Review: John K. Samson, 'Winter Wheat' The former Weakerthans singer returns with an album full of gorgeous, vividly detailed songs about characters whose potential doesn't always lend them a pathway out of their own heads.


Review: John K. Samson, 'Winter Wheat'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

John K Samson, Winter Wheat. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

It's common practice for musicians to sing the struggles of everyday people: underdogs and strivers who work for the weekend, love and protect their families, and struggle to stay one step ahead of the boss and the bill collector. But everyday people aren't monolithic, and some stories are told far more often than others. Just as Fountains Of Wayne's albums are dotted with the workaday lives of bored commuters and white-collar middle-dwellers, John K. Samson's music often returns to a kind of intellectual underclass — grad students, quizmasters, deep thinkers — whose potential doesn't always lend them a pathway out of their own heads.

"So your presentation went terrible," he sings to open "Postdoc Blues," a sweet and sympathetic pep talk littered with vivid details about life as a frustrated academic; reassurance comes later, in the form of a promise that "I believe in you and your Powerpoint." That specificity isn't limited to academia: Samson, whose career has included stints in both the similarly kindhearted pop-rock band The Weakerthans and the scathingly political punk group Propagandhi, still fills his songs with funny Easter eggs referencing life in and around his hometown of Winnipeg. But even when its meaning is elusive to outsiders, the jargon is never alienating; on the contrary, Samson's songs feel lived-in in ways that register as universal.

Winter Wheat is his second solo record since putting The Weakerthans on hiatus, though he recruits that band's rhythm section here. The album finds him frequently inching the volume downward in ruminative ballads that recall the work of his voice twin, Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay, with whom Samson shares both welcoming warmth and a gift for establishing a sense of place. (They also share a fondness for Neil Young, as "Vampire Alberta Blues" demonstrates.) In "Quiz Night At Looky Lou's," Samson even slows down enough for a spooky and meditative spoken-word piece about dreams, disasters, delusion and mundane disappointments. And, for those who've followed the exploits of the titular feline in the classic Weakerthans songs "Plea From A Cat Named Virtute" and "Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure," she returns to narrate Winter Wheat's tearjerker of a closing song, "Virtute At Rest."

Elsewhere on the album, Samson wrings melancholy out of the pursuit of hope and change, whether his narrator is attempting to inch toward recovery in "17th Street Treatment Centre" or seeking the freedom of a new start in the appropriately titled album-opener "Select All Delete." But even Winter Wheat's saddest moments are leavened by a light touch — and by a voice that remains as comforting as a phone call from a faraway friend.