Patrick Pentland ponders a four-man double album
by James Brotheridge
The story this time around: Commonwealth, the latest record in Sloan’s over-20-year history. It’s a double record where each of the four members get their own side for their own material.
According to Patrick Pentland, guitarist and one of the group’s four singers, Sloan often tries to have a story behind its new records. “More of a story than, ‘Some label gave us the money to record a record’,” as he puts it.
Pentland sees 1998’s Navy Blues as their hard-rock record, for instance, and 2006’s Never Hear the End of It as a 30-song rock opus. This time, Pentland, guitarist Jay Ferguson, bassist Chris Murphy and drummer Andrew Scott each got a 20-ish minute chunk for their own songs.
Pentland had a bunch of possible approaches in mind.
“Originally, I was working on music that was quite different from anything anyone in Sloan would’ve done, and then eventually I just thought, ‘I don’t want to record stuff on this record that’s radically different for the sake of being radically different,’” says Pentland. “So I reined myself in. I’m just going within the context of Sloan, because it was still a Sloan record.”
What other directions could his side have taken?
“I had two different approaches. One was more of an ambient electronic sound. I had a bunch of music that I had recorded over the years that I was going to bring back and flesh out that basically had no guitars and no live drums or anything. I realized that was going to be a little bit too brattish or something, a little bit too thumbing my nose at the rest of the band,” he says.
“The other –– I had done a lot of demos with Chris of stuff in an open-G tuning, which is more of a Stones-y, bluesy-rock sorta feel, more Zeppelin-sounding sorta stuff,” adds Pentland. “I had about four or five songs like that. But then I realized, I’m going to have to tour this record and play these songs for a year and then have them as part of my repertoire. So, if my heart’s not fully into these songs, I don’t want to play and record them.”
What he did record for Commonwealth sounds like classic Pentland stuff. Of Sloan’s four members, Pentland’s songwriting style might be the easiest to pin down: he’s a straight-ahead rock guy. “‘13’ and ‘Take It Easy’ are just noisy guitar songs,” he says of a couple of his tracks on the record.
“Some people might look at those as very simple or something, but that’s what I wanted,” he says. “I’m never interested in fleshing songs out so that people will be impressed. I’m capable of adding strings and horns with harmonies to everything I do, but I don’t do it just to show it off. I’ll do it if the song really needs it.”
If Pentland sounds a little defensive, it’s not the only time in our phone interview. At another point, he talks about his frustration with Commonwealth’s reviews.
“I find it frustrating reading reviews of the record –– I’m happy that people are writing about it, but they’re constantly picking the side that wins or whatever,” he says.
It’s hard to hear that and not think of Mason Pitzel’s Prairie Dog review. Pitzel wrote that Pentland’s side “sounds as desperate as a 40-year-old’s sudden, conspicuous interest in motorcycles.” Ouch. And Canadian music monthly Exclaim!’s review, meanwhile, said that Pentland’s “riff rock fetishes … fare poorly when placed all together.”
But Commonwealth’s not designed to be experimental, and Pentland’s songs have the essential simplicity that’s made him a go-to guy for singles, from “Ill-Placed Trust” off Never Hear the End of It to “Believe in Me” off Parallel Play to “Unkind” off The Double Cross.
When he listens to Commonwealth, Pentland hears four musicians playing to their strengths — even Scott, who delivers a single, near-18 minute song. “I don’t hear it as being a big departure or anything like that. It’s all good. I think people brought strong material to the record,” he says.
So even Scott’s side isn’t surprising?
“Of course not. You don’t think, given a side, Andrew would make one long song? Of course he would.”