Friday, September 19, 2014

Polaris 2014, day five: Timber Timbre, Yamantaka Sonic Titan, Strumbellas, 36

Every day this week I posted about two Polaris Prize shortlisted acts and two equally—if not more—worthy albums from the year in question. This is the final installment. The winner will be announced at the gala Sept. 22.

The shortlisted

Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams (Arts and Crafts)

The album: This isn’t supposed to enter into Polaris considerations, but I’ve liked Hot Dreams considerably more since I was completely blown away by their career-making Massey Hall performance. I had seen Timber Timbre several times over the years, but this current lineup is electrifying and elastic, and even if most of these songs sound exactly the same, goddam do they ever sound incredible. Note: everyone except Taylor Kirk is part of an instrumental soundtrack project called Last Ex, whose debut comes out on Constellation Records on Oct. 14. You can hear a track here.

My Hot Dreams review from April:

Timber Timbre frontman Taylor Kirk checked into Heartbreak Hotel, and he never left. The more he discovered how haunted it really is, the more he liked it. On this, his fifth album, he still drenches his voice in rockabilly reverb and peers into every dark corner he can find, using blues, ’50s lounge crooner music, ’60s spaghetti Western soundtracks (you can almost hear the clip-clop of trotting horses on the opening track, “Beat the Drum Slowly) and sheets of spooky-ass noise of indecipherable origin. Organs wheeze, pianos grown, lecherous saxophones beckon, string sections weep and sing. All the while, as always, one can’t help but picture Harry Dean Stanton imbuing Roy Orbison songs with eternal dread in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—especially when Kirk calls in female backing singers to sing what Kelly Hogan calls “Roddenberries” (vocals that sound like the Star Trek theme song) over a bolero beat. Doom is always either imminent or has already wreaked its havoc, leaving desolate survivors to wade through the wreckage.  

Sound like a good time? No, of course not. But everyone loves a good creep: just ask the creators of The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad; the latter has used Timber Timbre’s music in the past. Kirk runs the risk of camp, which he fell into far too often on his last album, where the lyrics tried too hard to create the sense of dread that the music did naturally. He’s more careful this time out, although there’s the occasional clunker—like when he opens a song by declaring, “I want to dance with a black woman.”  

If Kirk’s songwriting is neither here nor there (there’s an odd melodic nod to “Rivers of Babylon” on the track “Grand Canyon”), he and his band continue to improve as arrangers: there’s a strong influence of dub reggae, psychedelia and RZA-style hip-hop production that leaves plenty of space for ghostly textures, and sets them far apart from other rootsy retro acts who think reverb and a Farfisa organ are convenient crutches to create mood. Guest performer (for the third album in a row now) Colin Stetson on saxophone is also a welcome presence.  

Timber Timbre has a shtick, and Taylor Kirk is sticking to it. It’s not only working for him, but he keeps getting better at it. 

The chances: Good. Unless you’re totally turned off by the shtick, this album gets better and better with repeated spins. As with all Timber Timbre records, it maintains a consistent mood, and this time there are no dud tracks at all, even if the songs are secondary to the performances and production—both of which are stellar. This is a tough year: I still think the final three albums jurors will be arguing will be Drake, Tagaq and Basia Bulat. But anything can happen, of course, and that includes Timber Timbre getting their due.

Yamantaka Sonic Titan – Uzu (Paper Bag)

The album: Describing this band usually makes their music sound more exciting than it is. Calling themselves “noh-wave,” a nod to Japanese kabuki, this female-fronted prog-metal band draw from paranoid psychedelia, Black Sabbath, Asian melodies and Native American rhythms to craft something unlike anything else in this country or anywhere else. (Sweden's Goat, who have a new album out this month, are the only thing in remotely the same ballpark, that I'm aware of.) For a heavy band, they’re never quite heavy enough; for a weird, trippy band, they’re never quite weird or trippy enough. The rhythms can plod, the ideas sound stillborn. So much creativity and potential here; only half of it is ever realized.

When it works, of course, it’s brilliant: “One” (not a Metallica cover) is exhilarating and monstrous, demanding to be played at top volume. The guitars are searing, the vocals are haunting, and the drummer actually decides to drive the band for a change. It’s preceded by the two other strongest tracks: “Seasickness Pt 2” and “Bring Me The Hand of Bloody Benzaiten,” the triptych of which display almost everything this band can do. On the flipside, “Windflower” and “Saturn’s Return” are lovely, almost pretty.

I don’t doubt that one day, sooner than later, Y/ST will make their magnum opus and that it will be brilliant. Uzu is not it.

The chances: Average. Y/ST’s uniqueness would score them major points in any other year—it certainly did the last time they were shortlisted, with their 2011 debut album. But this year you can’t out-freak the freakiest of them all: Tanya Tagaq, who is twice as intense and mysterious and, because she operates outside of any genre at all, doesn’t have any baggage or expectation to live up to. Whereas there are times when I just want Y/ST to be a better metal band, or to just freak the fuck out.

The could’ve been, should’ve beens:

The Strumbellas – We Still Move on Dance Floors (Six Shooter)

The album: As someone who grew up on Spirit of the West, the Pogues, the Waterboys, and pre-Achtung Baby U2, this band pushes a lot of my teenage buttons. Now I’m an adult who can count on one finger the number of even remotely Celtic acts he’s enjoyed in the last 20 years. (I’m not even sure who that might be—I’m just saying that to cover my bases.) And yet this band warms my cold, cold, self-hating Scot heart.

Yes, it was produced by the guy behind the Lumineers record, so yes, there are a few “hey-ho” moments here. And yes, the eighth-note piano pulse on “Sailing” appears to be a direct nod to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”—and Lord knows we’ve endured enough carbon copies of that band in the last 10 years. There’s nothing particularly original here, so the cool and the jaded can stay at home.

But these are the kind of songs people learn to play with their first bands, the kind of songs on which you learn how to sing harmony, the kind of songs you sing when you’re 23 and music has the power to lift you up and envision futures full of possibility, the kind of songs you sing at the summer folk festival until you fall down drunk in the mud. They’re great songs, and this is a great band with real chemistry, an anthemic rock band that knows how to employ banjo, violin and accordion tastefully without sounding like a hokey revival show.

Thirty minutes, nine songs, every one of them is a hit. It’s even more impressive if you managed to hear their debut, which—well, let’s just say I didn’t expect much going into this. The Strumbellas didn’t make the 2014 shortlist, but they’re going to be cashing a lot of folk festival cheques for at least the next decade based on this album alone.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: Two words that act as instant rockcrit repellent: “Hey-ho!”

36? – Where Do We Go From Here? (independent)

The album: I’m an old guy. To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of music made by people younger than 25 anymore. Except this band, this guy: Calgary’s Taylor Cochrane—who just turned 25, and this is his sixth album since he was a 17-year-old on various medications to treat his ADD. Judging by this record, he’s lived several lifetimes in one. As 36?, he tries on a lot of hats—and they all fit. A lot of bands who try this end up failing miserably—even, as we’ve seen, the mighty Arcade Fire. Here, however, Cochrane is at once a snotty punk, an ambient balladeer, a swaggering falsetto singer, a folkie delivering soaring anthems—and that’s all on the first five songs. “How fucked up can it get?” he sings on “Mrs. Brown.” Pretty fucked up indeed, as proven by a 13-minute, three-song noise collage near the end of the album.

Here’s my review from March of this year:

As per the perplexing band name and album title, Where Do We Go From Here sounds like a confusing mess on the surface. It’s not. It’s actually one of the most refreshing and inventive Canadian rock records in a long while.  

Bandleader Taylor Cochrane delivers ambitious and anthemic alt-rock, psychedelic textures, weirdo electro-pop, folkie detours and a three-part suite of ambient noise: the kind of mix tape or open-format radio show no one makes anymore. That all-out noise excursion aside, Cochrane writes great pop songs, and then throws everything he can at them to see if they survive. There’s no indication here what instruments Cochrane or his bandmates Eric Svilpis and Scott White handle individually; it’s safe to assume there are no slackers on board. Drummer Ryan Kusz gives it all muscle that prevents everything from drifting apart: in the middle of the eclectic experimentalism, this is a rock band. It also helps that Cochrane is no vocal slouch either: when he goes for those high notes that all emo boys attempt, Cochrane actually pulls it off. Nineties campus radio fans: imagine Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum joining Change of Heart circa Smile.  

What’s next for this band? Apparently a plan to rerecord this album with household objects and acoustic instruments. Why would they do that? Like everything heard here: just because.

Unrelated tangent: With the sole exception of Chad Van Gaalen, 36? may well be the only musical act from Calgary I've ever loved. I've yet to be convinced otherwise.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: You think the rest of Canada hates Toronto? Not true. The rest of Canada hates Calgary. But seriously, this should be on Arts and Crafts or Merge or Sub Pop or Matador: it’s way too big to be relegated to Bandcamp. I’m sad Polaris couldn’t give it a bigger push.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Polaris 2014, day four: Shad, Tagaq, Nick Buzz, Adrian Raso

Every day this week I'll post about two Polaris Prize shortlisted acts and two equally—if not more—worthy albums from the year in question. The winner will be announced at the gala Sept. 22.

The shortlisters:

Shad – Flying Colours (Black Box)

The album: Polaris loves Shad. I love Shad. I wish I liked his records more than I do. My October 2013 review:

If anyone tries to knock Shad, they usually complain that he’s too nice. After all, who doesn’t love Shad? Born to Kenyan/Rwandan parents, raised in London, Ont., educated in Kitchener-Waterloo, and now calling Vancouver home, he’s dropped three albums full of intricate but clear wordplay, rocked stages with his winning charisma, and acted as a rap ambassador as a clean-cut, conscious alternative to audiences who didn’t think they liked hip-hop.  That last tag obviously irks him a bit, and it’s one he addresses directly on lead single “Stylin’,” while he also makes fun of people who exoticize his background. But “Stylin’ ” is sure to silence any critics, as he spits dense, brilliant and often hilarious lyrics, playing with his flow, while the backing track alternates between a fuzzy bass and John Bonham beat that recalls the Beastie Boys, while the chorus switches to a low-riding Dr. Dre beat with Saukrates on the hook.  He’s even better on the joyous African-tinged “Fam Jam,” a tribute to the immigrant experience in Canada, while throwing in lines about injustice against Aboriginals and refugees, Big Oil, and how it feels “when you’re Third World born but First World formed / sometimes you feel pride / sometimes you feel torn.”  Shad’s free-association and triple-entendres are where he’s at his best, but on “He Say She Say” he takes a turn into straight-up love-gone-wrong storytelling, a tale of a Peter Pan manchild who loses his love, with a chorus that simply repeats, “I wanted to do a verse about how they worked it out, but…” The trailoff is intentional.  Conversely, he goes all epic on “Progress,” a song ostensibly about—what exactly?—Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the death of Biggie and Tupac, Hurricane Katrina, the history of slavery, and how “America don’t need Jesus / the future is here.” Still trying to parse that one.  Shad’s Achilles heel has always been his backing tracks. The production here has stepped up considerably, though it does seem to be stuck in middle gear—following the Drakeification of hip-hop in 2013, most tracks here are mid-tempo and reflective. The difference, of course, between Shad and Drake—and Shad fans usually posit him as the anti-Drake, something he admits on “Long Jawn”—is that Shad has a helluva lot more to talk about, and far more interesting ways to say it.

The chances: Good. Many still think Shad was robbed in 2011, when his TSOL lost to Karkwa’s album—wait, what was Karwka’s album called again? That said, if a hip-hop album wins in 2014, it is almost certainly going to be Drake. Shad may have beat Drake at the Junos in 2011; don’t expect that to happen again here.

What I’m really hoping for, however, is that the 11-member jury somehow declares a tie, and that Shad and Drake must then wage a freestyle battle rap to separate the winner from the whiner. We all know who would win.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism (Six Shooter)

The album: She’s this year’s Colin Stetson candidate. My June review:

Only a poet of the highest order could attempt to successfully encapsulate the music of Tanya Tagaq. (I am not that poet.) Inuit throat singing is merely her launching pad for sound poetry, electro-acoustic exploration and the calls of the wild. Of course, it’s much more than that. And less.  Much of Tagaq’s power comes from her live performance, where the act of unearthing alternately beastly and beautiful sounds is a powerful, astounding and often disquieting experience. Hearing her disembodied voice in the comfort of your home or through headphones packs considerably less force. This is music from a mystical, mysterious place, and hearing it out of context—which is pretty much anywhere—is odd. In that sense, Tagaq has more in common with the likes of Diamanda Galas than she does with other avant-garde artists that skirt close to mainstream radar: Mike Patton, Colin Stetson, or Bjork (who gave Tagaq her first big break, on the 2001 Vespertine tour). You don’t meet Tagaq halfway: you’re either in, or you’re out.  That said, Animism opens with two tracks that mark a move to middle ground. One is a cover of the Pixies’ “Caribou,” rendered as a majestic, powerful manifestation of an urban creature longing for the wilderness—in Tagaq’s hands, the lyrical message comes through much more clearly than the original. She closes it with a series of howls, uttering the word “repent,” that put to shame anything ever barked by Black Francis. The other is “Uja,” a track that owes as much to metal as it does EDM as it does to—well, to nothing in particular.  The origins of Inuit throat singing are as a joke, a game between two women. There is an element of it that lends itself to the comic—though surely that’s not what Tagaq had in mind on the closing track, "Fracking." It’s obviously meant to be a powerful aural metaphor for the controversial process of extracting natural gas from shale rock—and yet it sounds like a parody of performance art, devoid of any subtlety or poetry. It’s meant to be ugly; it is, in fact, ugly. It sounds like a death moan of Mother Earth; that’s the point. Another track, unambiguously titled "Fight," likewise aims for a visceral punch and falls flaccid instead.  Animism works best when Tagaq plays off her collaborators: violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, drummer Jean Martin and DJ Michael Red. The delicate and ominous “Rabbit” is Tagaq at her most beguiling, a bird-call melody set against chanting, droning violin, a low brass section and ambient sound. On “Soar,” her improbable harmonies with opera singer Anna Pardo Canedo are revelatory. Nowhere is she more successful than “Damp Animal Spirits,” driven by her rhythmic impulses, playing off Zubot and Martin, and exploding into erotic and ecstatic realms by the end of its seven-minute stretch.  Tagaq is an intense and creative artist. What she does with what could be a novelty or a limited palette—much like, say Colin Stetson’s circular breathing and saxophone arpeggios—is astounding. Even when her experimentation doesn't fully click, her bravery and courage are unassailable. 

 The chances: Strong. Artistic bravery and individuality go a long way with Polaris juries. Tagaq has both in spades. Not only is Animism unlike anything else ever considered by a Polaris jury—except maybe Colin Stetson records—she’s also made the kind of album best absorbed in full, in one sitting—not unlike, say, the Godspeed album of 2013. That one did rather well, no?

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Nick Buzz – A Quiet Evening at Home (Six Shooter)

If Bjork, Brian Eno, John Zorn and Christian McBride formed a band, you can guarantee it would have a higher profile than Nick Buzz, the Canadian equivalent of such a supergroup. The vocalist: Martin Tielli, former Rheostatic, idiosyncratic, operatic, fractured folk singer with incredible command and range. The keyboardist: Jon Goldsmith, former sideman to Bruce Cockburn and Jane Siberry, in-demand film composer. The instrumental impressionist: Hugh Marsh, former Cockburn sideman who’s also worked extensively with Mary Margaret O’Hara and Peter Murphy, as well as leading his own instrumental projects. The bassist: Rob Piltch, who counts k.d. lang, Holly Cole and O’Hara on his resumé, among dozens of others. Together, this rarely assembled band is best known, if it is known at all, for a mid-’90s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that still gets played on CBC; Nick Buzz sounds like the kind of jazz-influenced art rock we all wish Mitchell would make, instead of everything else she’s been up to for the past 35 years.

My January review:

Martin Tielli and Nick Buzz released their long-awaited second album (17 years after their first) on 2013’s Labour Day weekend, a hectic time of year, both in life and for new releases. That’s going to be my excuse for only coming to fully appreciate the genius of A Quiet Evening at Home now, four months later. Nick Buzz is music best experienced during hibernation: it’s complex, operatic, layered and cinematic.  Tielli, who helped redefine Canadian rock with the Rheostatics, is the voice and lyricist of Nick Buzz; anyone who’s ever loved his music needs to hear this, which is the most fascinating work he’s done since his 2001 solo debut.  But his bandmates are absolutely integral; this is a project where long-suffering sidemen all deserve equal billing: violinist Hugh Marsh, Jonathan Goldsmith and Rob Piltch, all of whom played with Bruce Cockburn or Mary Margaret O’Hara or both. Here, they combine decades of experience in improvisation, soundtracks, folk and art music to craft cabaret music from an avant-garde radio play.  Tielli’s songs are fully formed enough to be played unaccompanied (“The Happy Matador” could be a Spanish folk song), but Nick Buzz pull everything apart, inserting arpeggiating synths, textural violins, distorted kalimbas, classical piano and ambient textures to create something much larger and immersive. There are no obvious nods to time or place, to obvious influence or innovation: “Stop living in the past / forget about tomorrow,” sings Tielli.   If the music is otherworldly, Tielli’s lyrics convey narrators out of time, out of step and coping with loss. He’s bewildered, bemused and occasionally fantastical: “The Hens Lay Everyday” is set to a crunching electronic beat and Beach Boy harmonies, with lyrics about a musical virus that consumes everyone who hears it: “And those who can’t dance will be able to dance / and those who can will die.”  If there is any comparison to be made here, it is to Scott Walker, the enigmatic American expat crooner who started out in the late ’60s trying to channel Jacques Brel (there’s a fantastic Brel cover on this Nick Buzz album) and became progressively more abstract and strange with age. Tielli has covered Walker before; he’s nowhere near as abrasive and obtuse as Walker is now, but they are definitely similar travellers.  This group is old, weird, out of the loop, and Canadian—it’s hard to envision a marketing strategy. Like any run-of-the-mill, slow-burning, richly rewarding art rock masterpiece, it’s easy for this Nick Buzz album to disappear quickly into the ether. Don’t let it happen.

 Why it didn’t even make the long list: That’s not hard. I’ll admit that I almost passed this album over—despite the fact that the Rheostatics are one of my favourite bands ever, Martin Tielli one of my favourite singers; the other three have also played on many of my favourite albums. So if even I found it hard to set aside time to soak this up, I can’t imagine other jurors did. From what I can tell from a Google search, I’m one of only three people—anywhere—to even bother reviewing it.

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia – Devil’s Tale (Asphalt Tango)

My review from February:

I’ll admit: it’s been a while since I’ve lived in Guelph. When I was there, I knew Adrian Raso only as the guitar teacher at Guelph Music, whose fiery fingers were mostly put to work on wailing heavy metal leads (which he still does, with his rock band the Big Idea). Not my bag. What I didn’t know was that his career had blossomed to the point where he’s collaborated with Prince percussionist Sheila E. and members of the Stray Cats and Extreme. More important, I had no idea he had an acoustic side of him that revered Django Reinhardt’s style of gypsy jazz.

It’s that pursuit that led to this collaboration with arguably the best Balkan brass band in the world, the 12-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia, who hail from a remote region of Romania. They specialize in a blistering, relentless tempos and virtuosic display. It’s hard to imagine them taking a back seat to anyone, never mind a Guelph guitar teacher. It’s just as hard to imagine Raso carving out a space for himself amidst Fanfare Ciocarlia, who have played together for decades.

And yet: both camps meet here as complementary equals. Neither is here to upstage the other. Even though Raso’s fingerwork can match the brass players 16th note for 16th note, more importance is placed here on the actual songs and group dynamic. We know these people are all incredible; they don’t feel they have to prove it in every phrase. On the track “Spiritissimo,” Raso even makes room for another guitar hero, Rodrigo Sanchez, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, with whom he shares a similar love of metal shredding and flamenco.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Of course the fact that it’s an instrumental jazz record that gets filed in the world music section marks one strike against it. The other is that there was, to my knowledge, zero promotion of this in Raso’s native Canada. I only found out about it I emailed him directly, twice, hoping to interview him about the project; I never heard back. Maybe he wants it to remain a secret.

Day one: Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat and runners-up AroarA and Austra, is here.
Day two: Drake, Jessy Lanza and runners-up Kevin Drew and Freedom Writers is here.
Day three: Mac DeMarco, Owen Pallett and runners-up Hidden Cameras and Jimmy Hunt is here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Polaris 2014, day three: Mac DeMarco, Owen Pallett, Hidden Cameras, Jimmy Hunt

Every day this week I'll post about two Polaris Prize shortlisted acts and two equally—if not more—worthy albums from the year in question. The winner will be announced at the gala Sept. 22.

The shortlisters:

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (Captured Tracks)

The album: CanRock’s enfant terrible, who has been voted Most Likely to Embarrass at the gala, based on his wild-man rep as a live performer. His nonchalant attitude is a put-on, however: he’s clearly a great guitar player, even if his tone drives me up the wall. It took me a long time to be won over by Mr. DeMarco, but this album did it. Kind of.

My April review:

The term “salad days” goes back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where the heroine says, “My salad days,
 when I was green in judgment: cold in blood.” The 24-year-old Mac DeMarco—an Edmonton native who bounced around Vancouver and Montreal before landing in Brooklyn and becoming a buzz act—is definitely in his salad days. He is arguably green in judgment. His blood, though, is anything but cold. On this, his third full-length (second under his own name), he sounds like nothing at all could possibly raise his blood pressure: indeed, one imagines him sprawled out on a couch, guitar in hand, microphone stand carefully arranged to reach his reclined position, his rhythm section craning their necks to try and intuit changes.  

Basing this book on its cover, I had every reason to hate Mac DeMarco. Go ahead: do a Google image search. He comes off as a slacker dressed for a day at the beach in ironic retro-ugly fashion—which seems to go hand in hand with his ’80s guitar chorus pedals. At times it sounds like the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie trying to play with Pavement, or the British cloudgazing band The Clientele detuning their guitars in the middle of a song. He almost seems to intentionally be going for the weirdo vote by replicating those strange but beautiful private-press albums from the ’70s, obscurities that existed only in runs of 500 before being reissued in the 2000s with extensively researched liner notes (see: Donnie & Joe Emerson’s album Dreamin’ Wild, on Light in the Attic Records).  

If you can get past that—and it might take a while—it becomes clear that DeMarco puts a lot of effort into making music that sounds this effortless, if not, well, bad. He’s a much better guitar player than his crappy sound would suggest, and he occasionally employs unconventional harmonies (or dissonance) in otherwise dreamy (albeit slight) melodies. Every song sounds more or less the same—does that make him lazy or consistent?

Despite my initial bout of forgiveness, returning to Salad Days again is a bore. Listening to Mac DeMarco is intoxicating—as in, it makes me feel woozy and nauseous. It’s not just the guitar tone; it’s the way it balances that with the tick-ticking hi-hat and the surprisingly supple and deep bass tones (this album sounds considerably worse as an MP3: CD or vinyl, if you must).

The chances: Depends entirely on how many jurors came of age worshipping Pavement.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict (Secret City)

The album: It should be no surprise that I am a huge Owen Pallett fan. And yet: the first time I heard In Conflict, I thought: Wow, maybe this is the first time he doesn’t hit it out of the park. Maybe this is the first time he won’t make a Polaris shortlist. 

What was my problem? Was I drunk? (Alternately: was I listening to Mac DeMarco?) In Conflict is brilliant, in every respect.

My May review:

Love’s beginning. Love’s end. Infatuation. Divorce. Birth. Death. Taking control. Losing control. Surely there have been thousands of songs written for every one of these situations.  But how many songs have ever been written with a line about “the day that you find your 30s have left you childless”—especially a song that rocks as hard as Owen Pallett’s uncharacteristically Zeppelinesque “The Riverbed”? Who else would dare to set a line like “I’ll never have any children” to a sunny chorus amidst an otherwise mournful chord progression (“I Am Not Afraid”)?

Just as becoming a parent is so obviously a life-changing event—there’s no shortage of songs about that, either—realizing that you’re likely never going to be a parent is surely one of the most emotional experiences of one’s life. Yet Pallett is, to my knowledge, the only person—straight or queer—to face that head on in a song.  

The 34-year-old songwriter, violinist, Arcade Fire sideman and Academy Award-nominated film composer (in 2013, for Spike Jonze’s Her) has avoided autobiography his entire career. Instead, he wrote concept albums loosely related to Dungeons and Dragons’ schools of magic and a fantastical 14th-century world called Heartland. Having been raised on ’90s female singer-songwriters, he resented the common assumption that their so-called “confessional” writing was thereby devoid of craft.

His fourth album finds him, as always, avoiding literal lyrics; even though it is (we’re told) a personal record, it’s still couched in poetry open to interpretation. Without knowing Pallett intimately, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t suggest these are universally resonant narratives. He always gets props for his musical prowess; here, Pallett’s poetry is as evocative as his music has always been.  

That’s not the only way the 2006 Polaris Prize-winner has topped himself. Everything about In Conflict marks a maturation. For starters, his voice: Pallett has always been (unnecessarily) self-conscious about his reedy timbre and somewhat limited range, but his performance here is completely transformative. Not only is he far more commanding as a vocalist, he’s writing melodies that push him to be even better; I’m not sure he’d have been able to sing a song with the melodic reach of “The Sky Behind the Flag” five years ago—at least not as well as he nails it here.  

As someone who until recently performed with only a violin and looping pedals, Pallett retreats from the full-blown orchestration that marked 2010’s Heartland. Here, he plays just as much synth as he does violin or viola. The orchestration is employed sparingly, and therefore far more effectively, never more so than the weeping, occasionally dissonance that colours “The Passions,” or the Ligeti-esque strings on the title track, cascading over the second half of an otherwise bouncy pop song.  

Key to the album’s success are collaborators old and new. Marquee value goes to Brian Eno, whose work for game-changing artists and stadium rockers with avant-garde ambitions is well known. Pallett is less interested in any of those people; he prefers Eno’s first four solo albums, before he started making largely ambient music and taking big production gigs. Eno doesn’t produce In Conflict; Pallett hired him to sing backing vocals, and Eno added some synth and guitar textures for good measure. You know, just another guy in the band. No big deal.  

Here, the real star supporting player is drummer Rob Gordon. Ten years ago, Gordon and Matt Smith were two-thirds of Les Mouches, a band where Pallett played guitar and alternated between intimate whispers and primal screams. Clearly, their chemistry is still intact; they all share writing credits on half the album. Pallett abandoned an early version of the album to re-record with his old band live in a room, which brings out a visceral side of the violinist never before heard on his recordings. Gordon in particular is every bit a virtuoso as Pallett; his drum kit is arguably the lead instrument on “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy.” Smith’s bass adds a bottom end never before heard on a Pallett platter.  

Owen Pallett is no longer the guy who plays looped solo violin. He’s no longer the guy whose lyrics seem sprung from Yukio Mishima and Ursula K. LeGuin books. He’s certainly much more than an Arcade Fire sideman, even if that’s how he’ll have spent 90 per cent of his time in 2014. With In Conflict, Pallett invests a lifetime of experience and creates his definitive work to date. 

The chances: Not bad.

Owen Pallett won the first-ever Polaris in 2006, with his Final Fantasy album He Poos Clouds. I not-so-secretly hope that for the sake of the prize's reptuation, no artist will win it twice in its first 10-year history—even if I thought Caribou’s 2010 Swim was far superior to his 2008 prizewinning Andorra, and yes, even if I think In Conflict is the best album on this shortlist.

Heck: Britain’s Mercury Prize, on which Polaris is partially modelled, has only had one repeat winner in its 22-year history. Even then, PJ Harvey took home the prize 10 years apart (in 2001 and 2011).

The GIller Prize, to which Polaris also looked to for inspiration, has had two repeat winners in its 20-year history: Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji. Both repeated their win in fewer than 10 years. (Munro later withdrew her work for consideration for future Gillers.)

In Conflict is not only Pallett’s finest hour, it’s also his most accessible, I would argue: a good gateway for anyone who couldn’t quite find an entry point beforehand. That could give him a shot—but I wouldn’t count on it.

The could’ve been, should’ve beens:

Hidden Cameras – Age (Outside)

The album: Most people familiar with Hidden Cameras are of two minds. Either they always though them some kind of juvenile, niche novelty, or they are fans who treat them as a time capsule from a certain time and place (i.e. Torontopia, circa 2003). Too bad: Joel Gibb will always have thematic threads in his writing, but he’s no longer out to be deliberately provocative; the guy is 37 years old—he’s a grown man. Age, the album, shows that he’s not at all past his prime: he’s getting better.

Maybe I wrote this band off for several years for a variety of reasons, personal and otherwise, but mostly because neither Awoo nor Origin:Orphan did much for me. Here, Gibb is writing the kind of melodies that first drew me into his world, while the band around him and the production is exponentially better. The vintage Hidden Cameras “gay church folk music” sound is there, alongside strangely successful forays into dub reggae and Depeche Mode worship. Usually there’s at least a clunker or two on a Hidden Cameras album; this album is happily all killer, no filler.

The fact that a new Hidden Cameras album exists, five years since the last, and eons since bandleader Joel Gibb decamped from Toronto for Berlin, isn’t the most surprising thing about Age. That would be the dub reggae track “Afterparty,” which works far better than you’d ever imagine: The sparse backdrop is just as suited to Gibb’s soaring vocals as his usual reverb-drenched guitar music. Gibb also takes some long-overdue steps into slinky synth grooves, hardly shocking for anyone who expected him to eventually evolve from delightful lo-fi amateurism into electronic textures. Yet Age is anything but a series of left turns. Each musical element that made the Cameras’ initial burst of “gay church folk music” so exciting—simple, long-note folk melodies set to four chords and an insistent, joyous rhythm—is still at the core of every track; the ever-present string section is punchier, evocative, and more effective than ever. Most importantly, there isn’t a weak track on this concise album, even if Gibb dips into a pool of old live favourites, like first single “Gay Goth Scene,” featuring a demonic possession by Mary Margaret O’Hara in the solo section. You can take the boy out of Toronto….

Why it didn’t make the long list: Again, people take either this band for granted or have them pegged as something from which Gibb and company have long since moved on. “Long-running band releases decent album” doesn’t make great headlines. I’d argue this is more than decent: it’s the most rewarding, well-rounded Hidden Cameras record ever.

Jimmy Hunt – Maladie d’amour (Grosse Boite)

The album:

My December 2013 review:

For a francophone artist from Quebec, Jimmy Hunt sounds incredibly British: particularly, the lazy, hazy dreampop tradition that weaves through early Pink Floyd to Roxy Music to Talk Talk to the Stones Roses to Stereolab. Maladie d’amour is rich with languorous late-night grooves: not surprisingly when you find out Hunt wrote and recorded the skeletons of these songs while on mushrooms in a studio on a lake in La Mauricie National Park (north of Shawinigan), and fleshed out the arrangements during 12-hour nighttime sessions in Montreal a year later. Hunt’s songs are decent, but it’s the last-minute overhaul he subjected them to that elevates the material from the merely nice to the epic and occasionally transcendent. Things get really weird on “Christian Bobin,” which sounds like an Air/Daft Punk collab with Thurston Moore on guitar. Montreal is known for being a city of dreamers; this sounds like that dream. No wonder Hunt has a song called "Rever souvent." 

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: There weren’t a lot of francophone records with serious traction this year. Only three made the long list: a folk record, a hip-hop record, and this one. He might not be reaching English audiences, but he is up for two ADISQ awards next month: Alternative Album of the Year and something called Album of the Year: Critical Acclaim. Is that the franco Polaris?