Answering the question “Who is Sloan?” may require the mention of anywhere from three to four hit singles before recognition is sparked. Determining which memory cue to employ depends on the music scene appreciated by the inquirer. For those who liked grunge before it was cool, “Underwhelmed” will suffice. But for everyone else, the heavy artillery of Sloan’s 1994 Top 40 anthem, “Coax Me,” might be a surer bet. Sloan’s Web site describes the band’s enigmatic back-catalogue more succinctly: “You may be surprised at how many Sloan songs you know and love.”
The fact is, any band that’s survived the past fourteen years has to possess some chameleonic qualities. Especially with the most recent five years’ tendency to resuscitate a dead musical style and recycle it note for note. But it’s to the credit of the four guys in Sloan — Andrew Scott, Jay Ferguson, Patrick Pentland and Chris Murphy — that they never stuck a “the” in front of their name in order to reinvent themselves. Instead, they stayed with power pop through thick and thin, even if they may have had to dress it up in an array of marketing trends over the years. Good or bad, the A Sides Win compilation, a collection of fourteen singles and a couple new songs, proves these Halifax, Nova Scotia natives know what they like.
In spite of their possessing a style that’s hard to track, Sloan has the consistent ability to produce crowd-pleasing melodies with more hooks than a tackle box. If tastes allowed for them to stick with their original punk/grunge-pop leanings on 1993’s Smeared, who knows where they’d be today. Released in the thick of grunge’s strict dress code of flannel shirts and apathy, that album’s “Underwhelmed” and “500 Up” are appropriately confused reminders of a time when clean-cut suburbanites suddenly had to look dirty to be cool. Fittingly, these songs’ hints of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine barely conceal Sloan’s shiny-clean pop music.
A possible explanation for Sloan’s constant style evolution is that the band is comprised of four singer/songwriters. Even the band’s most universally pleasing album, 1996’s One Chord to Another, offers up “The Lines You Amend” with vocals in the shocking guise of Stephen Malkmus’s unmistakable style. Still, this effort’s harmonies are more closely akin to the Beach Boys than Pavement.
After the road to grunge came to an end, Sloan began the treacherous journey to the land of glam rock with 1998’s Navy Blues. And the two brand-new tracks offered on A Sides Win take the band even further down the path into KISS-dom. But all in all, if you were to choose just one album to put on “shuffle” at a party, this one would provide quite a varied retrospective. And hey, for a band with no dramatic break-up tales and a stunning ability to continue to work together through their second decade as a musical entity, you might also want to go the Canadian route and compliment them for being nice.