History To The Defeated: Left and Leaving at 20

On their classic second album, The Weakerthans shored up on their strengths as a prominent band in their own right

The Weakerthans (Art: Ron Hart)

Formed in 1997, Canada’s The Weakerthans were a rowdy bunch early on, the brainchild of founding member John K. Samson following his departure from the punk band, Propaghandhi.

Their origins can also be traced to another insurgent outfit, Red Fisher, which featured drummer Jason Tait. Rather than continuing to dwell on those early punk precepts, the Weakerthans — whose line-up was completed by guitarist Stephen Carroll and later bassist Greg Smith — chose instead to refine their edgy intents and focus instead on happening their songwriting and creating a more tempered approach to their musical mantra. The band’s first album Fallow quickly attracted the attention of Canadian critics who quickly proclaimed them ones to watch.

It was their sophomore set Left and Leaving, however, that confirmed the promise the pundits recognized early on and made The Weatherthans an indelible part of their country’s latter day legacy. Ranked as one of the top ten Canadian albums of all time and a nominee for Alternative Album of the Year at the 2001 Juno Awards, it’s since achieved something akin to iconic status. One song on that album, “Pamphleteer,” shares a lyric that helped inspire their handle: ”What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?” 

Having maintained that mantra, Left and Leaving was a major milestone for the band. They found a way to consolidate their rowdier instincts and redefine them as sturdy rockers — “Exiles Among You,” “Watermark” and “Aside” being three of the most pertinent examples. More significantly though, they opted to alleviate some of that energy by including a series of decidedly low-key laments — among them, the title track, “Elegy for Elsabet,” History to the Defeated,” and “Slips and Tangles” — while adding a reflective element to their multi-hued musical palette. It was the sound of a band coming to grips with what seemed to be a day of reckoning, with the shadows that loomed just above the horizon foretelling a certain shift in circumstance. The lyrics became more poetic, the music quietly intense, and the overall  sound navigated between circumspect and sobriety.

The Weakerthans Left and Leaving, Epitaph 2000

The group would continue to evolve their sound with Reconstruction Site (2003) and Reunion Tour (2007) following their signing to Epitaph Records in the U.S., a label known for reaching beyond the fringe. Recognizing those leanings and seeing the possibility for wider success, they brought other elements into their mix — rock, country, Americana and alternative music in particular. No longer confined to any one particular genre, they were able to carve out a singular identity that would soon make them one of Canada’s most compelling imports.

The band would linger on for a few more years, but by 2009 Samson was already discussing is intent to release a series of solo projects, beginning with a pair of EPs, City Route 85 and Provincial Road, the latter of which would morph into Samson’s first full-length album, simply titled Provincial. In 2015, the band confirmed the rumors that had been circulating for some time, telling fans and followers that they were “cryogenically frozen.” Both Tait and Smith collaborated on Samson’s 2016 solo album Winter Wheat, which effectively became the final Weakerthans coda. Indeed, Samson’s pensive approach seemed a direct result of the band’s later evolution. It was a sound that had been hinted at in the melancholy musings that had their origins some 16 years before.

When the Weakerthans turned left before leaving, they etched a sound that would not only establish their template but also linger long after. 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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