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Tunes Review: John K. Samson – Provincial

Provincial, the debut solo album from eloquent, witty and charming Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson is an engrossing, reflective excercise in small-town solopsism and heartbreaking empathy. What began as a 7″ series chronicling the roads and highways of his native Manitoba eventually spilled out in a full-length, cathartic collection of the prairie province’s tiny tales and idiosyncratic intricacies.

Samson is at his most poignant and poetic on Provincial, his softspoken singsong regaling us with stories of downtrodden graduate students, sanitoriums and sarcastic satellites. “Halloween parties / emaciated ghosts hiding in those curtain creases / I’ll let you haunt the world, when I write my master’s thesis” he sings in a smirk, sandwiching sincerity between sarcasm and sadness on the wink-and-a-nudge first single “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” a witty jab at the anguish of graduate students.

The album is gigantic, blanketing and billowing around you like the very roads and flax fields it eulogizes. Sonically, it’s a surprising departure from Samson’s work with the Weakerthans. Dense, baroque flavours intertwined with Samson’s trademark hushed fingerpicking and offset by raucous rockers like “Cruise Night,” reworked from its embryonic acoustic arrangement on Samson’s Provincial Route 222 single and featuring a salaciously fuzzed out solo by the East Coast’s most treasured troubadour Shotgun Jimmie that practically cleaves the track in two.

While half the songs on Provincial are re-recordings of tracks on Samson’s first two 7″s, City Route 85 and the aforementioned Provincial Road 222, it feels like Samson has a keener, sharper grasp on them, tinkering with them, letting them slowly evolve and unfurl. “Grace General” shifts from a soft and sombre acoustic ballad to a crackling spit and cough of digital sighs and cello. The track tragically crumbles into itself, swells of horns and strings struggling to keep together as Samson quietly and sadly asks “What will I do now?” and our hearts fiercely shatter into pieces.

Provincial is wildly diverse, from the floating orchestral opener “Highway 1 East” to the jagged “Longitudinal Center,” in which a resentful, snarling Samson surprises the hell out of us by baring his fangs and his frustrations about prairie isolation with a jarring, dissonant thrash of guitars, spitting fantastic, fed-up lines like “The spring made winter an insulting opening offer”. Samson is universally lauded for his gorgeous, intricate wordplay—crafting lines that read more like sorrowful, passionate prose than lyrics—and he’s at his best on Provincial. Every word clicks in place, leaving you breathless and bewildered as you try and grasp lines like “In another year / I’ll be buried or shivering here / coughing at that grey spittoon painted orange by the Harvest Moon” without sobbing.

With Provincial, John K. Samson reminds us why it is that he’s perpetually proclaimed Canada’s wittiest and most sincere singer-songwriter. Even when weaving us a harrowing, heartbreaking opus of desolation, small-town terror and our own frail humanity, he’s still shining us that sincere smile and knowing wink, just hoping we’ll smile back and sing along.

Nick Laugher
Nick Laugher
Never profiting from the pithy pitfalls or pedantic antics of the common journalist, Nick "Noose Papermen" Laugher has continuously baffled readers by demonstrating a rare understanding of the vagaries of our current cultural climate. Rumored to have been conceived and raised in the nook of a knotty pine somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Laugher was forced to abandon his true calling (pottery) after having one night experienced a vision in which a wise and generous hawk appeared to him through the shimmering static of his television set. The apparition spoke to Laugher of an aching need for some new kind of media perspective, one that elegantly incorporated esoteric vocabulary, gratuitous alliteration and penetrating pun-manship. And so it was. And so it is. And so it always will be.

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