A quick look at the lyric booklet that accompanies this rather nicely packaged CD screamed 'concept album!' in several alarming ways. So I alerted the relevant authorities, put the dog handlers on standby, made sure I had the number of a Detroit hitman on speed-dial, and pressed 'play'. Happily, my concerns were unfounded. There's a theme running through this album, but very little self-indulgence. This is, of course, a good thing. Now, to be frank, The Weakerthans are never going to win any prizes for startling originality, ploughing as they do a furrow that could broadly be called 'college rock'. There's echoes of The Lemonheads in there, while the vocal reminds me of They Might Be Giants at times and Death Cab For Cutie at others.
Where they win, however, is their deftness of touch and the fact that, when push comes to shove, they know how to write a decent tune. And lyrically, some of the observations on this record are rather engaging. 'The lounge is full of farmers for the 7:30 draw'; 'Now the senior bonspiel winners, circa 1963, are all staring, glaring disapprovingly, from their frame'; 'Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk' - are you getting the picture? The great thing about a lot of these lyrics is that you're in that bar, on that road, passing that house, at that gig.
Musically there are highlights, too: the thundering, booming, cavernous drums on 'Relative Surplus Value' are fantastically well produced (even if the guitar's a bit Bachman Turner Overdrive for my ears), and the plaintive vocal ending is surprisingly touching. The vocal harmonies in 'Tournament of Hearts' are more than nice, as are the guitars, even if the overall feeling is very close to eventual also-rans Longwave.
'Elegy for Gump Worsley' stands out in many ways. Against a subdued backing that features a very understated banjo, it tells the story of an encounter with a former hockey player (Canadians, you see) in a bar. The spoken delivery is perfect for invoking past glories and faded glamour, even if the voice sometimes veers into King Missile territory. 'Sun In An Empty Room' again demonstrates an uncanny knack for a decent chorus - you'll be singing along with the backing vocals in no time - and the guitar parts are chipper and smiley. There's some lovely brass bits on 'Bigfoot!', the big drum sound returns for 'Reunion Tour', and there are some odd looping noises on 'Utilities' that undermine the quasi-country geetars. There's also some nicely washed-out organ, and a big battered guitar solo that's quite in keeping with that last-track feeling.
I actually rather like this album, even if on first listen I thought it a little bland. As mentioned previously, some of the lyrical observations are really very good, bringing the listener into the moment with a kind of briefly sketched but well chosen immediacy. And there's enough in the music - just - to keep me going back for just one more listen. I can imagine listening to it a good few times more, then maybe not touching it for six months before coming back to it and appreciating the good bits all over again.