured, given that it’s my younger brother that is behind this pretty extensive tribute album to one of Canada’s musical treasures, that I should give it a listen and share my thoughts.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the know but just in case you’re not… The Weakerthans were an indie rock quartet from Winnipeg, Manitoba that released a handful of excellent albums from the late 1990s and into the late 2000s. Their sound was a melodic blend of folk and punk and the songwriting was pure gold. Frontman John K Samson was a poet laureate of sorts, imparting honest and astute observations on life in Canada and otherwise.

“One great tribute!” is twenty-three tracks long, clocking in at just over an hour, and covers a good portion of The Weakerthans’ four LPs. With the exception of one blip of synths, its entirety dwells in either angsty punk or rootsy folk or a combination of the two. It is bookended by two versions of “Bigfoot!”, both featuring stripped-down piano to the original’s acoustic plucking. However, I think Frank Turner’s opener is the bigger star here to the Bry Webb closer, but more because it feels more aptly upbeat than due to his more well-known name.

The Lowest of the Low’s ska-tinged cover of “Pamphleteer” made smile quite a bit as well, given that the first time I ever heard The Weakerthans was when I saw them open for The Low in 2001. It’s also kind of fun because their current bassist is none other than Greg Smith, though he didn’t play on the original version of the tune.

Del Barber’s choice of song to contribute was pitch perfect. “One great city!”, from which the compilation draws its name, is the love/hate ode to Winnipeg, the hometown Barber shares with The Weakerthans.

Some of the other highlights for me include Skye Wallace’s take on “Without mythologies”, the Have Gun, Will Travel cover of “Psalm for the Elks Lodge last call” and the version of “Sun in an empty room” by Ben Rough with Peachykine.

If I had any complaints to make about this tribute, they would be that it does get a bit long near the end and that despite all the songs, no one managed to take on what is possibly my own favourite Weakerthans tune: “Tournament of hearts”. However, I don’t think this would take anything away from fans of the group enjoying all the love these songs are getting. I personally dug out my copies of all the Weakerthans’ albums to compare notes after giving the compilation a few spins yesterday. I highly recommend you all check it out.

“One great tribute” is available for digital purchase here as of today. If physical formats are more your thing, there are plans to also release the album on CD but a date for that has to be announced.