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splendid > reviews > 10/21/2003
The Weakerthans
The Weakerthans
Reconstruction Site
Epitaph


Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "One Great City!"

Buy me now
Influenced by authors like Patrick Friesen and James Agee as well as rock luminaries Joe Strummer and Paul Westerberg, Canadian-bred quartet The Weakerthans have always been smarter than the average punk band. After all, frontman John K. Samson was a founding member of wildly popular (for the music, not the message) politi-punks Propaghandi, is heavily involved with a number of independent presses that specialize in socially-minded literature and commentary, and is a central figure on the Winnipeg arts scene. Other members bring varying perspectives to the table, although they all hold their underlying aspirations close to their hearts. The Weakerthans succeed where other politically minded bands fail, for rather than drowning in a sea of their own revisionist rhetoric, they utilize political theory as vanity rather than dictate -- a small facet of a larger treatise as opposed to its major tenet.

Nearly three years in the making, Reconstruction Site tones down the angsty, confused-white-boy vitriol that informed the group's earlier recordings, instead exploring musical roads less traveled (cascading pedal/lap steel, dizzying arrangements, icy vibes and gauzy brass), and honing a lyrical astuteness that's second to none, particularly within the punk rock pantheon.

Reconstruction Site is filled with Samson's acute character assassinations, which drop the listener smack-dab into the middle of an impossible daymare. "One Great City!" mocks urban complacency, its world-weary characters (dollar-store clerks and passing motorists) stuck in dead-end jobs and hard-luck situations -- all the while muttering "I hate Winnipeg". The fallen members of an imaginary guild take center stage in "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call", and "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute" offers a slightly florid first-person account of a feline's displeasure with its apathetic owner ("All you ever do is drink and watch TV, and frankly that doesn't interest me / I swear I'm going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood if you don't stop the self-defeating lies you've been telling yourself since you brought me home"). Samson's characters live and breathe the language of life, and even if his most obtuse references are lost on us, we still relate to their triumphs and struggles.

Like fellow punk-turned-troubadour Ted Leo, Samson has the wherewithal to smear his erudite witticisms across a brightly hued sonic canvas; the blissfully simple power-pop of "The Reasons" masks its origins as an ode to a lost love, while "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michele Foucault in Paris, 1961)" is a rollicking power-chord burn that namechecks both (legendary explorer Ernest) "Shackleton" and (author Jacques) "Derrida". "Benediction" is rife with the warm ruminations of a man who knows he will never be justly pious, and "The Prescience of Dawn" and "Benediction";s sparkling twin guitars recall fellow philosophical punks Thin Lizzy.

As wonderfully crafted an album as Reconstruction Site is, some listeners will be put off by its perceived highbrow attitude; it's too scholarly for the masses, too pop-smart for the avant garde set. In other words, don't look for The Weakerthans on TRL any time soon. However, as with all the best recordings, history will likely vindicate Reconstruction Site, holding it up as a great lost work from a great lost generation.



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