I thought I had these guys pegged; I was just about sure of it. After Canadian indie-rockers The Weakerthans' last album, the brilliant Left and Leaving, I thought I had a pretty firm vision of these guys as gloomy, depressive, bitter rockers, lodged somewhere between the Alkaline Trio and Jawbreaker in the "sad rock with loud guitars" corner of the musical spectrum. With Reconstruction Site, however, they proved me wrong, and quite wonderfully.
There's still a fair bit of melancholy brooding here, sure, but it gets nowhere near the attention that it received on Leaving. This album begins instead on a defiant note, with military drums, Townsendian guitars, and even a trumpet break all signaling that the first song, "Manifest," is the start of something different. Songs like "Time's Arrow" and "A New Name for Everything" meander along delicately, eschewing rock guitars in favor of quiet melodies and countrified instruments, while the title track could almost be a John Cougar Mellencamp song if it weren't for the sly smirk behind the words. Tracks like "The Prescience of Dawn" and "The Reasons" are a bit more like the band's older stuff, but the latter still strikes a hopeful chord, with vocalist/songwriter/guitarist John Samson bearing his heart to proclaim "I know / You might roll your eyes at this / But I'm so / glad that you exist."
The band also manage to evoke smoky meeting halls and guys in funny hats making toasts on "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call" and blaze through "Uncorrected Proofs," proving they can rock, they just know they don't always have to. The album's absolute highlights, though, are the bare-bones, voice-and-a-guitar folk of "One Great City!", a sarcastic ode to the band's beloved hometown of Winnipeg, Ontario, and the rocking, beautifully clever "Plea for a Cat Named Virtue," where Samson's cat tries to get his owner to pick himself back up off the bottom, turn around his gloomy, self-hating life, and have fun for once.
That's really the key here, I think. The songs on Site are redemption songs; they're all about finding peace and comfort, about being able to laugh and smile again. There's a lot about bravery here, and faith, as well -- the sung-spoken "Hospital Vespers" makes that pretty clear, with the image of a bedridden invalid blocking out the security cameras so he or she can kneel and pray. Hospital imagery runs throughout the album, actually (along with an odd fascination with polar explorers; see the speeding, highly entertaining pop-punk-ness of "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault, 1961)"), which makes me wonder if maybe an ill friend taught the songwriter a thing or two in the time between Leaving and here.
Taken as a whole, the album itself feels like an affirmation of sorts for Samson, a turning point. I think the cat says it best: "And listen, about those bitter songs you sing? / They're not helping anything / They won't make you strong." Where Leaving was all about bitterness, despair, fear, and loss, Reconstruction Site is just what its name implies -- it's the sound of a man rebuilding his faith in life, in love, and in joy. How could witnessing that process be anything but incredible? (JH)
(Epitaph Records -- 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90026; http://www.epitaph.com/; The Weakerthans -- http://www.theweakerthans.org/)