Audio Reviews
by John K. Samson
Epitaph/ANTI- Records (2012)
8 / 10
John K. Samson is, first and foremost, a poet. Soft-spoken to a fault, Samson describes the world around him with evocative phrases and deftly-worded rhymes, detailed reflections of and on the past and present, absence and presence, sorrow and joy. Intermittently blending art, history, literature, and mythology with the offhanded ease of a cafe philosopher, Samson wends his way through working days and sleepless nights, lonely apartments and rowdy barrooms, traffic jams and hospital wards, familiar roads and frozen landscapes—all the while pulling sublime pathos from the mundane detritus of everyday life.

In a way, the fact that Samson is equally adept at matching his sentimental stanzas with earworm melodies and groove-worthy rhythms seems like something of an afterthought, which is by no means a slight against Samson’s abilities as a singer-songwriter. On the contrary, during his fifteen-plus years as frontman of the celebrated Canadian folk-pop outfit The Weakerthans, Samson has penned and performed more than four full-length albums’ worth of captivating slices of disquieted life. Backed by twanging-to-blaring electric and acoustic guitars, brassy pop-rock percussion and upbeat, tubby bass lines, Samson’s alternatingly strident and plaintive yet endearingly guileless voice underscores the already-potent emotional content of his lyrics, detailing awkward conversations and workaday despondency, old lovers and new pains, rummage sales and restive cats, childhood memories and city streets. In short: somber (but not necessarily sober) vignettes where inner monologues and personal-historical context paint a grey and passing world with vibrant colours and emotional significance.

Provincial is Samson’s aptly-titled debut full-length solo album, wherein the folksy singer takes a breather from the occasionally punk-y and subtly political leanings of his work with The Weakerthans, focusing instead on his love-hate relationship with his hometown of Winnipeg, and with the province of Manitoba in general. “Highway 1 East” opens the album with somber woodwinds and a seemingly resigned Samson delivering a plea for patience and direction in the uncharted-by-GPS midst of central Canada, while the sedated kitwork and acoustic guitar of “Heart of the Continent” punctuate a dismayed stroll through discount racks and urban decay in a city that Samson seems to loathe but can never quite bring himself to leave, its crumbling buildings and uncomfortable memories forever looming in the back of his mind and haunting him at the edge of his vision.

But it’s not all specters and ghosts. “Cruise Night” ramps up the tempo considerably, its traditional pop-rock combo of jangling guitars and head-bobbing percussion propping up Samson’s ode to that ubiquitous small-town tradition of classic cars and flashy hot-rods, their owners biding time at the local shake shop before revving their engines as they parade up and down the main drag. While not necessarily intended to be ironic, Samson’s recounting of the youthful wish-fulfillment of a Sunday-night cruise—particularly in declaring how he “can’t take another week of feeling lame with the same old (same old) tin can on my ten speed, circling the Dairy Queen while jacked-up rides idle at me”—toes that incredibly fine nostalgic line between hometown charm and embarrassing chintz.

Moving from pensive electric guitar to quavering strings, gritty ‘spherics, and solemn horns, “Grace General” is a wintertime meditation built around Samson’s commute from home to hospital, the bitter cold being only half as chilling as the memory which greets him in his reflection in the sliding door. Consider this yet one more ghost which Samson has yet to exorcise, friends of which apparently dwell amidst the archival photos of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”, an upbeat pop-rock ode to strained relationships and graduate school.

Those self-same ghosts wander the halls of “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”, a beautifully languid and increasingly country-fried acoustic ballad, quiet finger-picking slowly emboldened by lightly-brushed percussion and a melancholy fiddle as Samson recalls the experience of a patient undergoing treatment for tuberculosis at the Manitoba Sanatorium in the early 20th century.

Featured video-single “Longitudinal Centre” shifts back to gritty buzzsaw riffs and energetic pop-rock rhythms as it bears frustrated witness to Manitoba’s hesitant transition from winter to spring, a referenced road sign serving as a nagging reminder that residents of central Canada are perpetually trapped between oceans as well as seasons. Hedging such meteorological-cum-geographical dismay with a bit of provincial pride, the quirky, URL-entitled slow-strummer “” refers to a very real online petition, whereby Samson hopes to nominate fellow Manitoban Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Working with double-bass, brushwork drums, strings, and keys, “The Last And” puts forth a sad-sack torch song about an inter-academic affair, Samson referencing lesson plans, car pools, and staff rooms as his character resigns himself to the sad reality of having loved and lost. “Stop Error” disperses the maudlin miasma in a somewhat tragicomical fashion, as Samson juxtaposes insomnia and winter doldrums with a flagrant system error encountered during a late-night gaming session—all set to the tune of a 17th century German love song by Hans Leo Hassler.

Oddly enough, there’s a sense of claustrophobia running against the grain of the open spaces so often described in Samson’s Provincial, such as in the lonesome refrain to the extended car-crash metaphor of “Highway 1 West”. Simple though it may sound, Samson’s exhausted cries of “It’s too far to walk anywhere from here” embody and unleash all the pent-up frustration that flows just below the surface of the album: the agonizing powerlessness of being held captive by one’s debt, one’s past, and by the insurmountable tyranny of distance. Yet contrast this with the litany of household issues in the album-ending duet “Taps Reversed”, and it’s easy to see why Samson is so resolutely conflicted.

Flaws and all, there’s simply no place like home—which is why it would be so hard for Samson to leave, even he wanted to.

Released January 24, 2012 by Epitaph/ANTI- Records, John K. Samson’s Provincial can be purchased digitally via iTunes, in CD and LP formats via the official Epitaph store, or wherever fine albums are sold. (Record shoppes still exist, right?)

Tour dates as follows:

3/7 @ The Grad Club – Kingston, ON
3/8 @ Maverick’s – Ottawa, ON
3/9 @ La Sala Rossa – Montréal, QC
3/10 @ Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA
3/11 @ Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
3/13 @ Black Cat – Washington, DC
3/14 @ Maxwell’s – Hoboken, NJ
3/15 @ Bowery Ballroom – New York, NY
3/16 @ Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
3/17 @ Mohawk Palace – Buffalo, NY
3/18 @ Casbah – Hamilton, ON
3/20 @ Aeolian Hall – London, ON
3/21 @ E-Bar – Guelph, ON
3/22 @ Great Hall – Toronto, ON
3/27 @ West End Cultural Centre – Winnipeg, MB
3/28 @ The Exchange – Regina, SK
3/29 @ The Royal Alberta Museum Theatre – Edmonton, AB
3/31 @ The Biltmore – Vancouver, BC
4/1 @ Tractor Tavern – Seattle, WA
4/2 @ Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
4/5 @ Casbah – San Diego, CA
4/6 @ Troubador – Los Angeles, CA
4/7 @ Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco, CA
4/8 @ The Atrium – Santa Cruz, CA
4/11 @ The Shakedown – Bellingham, WA
4/12 @ Hero’s Pub – Kamloops, BC
4/13 @ The Palomino – Calgary, AB
4/14 @ Amigo’s – Saskatoon, SK
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (March 3rd, 2012)

Tags: beatbots, audio, reviews, john k samson, provincial, the weakerthans, epitaph, anti-, winnipeg