Intelligence is reclaimed for the common man.
Since Radiohead wowed critics and highbrows with its impossibly complex, textured and abstract Kid A (2000, Capitol) the music world's confused intelligence with complexity, substance with conceptual monsters and the future with spiraling, epic proportions. The Weakerthans, always the champions of the common man, use Reconstruction Site as a wrecking ball to destroy the flying buttresses of pretense that sprung up on the foundations of art-rock complexity.
With its trademark blend of folk simplicity, rock and pop's zing and presence and, of course, singer/guitarist John K. Sampson's magnificently literate lyrics, The Weakerthans emerge from a three-year slumber with an album that's sure to be one of 2003's high-water marks. Sampson once again gives voice to the little folk's fears, dreams, letdowns and everyday victories with a quiet dignity that, even when portraying low moments, sympathizes with his subjects. It's an up-with-people approach to songwriting that puts The Weakerthans on par with lyrical greats like Woodie Guthrie, Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen because of their shared love of the small people. From "Hospital Vespers," a snapshot of religious comfort in the face of the sterile medical industry, to the title track with its concrete images of one of grown man's happiest moments as a child, Sampson's meek grace and poise patiently wait to inherit the earth. With devastatingly wry turns of phrase that litter every song ("Ask the things you shouldn't miss/ Tape-hiss and Modern Man/ Cold War and Card Catalogs/ To come and join us if they can/ For girly drinks and parlor games" Sampson croons in "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue"), Sampson and The Weakerthans shouldn't have to wait long to collect their inheritance.
Sampson isn't the only one who shines on Reconstruction Site. The rest of the band ups its salt-of-the-earth appeal by encompassing wider genres into its sound. The band breaks out the pedal steel to invoke the winsome loneliness of the prairie in tracks like "A New Name for Everything" and "Benediction," ropes in a brass section to give a bit of soul flavor akin to Hefner or The Jam on "Manifest" and lets a touch of avant-garde peek in with reverse-tape loops in "Hospital Vespers." Of course, the quartet doesn't abandon its pop and urban folk tricks, as the pop of "The Reasons" and the minimalist folk of "One Great City!" don't just touch on the band's past victories, but supercede them.
The Weakerthans don't need to smack listeners in the face with weird production, envelope-pushing song structures or haughty highbrow songwriting. They come through just as well with stark simplicity to achieve a salt-of-the-earth intelligence with which few bands can hope to compete.
- Matt Schild