Despite decades of mainstream acclaim, sales and exposure in their native Canada, Sloan only managed to transcended their cult status internationally when bassist Chris Murphy taught the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World actors how to play their guitars. Commonwealth, the band’s 11th studio album, isn’t the Halifax power-pop quartet’s first release with a concept designed to grab a little well-deserved, long-overdue attention: Their eighth, Never Hear the End of It, squeezed 30 songs onto one compact disc. But this new one is the first to emphasize that Sloan have miraculously maintained the same membership since forming in 1991, and that all four sing and write equally terrific tunes.
Rather than presenting their eclectic material in the usual intermingled way, Commonwealth splits them up across four sides of a vinyl double-LP to feature each musician writing and singing his own song cycle: This is Sloan’s miniaturized version of Kiss’s simultaneously released 1978 solo albums. But unlike the session-musician-enabled Kiss discs, every member of this unusually democratic act plays on one another’s songs, and the drummer’s stuff most definitely doesn’t suck.
Leading the set, rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson possesses the foursome’s highest voice and most finessed arrangement abilities: Combining Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles piano chords and vocal harmonies, the same kind of scene-stealing bass line that Beck borrowed from Serge Gainsbourg, and a similarly vintage yet immaculately articulated guitar solo, “Three Sisters” epitomizes his baroque-pop style. Bassist Murphy flaunts similar compositional skills, but with looser, more emphatic presentation: His “Carried Away” bounces along and reflects his wayward lover’s lack of resolve. Lead guitarist Patrick Pentland typically brings the hardest-rocking material, and fist-pumping tracks like “Keep Swinging (Downtown)” don’t disappoint.
But whereas even the Fab Four sometimes faltered when Ringo stepped to the mic, here drummer Andrew Scott oversees the album’s most assured, ambitious segment. Just short of 18 minutes, his “Forty-Eight Portraits” is one continuous track that starts with dogs barking, unconventional percussive banging, echoing piano chords, and spindly guitar and bass figures. It then segues into more conventional segments that resemble verses and choruses but change chords and keys while adding and subtracting rock and symphonic instrumentation as the band’s many voices intertwine. Imagine if Big Star wrote a prog suite like Yes or Jethro Tull but still retained their mix of wistful melancholy and obstinate scrappiness. These varying components of Commonwealth add up to Sloan’s most uncommon work yet.