Leader of The Weakerthans – and former Propagandhi bassist – John K. Samson isn’t the most prolific musician in the world. Perhaps it’s a quality over quantity thing, but he’s never been one to adhere to the industry ideology of album cycles. This allows Samson’s releases to never seem half-cocked, instead they are each deliberate, flowing pieces of deep introspection.
On his debut solo album, Provincial, Samson uses his home Canadian providence of Manitoba for inspiration. Based upon four distinct routes found in Manitoba Samson creates an album that, shockingly, wouldn’t feel out of place in The Weakerthans’ canon. Sadly, half of the album’s tracklist is rehashed from his previous 7-inch EPs, City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222. Although the tracks are structurally the same they appear fully realized here, leaving the EP versions to seemingly serve as demos for Provincial.
Provincial is touted as Samson’s debut solo album, but this greatly understates the work of the numerous musicians that contributed to the record in one capacity or another. Samson’s distinctive voice and his knack for songwriting are certainly on display, but it is far cry from a mere singer-songwriter project as it sees 15 other musicians take part in one capacity or another. Samson returns to his full band root on “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” a melodic indie-rocker that could have found its home on The Weakerthans’s 2003 album Reconstruction Site. It simultaneously highlights Samson’s witty lyricism, striking a balance between “Grand Theft Auto” references and grad school.
Provincial has few “rock” songs, as Samson puts his softer side on full display. This is by no means a bad thing, as some of his best work has come from him quietly emoting. With The Weakerthans Samson has proven he can deliver persona\l lyrics that resonate with a listener, but here he finds ways to take songs that are ostensibly about pavement and personify them to the point of beauty.
Left to his own devices Samson does occasionally falter. Opening “Cruise Night” with a drum intro that recalls the worst of ‘80s cock-rock is an incredibly poor decision. This embarrassing start saddles the track’s infectious chorus with the chore of making up for this early transgression – something it is barely capable of doing.
At certain points during Provincial Samson seems to be repeating himself. “Heart of the Continent” and “Letters in Icelandic from the Ninette San” display his default approach to an acoustic guitar is to fingerpick, leaving both tracks feeling incredibly similar. Even with similar stylistic approaches Samson finds a way to make each song engaging and avoid becoming stagnation.
Although Provincial is by no means the strongest release of Samson’s career, it shows that even alone he is still capable of engrossing a listener. While the inclusion of energetic, punk-tinged numbers would have been welcomed, those days seem to be behind Samson. Instead of power chords and distortion, Samson channels isolation with an acoustic guitar and strings. If only all punk rockers could age this gracefully.
John K. Samson – Provincial Tracklist:
- “Highway 1 East”
- “Heart of the Continent”
- “Cruise Night”
- “Grace General”
- “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”
- “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”
- “Longitudinal Centre”
- “The Last And”
- “Stop Error”
- “Highway 1 West”
- “Taps Reversed”