Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Albums That Changed My Life: Volume 1

I have a weird memory for pop culture , particularly music. I might not remember the first time I met some of my best friends, but I remember the first albums I ever bought with my own money. (For the record, they were Nirvana MTV Unplugged In New York and Crash Test Dummies’ The Ghosts That Haunt Me.) But very rarely do I remember the exact moment I found an album that I was looking for. In fact, I can only recall doing that once.

In Grade 11, I was a kid who was very unsure of himself. My friends were all very confident and outgoing, or at least, they appeared to be. If I only knew then what I know now, high school would have been far easier. But at the time they all seemed so much larger than life, and as a quietly terrified young man I hung on their every word. I thought that if I could somehow take on aspects of their personalities I would become more like them, and less afraid of everything.

So when my friend Craig told me about the new album by his favourite band, I went to find it at the HMV. I didn't know what it sounded like, I just knew that Craig liked it, and that was good enough for me. I remember nervously going to the Alternative section of the store (Hey, remember when record stores had "Alternative" sections? Remember when they were called record stores?), sure that some Cool-Dude-In-Charge was going to discover me, realize I didn't belong, and cast me out. But it didn't happen. I walked into the store and, if anything, I was ignored. Thank goodness for apathetic retail employees; I think if anyone had come up to me to see if I'd "needed a hand finding anything" I would have shut down. Hands trembling, I flipped the CDs down until I saw the cover. Four guys up against a black background, and hand-lettered above them in gold-yellow ink floated the name of the band and the album. Sloan -- Twice Removed.

Damn those handsome young devils...

I grabbed it and walked up to pay. I avoided making eye-contact with the greasy-haired facially-pierced guy behind the counter while I paid, then rushed quickly out of the store.

When I listened to it for the first time...well, I don't recall exactly what I thought of it. Chalk it up to my weird memory: I remember buying it in such vivid detail, but I don't remember actually listening to it . I know I liked it, although I don't know how much of it was due to the fact that my friends all liked it so I pretty much had to. I listened to it over and over again, memorizing the lyrics to every song probably within the first week. It became my favourite album. I made my little brothers listen to it, and they liked it, although I think my youngest brother's taste was still more to the pop radio. And in a slow, almost imperceptible way, that album changed my life. The almost-grunge-but-not-quite sound, the rough edges with a pop sensibility, completely won me over. Every song was my favourite at one point or another.

I felt like each of the band members had something to say to me that made me a very different person than I was before I'd heard Twice Removed. Their personas seemed to be perfectly encapsulated by the album photo. Jay Ferguson, stares straightforward and earnestly at the camera. With his deceptively simple and sweet songs, he reminded me of me only smarter. Andrew Scott, standing in the background and obscured by shadows, was the mysterious drummer with the "weird" songs. Patrick Pentland, looking downward with his hand covering part of his face, seemed shy and a little sad. His songs were alternately haunting and hopeful, and gave me my first taste of a punk-rock sensibility. But it was Chris Murphy who really struck a chord with me, head cocked to the side, staring straight ahead as if to say, "Go on. Show me something." And with his sarcastic and bittersweet lyrics about love, something I hadn't even begun to believe in at that time (and will never understand), combined with his love of wordplay, Chris was the guy I aspired to be.

It feels strange writing all this down. But I really think that I wouldn't have been the person I am today if it wasn't for Twice Removed. I think some of it was the harrowing trip to the HMV. In retrospect it seems ridiculous: a fourteen-year-old boy afraid to walk into probably the most non-threatening record store you could find. At the time, though, it was incredibly intimidating. But somehow, I survived my trip into the dragon's den and emerged victorious. A small, insignificant challenge, but one I had done completely by myself. I did something that my "cool" friends had done and learned that it wasn't nearly as terrifying as I'd made it out to be. That was a big step on my journey from timid, quiet teenager to loud, friendly, boistrous man.

It was more than that, though. It was the music. It spoke to me in a way I didn't understand, in a way I still don't understand. When I listen to really good music, I feel something pulling on my chest. Like an invisible cord stretching out of the speakers and tugging, gently but urgently. My chest expands and I feel connected to something else. Something bigger. And that's how I felt when I listened to Twice Removed: not for just one song, but for every song. I felt connected to the men who had made that music, and to the people who I just knew had to be listening to it at the same time. That one album made me feel less alone.

When their next album, One Chord To Another, came out, I was shocked, disappointed, and furious. It sounded clean! It looked more polished! It had horns! What the hell was going on? It felt like Sloan had abandoned me. And so I abandoned them, pretending that album didn't exist. My younger brother bought the album and played it all the time, but I took the fact that he liked One Chord as yet another sign that he was inferior to me. As far as I was concerned, Sloan ended with Twice Removed.

Until one summer afternoon. I had just finished up my third year of university, in my summer job as a house-painter. I was listening to the radio to pass the time as I finished up a wall just before lunch. It was another moment I remember with great clarity: I was covering a house's stucco exterior with blue paint, and even after soaking the walls with water they soaked up paint so much I had to do three coats. (And a few days later I almost fell off the roof because they wanted me to paint their stucco chimney blue as well. But that's another story.) A siren came on the radio, and then this driving base note repeated over and over, and then a crazy rock hook. A series of chords that hit me right in the gut. I said to myself, "Who the hell is this?" and stopped working for the length of that song, just listening transfixed. When it was over, the announcer told me who it was: Sloan. Of course. The song was "Money City Maniacs," and in that moment I realized what a fool I had been. And Sloan has been a part of my life ever since.

This year marks Sloan's 20th anniversary, and they're touring with a new album. I am, of course, going to their Edmonton show, which will mark the seventh time I have seen them in concert. To prepare myself, I have been listening to all their previous albums pretty-much non-stop in the car for the past week. And every time I slide the next disc into the CD player, I remember things about who I was when I was first discovering those albums.

The young man confronted by his high-school ex-girlfriend one lunch hour, telling him she felt guilty because she made out with his best friend, all because of a song from Smeared he'd put on her "I'm Glad We're Still Friends" mix-tape.

The grad student who was pushing twenty-seven and thought he had life all figured out when Never Hear The End Of It came out.

The smarmy, stuck-up man-child just about to graduate from high school who thought he was a misunderstood genius and could have used a reality check the first time he heard a song off One Chord To Another.

The recent University graduate who was just discovering what it felt like when you get your heart broken for the first time, all to the soundtrack of Pretty Together.

That summer I spent driving from my parents' acreage to my painting job in the city, listening to Navy Blues and realizing that I couldn't stay at home for much longer.

And it all goes back to the day that an unsure high school boy swallowed his fear and went into a place he knew was dangerously too cool and off-limits, to find the mystical item that he hoped would transform him into someone else. Someone better. For Arthur it was Excalibur; for me it was Twice Removed. I could have done a lot worse.

(Thanks to my TwitEditors @DorklordCanada, @MrBalls, @Xeryfyn, and @AmyRhoda!)


Amy Brown said...

Very nice! That bit in the middle pulls it all together. It's funny what we're scared of when we're teenagers!

The Parched Paige said...

The bass player from Sloan came into my store last week to shop for violins!

The Doc said...

Thanks, Amy! And I am glad you think the middle part works, I was really glad you suggested it.

You are a lucky man to have been able to meet Chris Murphy, Paige. Did you touch him?