Aside from the fact that none of the other members plays on it, Provincial is essentially a new Weakerthans record, except even mellower. Frontman John K. Samson may have stepped out on his own here, but he’s always been the Weakerthans’ mouthpiece and leader. He’s a gifted lyricist, but as a guitarist, he only knows so many chords, and flecks of older songs come and go here. Provincial doesn’t stray too far from the template established by the last two Weakerthans records.
On the other hand, hey, more Weakerthans.
Provincial should satisfy many a fan. It’s been nearly five years since Reunion Tour, so they deserve it, even if half the record consists of previously released material from Samson’s City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222 EPs, as well as The Old House, a joint effort from Samson and his wife Christine Fellows that was given to family and friends. Samson is in his element throughout as he delivers one scene description after another while he drives around Canada. Whether he’s depicting loneliness on “Grace General” or extolling the reasons why Reggie Leach deserves a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame on “http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” (Yes, that’s the title), Samson imbues everything he sings with a wit and warmth that carries the load when hooks and choruses don’t.
While I enjoyed Reunion Tour quite a bit, my one gripe with it was that it tried too hard to recreate some rock songs on par with “Aside,” perhaps due to the track getting a bump from the Wedding Crashers soundtrack. Provincial doesn’t have that problem, although it does still include a few more rock-oriented songs like “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” and “Longitudinal Centre.” Those cuts folk-rock pretty hard.
But Provincial’s best tracks strip away the noise and focus on Samson’s stories, augmented every so slightly by some acoustic guitar, piano and percussion. “Highway 1 East” opens the record with horns providing great fanfare before “Heart of the Continent” gently brings in scenes of weary travels and dilapidated construction sites. “Heart” has the simplest percussion--it’s mostly just a bass drum keeping time--but it adds so much to this intimate number. “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” ruminates on Icelandic myths, Winnipeg retirement homes and shitty coffee. “Tapes Reversed” cites a list of maintenance problems with a house over simple piano, although it feels a little tacked on after “Highway 1 West” plays the listener out.
Essentially, each song here is a short story. Samson paints stark, cold images, but he inflects little bits of humor throughout. And that’s what really makes Provincial a Weakerthans record, although the acoustic, folk-tinges certainly help. The last time Samson put out a record, Punknews declared it album of the year. Well, here’s your early contender for 2012.