Staying abreast of contemporary music is an exhausting and nearly futile enterprise. Too many bands exist, as do too many songs, too many shows, too many tweets, too many everything. Thankfully, bands like The Weakerthans exist, too — groups whose members resist saturating the world with input and only say something when they have something worth saying.
Since their inception in 1997, the Winnipeg four-piece has made only four full studio albums and six total releases. Reunion Tour, The Weakerthans' fourth and most recent full-length, arrived in 2007 — which feels like an eternity ago. But that brief discography indicates a great sense of care, not laziness. When a Weakerthans record arrives, you can be sure that you'll have a lot to chew on. This week, they're giving local fans a lot of live material to digest by playing their four albums over consecutive nights at The Independent: 1997's Fallow on Wednesday, 2001's Left and Leaving on Thursday, 2003's Reconstruction Site on Friday, and Reunion Tour on Saturday. They will repeat this routine in New York City soon thereafter.
John K. Samson — The Weakerthans' guitarist, vocalist, lyricist, and linchpin — is comfortable poking fun at his band's sluggish pace of work. He mentions that the group is working on a new record, but hesitates to give any release date, should the information be rendered inaccurate by delays (as release dates have been before). "We do take things at a — I like to call it in a kindly manner. A deliberate pace. Others would call it slow," he says with a little chuckle. "But we're still a band and still like to play our songs and spend time together and put on some shows." Still, he doesn't seem totally sure why the band is holding this four-night stand in San Francisco: "You know, we did [this set of performances] in Winnipeg last year, and it almost destroyed us, so I don't know why we decided we'd do it again, but we just thought that it would be fun," Samson says, sounding a bit puzzled by his own decision.
Working deliberately allows Weakerthans to put out music dense enough to keep fans interested, even in long gaps between releases. The band's music — mostly indie rock and folk played at medium tempo or slower — sounds like it's born of deep, earnest consideration. The hooks are hard-won and understated, efficient but effective. The Weakerthans are too obsessive to resort to big, melodramatic movements, so the resulting songs are best enjoyed in moments of tranquility. Their subtlety asks the listener to pay close attention, but it's worth it: When The Weakerthans are on, they're really on — wringing all the emotional power possible out of some sad country guitar twang gliding around the edges of "Reconstruction Site," and the unexpectedly raw, craggy climax of "Aside."
But the band's greatest asset is Samson's lyrics. Most of his songs are vivid stories about characters both real (the late, sturdy NHL goaltender Gump Worsley; philosopher Michel Foucault) and fictional (a lonely pamphleteer constantly ignored by passersby; a man who cribs lingo from the profoundly Canadian sport of curling to analyze his troubled love life). Samson has even developed a recurring character in the form of Virtute the Cat: in her debut on Reconstruction Site, the feline urges her owner to take care of his depression and drinking problem, and on Reunion Tour's "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure," she leaves home but desperately misses the man she left behind. Samson's portraits aren't typically easy to parse, because he relishes throwing in obscure, unexpected details and twists. But finally getting them feels like unwrapping an intricately packaged gift.
The songwriter's deftness as a writer of lyrics has won much praise in reviews, with critics describing Samson's work as "literary." But surprisingly, he doesn't think his skills could transfer to print. "I've always considered myself a thwarted fiction writer," he says. "Anything longer than a two-and-a-half-minute pop song, and my mind and prose begin to wander. I include too much in what I'm trying to say about something."
This attention given to Samson's contributions to The Weakerthans often means that other members' contributions are downplayed. But this makes sense: Samson's style puts him in a league with songwriters like the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, and other musicians whose words are integral to the band's persona — perhaps even more so than the instrumentation. All three write from the perspective of unusual personalities. And all three are known for the way they deliver their lyrics as much as the words themselves. Samson maintains the warm, tactful tone of a narrator who is sharing his stories to trigger reflection instead of action.
It might seem bizarre that the band's founder also once played bass and sang in the perpetually agitated punk band Propagandhi. But The Weakerthans' focus on the economical — in their instrumentation, their lyricism, their willingness to release material — stems from a deep appreciation of brevity that Samson picked up in punk. "There's something political about that," he says. "You have [only] this much time in which to speak to someone, so you should use it effectively."