I suppose it’s one of life’s minor paradoxes that just when The Weakerthans signed to Epitaph (home to Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX), their music would undergo a process of refinement that would further distance them from their punk roots. The music on Reconstruction Site, the band’s third full-length, belies the fact that frontman John K. Samson once played with left-wing Winnipeg punkers Propaghandi and mingled with the Fat Wreck Chords scene. Out of the fourteen tracks on the new album, only four — “The Reasons,” “Plea from a Cat Named Virtue,” “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” and “Uncorrected Proofs” — could be considered punk, even in the loosest sense of the word. Some will no doubt regard this slide towards a softer sound as “selling out.” But no picture of The Weakerthans should be painted in Manichean monochrome. If there was one band to deliberate long and hard about the pros and cons of producing a more accessible sound, it would be this one. Their liner notes unpretentiously feature quotes from James Agee, Karl Marx and Martin Amis, and the highly idealistic Samson writes lyrics that read just like poetry.
Reconstruction Site is, as the title implies, less dark than 2000’s Left and Leaving, and perhaps less thematic as a result. The album is separated into three parts using an overture, intermezzo and a finale, so to speak, which are listed parenthetically and do not run past two minutes — as if to indicate some larger design, although none is readily apparent. Aside from this odd means of division, rendered somewhat superfluous on account of the absence of a solid theme, there is not much to be found here beyond the formulaic verse-chorus-verse embellished by a spry pop and/or punk hook; though admittedly that same formula, done well, has produced some very good albums in the years since rock came into existence, and Reconstruction Site is one of them.
I’ve held back from calling it excellent, opting instead for the less emphatic “very good,” because the album comes up crucially short in terms of originality and focus, and consequently in the overall memorability department. The songs are enjoyable and the lyrics as strong as ever, but this release as a whole does not come across as something to be savored. It’s more like an acceptable way of bridging the gap between Left and Leaving and the next album, whenever it comes; and I’m not entirely confident that Reconstruction Site can fill the three-year wait that its predecessor did.
What makes this album worthwhile are the incidental highlights: the harmonious chorus on the title track; the empty lives portrayed in “Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call”; the way the ballad “One Great City!” conjures a feeling of urban alienation; the leaps of the slide guitar on “A New Name for Everything”; and the peculiar narrative perspectives of (the heavily moralistic) “Plea from a Cat Named Virtue” and “Our Retired Explorer.” Other than the latter of these, which has a video on the enhanced portion of the CD, there isn’t a standout single to be found, regardless of the more pop-oriented sound (thus absolving the group of selling-out allegations). Clearly, recommending the band to newcomers on the strength of this release would prove difficult. Reconstruction Site will help palliate The Weakerthans’ existing fans’ desire for a new album, and may even attract some new listeners in spite of itself. But to keep themselves fresh in the memory of the non-concert-goers, the band should start contemplating their follow-up now.