North of Northwest: John K. Samson – Provincial
In case you don’t live here, or haven’t seen us being made fun of in the international media: it’s been a snowy week in Seattle. The hilly roads have been swooping lines of pure white; the line of firs in my backyard still droop elegantly under the load of their slowly-melting coat. It’s been the best possible week, then, to be locked inside with the new album from Winnipeg’s John K. Samson.
Many will know Samson, of course, as the lead singer of beloved indie rock group The Weakerthans. But on January 24′s Provincial, Samson is operating under his own name for the first time (albeit with the backing of an all-star team of Canadian musicians, including Shotgun Jimmie and Constantines’ Doug MacGregor).
Despite the name change the song remains, if not precisely the same, quite comfortably familiar. Samson stays true to his common theme of placehood and retains Winnipeg and its surrounds as his muse. “My idea for this record was, if someone had a couple of days free, they could come to me and I could take them to the site of each song,” Samson told Spinner.com. Some locales are explicit in the song titles: “Highway 1 East,” “Grace General,” “Highway 1 West.” “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” is the tale of a patient at a Manitoba tuberculosis sanatorium.
Provincial also offers abundant demonstration of Samson’s gift for creating moments of the most sublime tragicomedy. The hapless academic of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” struggles to overcome his loneliness (and Xbox addiction) and finish his final project. “No more citing sources,” he dreams, while a cheerful background chorus echoes the final word in rising tones; they’ll “greet me with banners and balloons / and my hard drive smashed to pieces.”
But while Weakerthans fans will almost certainly find a home for Samson’s solo effort, Provincial is not just another Weakerthans album under a different name. Samson takes a more delicate approach to the material here, using brushed drums and acoustic guitars to paint the counters of the sound. Spaces around the notes let them breathe, let you notice the details, like the way the rhythmically picked guitar sounds like icicles dripping, the low, discordant bellows in “Grace General” like labored breathing.
The beauty of Samson’s quiet, then, is its confidence, in the guts it takes to let these guts show. There’s no hesitation, or fragility, just a songwriter bravely stepping forward from the clang and clash and glory of his ensemble work to show you his heart beating on its own, thudding quietly but assuredly beneath his skinny ribs. ______
Provincial is currently streaming in its entirety at Paste magazine and will be available in stores January 24.
Samson plays the Tractor Tavern April 1 and the Doug Fir in Portland April 2. ______