Friday, September 26, 2008

Polaris: Two Hours Traffic, Weakerthans

Final pre-Polaris post today. The prize winner will be announced on Monday night.

The nominees:

Two Hours Traffic – Little Jabs (Bumstead).

The album: Little Jabs is a decent pop rock record with tasteful arrangements, but while there’s little to criticize, there’s precious little to celebrate either. Pleasant, but entirely innocuous. Admittedly, my musical taste these days means I’m less impressed these days with anything featuring four boys playing two guitars, bass and drums, unless the songwriting is truly outstanding or something else separates them from the crowd (hello, Weakerthans). “Oooh-hoo, you got a fiery soul,” goes one song. If only these boys did. No blood was spilled during the recording of this album.

The chances: Surprisingly strong, with bonus points for coming from Canada’s smallest province. Even though the judges aren’t supposed to think about such matters as underdogs, precedents and geography, this is a) obscure in its profile, and b) totally mainstream in its orientation. Picking this band would silence some of the anti-Polaris charges that the jury is a bunch of latte-sipping, sushi-eating Prius drivers who only listen to musicians with classical training (Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson, in case you’ve forgotten). Two Hours Traffic are the red meat choice, but giving them the prize would be like ordering a hamburger at a three-star restaurant. Maybe a Holy Fuck/ Two Hours Traffic showdown in the jury room will presage our federal election results.

Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti).

The album: The Weakerthans are one of the Great Canadian Rock Bands of the last decade, in part because they don’t bother to put out an album unless they can stand behind every note. If that takes three or four years, so be it. We don’t rush our novelists; we shouldn’t rush a songwriter like John K. Samson--and he’s never written more like a novelist than he has here, creating poetic portraiture and consciously writing outside of his own experiences.

In “Civil Twilight,” the main character and his daily routine—as well as his dashed romantic hopes and dreams—are all illustrated in depth and deep visual detail, in a way that doesn’t at all feel like it’s being shoehorned into a three-minute pop song. I don’t care if it sounds like at least five other Weakerthans songs, with its textbook dynamics, arrangements and similar melodic motifs. Taken on its own, “Civil Twilight” a distillation of everything this band does so well and is doing even better now, at this stage in its career.

Fans still hold up 2000’s Left and Leaving as the Weakerthans’ masterpiece, and though that holds a dear place in my heart, it’s now more nostalgic for me than anything, a faded photograph of a man I once was. Maybe it’s once again reflective of where I am in life, but Reunion Tour is a much better—and yes, mature—album.

The changes to their signature sound are subtle (harmonies, new textures) yet extremely effective. The one black sheep of the bunch is “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” which I heard one critic decry as “banjo-driven free jazz goalie poetry”—yet it works, and shows the Weakerthans are more than capable of straying from the CanRock formulas they sometimes seem stuck in. Returning producer Ian Blurton knows how to coax the best out of this band, and Reunion Tour is the kind of record that makes me fall in love with rock’n’roll guitars all over again, without resorting to lunkhead retro riffing.

There are too many key lyrics to quote and analyze here—like all of “Civil Twilight,” for example—but I’ll stick with this one for entirely personal reasons, from “Relative Surplus Value”: “The pause feels like an extra year of high school.” That’s the one I keep coming back to--as someone who actually did do an extra year of high school, and with my own reunions of various sorts on my mind this year.

I had the immense pleasure of diving deep into Reunion Tour with Samson several months before the album’s release, in what was my favourite interview of 2007. It is here.

The chances: Fair to good. Being the oldest act on this list, it’s very easy to take the Weakerthans for granted. Though there is a lot of love for this band, reaction to this album in the press was mixed; many didn’t hear any evolution and decried it as more of the same. When it comes to the politics of the prize—which will hopefuly be kept out of the jury room—it will also be hard to ignore the fact that the band just won $25,000 by snapping the XM Verge Artist of the Year award a mere five days before Polaris night. If that wasn’t enough, John K. Samson keeps winning those CBC Canada Reads competitions. But in terms of an album that’s artistically sound on every level and that will easily stand the test of time, this could well be the choice. I’m reconsidering what I said earlier about Caribou; this would likely be my vote.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Ghislain Poirier – No Ground Under (Ninja Tune)

The album: This wasn’t on my initial ballot, but when some of my picks didn’t even make the long list (Forest City Lovers, D’Urbervilles, David Buchbinder) I went back and gave this another listen. I was a huge fan of Poirier’s 2005 album Breakupdown; it took me a little longer to embrace this one fully.

No Ground Under boasts huge beats, catchy hooks, and a healthy balance of the abstract and the club bangers, with some calypso mixed in with the Baltimore bass. And unlike most dancefloor doctors, he's not afraid to drop some politics in the mix (nothing terribly deep, mind you, but it's refreshing). MCs include Toronto's Abdominal, Quebec's Omnikrom and some exciting new finds (Chicago's Zulu, on album highlight “Go Ballistic”), but, as on Breakupdown, the instrumentals more than hold their own and provide a nice counterpoint to the more pop-oriented tracks.

And that's just the music. Politically speaking, this is the type of artist I'd love to see celebrated by the Polaris Prize: Poirier employs MCs from both linguistic solitudes; he has a global outlook in both his influences and his collaborators; he's had a slow, strong evolution as an artist; he pushes the boundaries of his genre; he's a cross-pollinating community-builder (what’s that?) in his hometown.

Why it struck out: It’s too Montreal. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti). Lo and behold, one of my should’ve beens actually was.

Good luck to the jury members:
Mike Bell - Calgary Herald (Calgary)
Denise Benson - Eye Weekly (Toronto)
Evelyn Côté - Ici (Montréal)
Lana Gay - CBC Radio 3 (Vancouver)
Kevin Kelley - Newfoundland Herald (St. John's)
Joshua Ostroff - AOL Canada (Toronto)
James Stewart Reaney - London Free Press (London)
Li Robbins - CBC Radio/Globe And Mail (Toronto)
Hannah Simone - MuchMusic (Toronto)
Darryl Sterdan - Winnipeg Sun (Winnipeg)
Frank Yang - Chromewaves (Toronto)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Polaris: Shad, Stars

Penultimate Polaris post today. But first, I'd like to alert you all to an Ottawa oddsmaker's take on everyone's chances. These do not represent the opinions of Radio Free Canuckistan, and are intended for entertainment purposes only. That said, place your bets!

Black Mtn- 2.5:1
Basia Bulat- 3:1
Caribou- 3:1
Kathleen Edwards- 4:1
Holy Fuck- n/a (they are going to win), but I will bet anyone if you give me at least 3:1
Plants and Animals- 2:1
Shad- 4:1
Stars- 4:1
Two Hours Traffic- 3:1
The Weakerthans- 4:1

The nominees:

Shad – The Old Prince (Black Box).

The album: I didn’t hear this when it first came out; I’m only spending significant time with it now. I’ve been a fan of Shad since I first saw him about two years ago, and his live show is considerably more compelling than anything heard here. Shad is a fascinating character, and yet while his music does fall outside the hip-hop mainstream, I don’t hear much personality in his backing tracks at all. He’s openly self-deprecating about the fact that he’s not a “hard” MC, which is great (and very Canadian of him), but one can’t help but wish for a bit more bounce to the ounce. It’s telling that one of the most likeable tracks here is the a cappella at the end of “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home.” He also fares well with “Brother,” “Compromise” and “Exile,” but nothing measures up to his full potential.

The chances: Slim. In this rockist country of ours, it will take a hip-hop album with significantly greater momentum than this one to take this prize, unless this jury is feeling particularly contrarian (and there are at least two major hip-hop fans on the jury). Plus, I didn’t get the sense that this was a lot of hip-hop fans’ number one choice for Canadian hip-hop album of the year. The fact that it’s on the shortlist is likely a compromise choice; it’s doubtful Shad will pull off the same feat for the main event.

Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War (Arts and Crafts).

The album: Critics love to hate this band; it’s a bit of a shocker that it made the list. Part of this is because Torquil Campbell is cockily convinced that he’s doing it all for the kids—and anyone who isn’t making pop music for lonely teenage romantics should go into another profession. Canadian musicians aren’t expected to be controversial, and Campbell’s big mouth gets him into trouble—like when he complained about a good review of this album on Pitchfork, and told all rock critics to get laid and do drugs before reviewing CDs. (He talks about this here.) I actually think the review in question, which gives the album a 7.4 rating, is very well written—an admission which obviously gives Campbell permission to place no credence at all in anything I now have to say about his band (not that he ever should have, and not that he ever did).

But here’s what any objective ear will hopefully recognize: In the Bedroom After the War is a fantastic pop album, one that aims high, occasionally fails, and encapsulates all the teen angst and ache that this band has been trying to capture since they started. Almost every song is incredibly catchy classic pop with fantastic production. It’s full of tasty little bits: Campbell’s falsetto on “Genova Heights,” a delicate string arrangement on “My Favourite Book,” and the fact that they manage to bring Momus to the masses on their homage, “Personal.” Listen to Amy Millan’s “My Favourite Book” and “Bitches in Tokyo” for the key to Stars’ success here: the soft pop is sublime; the rock moments ring true, which they never did for me on the predecessor Set Yourself On Fire. I’m also willing to love this record for the sole reason that no one writes proper male/female duets in pop music anymore.

Polaris jurors should take note of the album’s flow; this is a band who clearly conceptualizes their beginnings and ends. It starts with a slowly reveal, an opening suite that leads into the first lyric and defining statement (“the night starts here/ forget your name/ forget your fear”). It concludes with what has been described as a ticker-tape parade of old-timey musical theatre glory, perfect for closing credits of some epic Oscar bait.

There are a couple of clunkers here—there’s no way a song seriously titled “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” could possibly be good, and it isn’t. But the breaking point is “Barricade.” As much as it sounds like Campbell’s audition song for a role in Les Miserables (and I’m not the first one to make that comparison), it does tug a certain heartstring for anyone who ever fell for a fiery Marxist in their university days; perhaps the main reason I’m allergic to this song now is that it’s near-impossible to put myself in that place again. But for what it’s worth, Campbell does paint a vivid portrait.

Maybe this is why--other than subjective musical reasons--he makes so many critics uncomfortable: because he reminds us not only of the teenage romantic that we once were (or perhaps never let ourselves be), but also of the cocky self-importance of that age. Campbell never stopped believing in the idealism of his youth—which makes him an all-too-obvious target for cynics (read: most critics) everywhere.

The chances: Slim, primarily because of tall poppy syndrome: of the three acts on this list with mainstream presence, Stars likely have the highest commercial profile. They’ve also openly played the “it’s nice just to be nominated” card in the press and are themselves rooting for underdogs. Most importantly, Stars are incredibly divisive, and it’s unlikely that there will be any fence-sitters who could suddenly be turned around in the jury room.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Corb Lund – Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! (Stony Plain).

The album: That this missed the final cut is the single biggest shocker of this whole process to me. Not only is Lund perhaps the finest storyteller songwriter working in Canada today—with a strong sense of melody to match his lyrical prowess—but he also has wide appeal beyond the usual country music contingent. I elaborate, as does he, here.

Why it struck out: No idea. It’s a crime. At least the Canadian Country Music Association knows one thing that Polaris jurors don’t: they just named Lund roots artist of the year.

Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Sempirini)

The album:
Pas Chic Chic are a band that could only come from Montreal, combining a deep love of 60s French pop romanticism with noisy 90s overtones and textures that are employed judiciously and never as a gimmick or unnecessary intrusion. Singer Roger Tellier-Craig was a guitarist in Fly Pan Am for ten years, who were actually my least favourite Constellation band; he also was in Godspeed briefly. But knowing that didn’t prepare me for what a gift he has for pop melodies, nor for the fact that he embraces the lead vocalist role with flair here. Co-vocalist and keyboardist Marie-Douce St. Jacques ups the fey factor with girlish vocals, but a hard-driving rhythm section (including bassist Eric Gingras of Fly Pan Am and Ghislain Poirier) packs a punch into every track.

The songs are sophisticated pop that is sometimes best told with acoustic guitars and synth-y strings, sometimes with swarms of electric guitars and white noise. High drama permeates the entire record, but never to the point of pomposity.

Other readymade reference points are brought to you by the letter S: Stereloab, Sonic Youth, Smiths, Serge Gainsbourg. Maybe some Morricone thrown in there as well, for some of the spookier passages. But all those are merely elements of the greater whole. Even if this wasn’t such an awesome album, Pas Chic Chic would have won me over for originality alone. The songwriting and the performance both match the compelling aesthetic.

Why it struck out: It’s easy to say that it’s because they’re a Francophone act with limited distribution—though that didn’t stop Malajube in 2006. They garnered enough love from Quebecois critics to land on the long list; I suspect not enough of the rest of the country sought it out in time. Or maybe they just thought it sucked.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Polaris: Holy Fuck, Plants and Animals

Pre-Polaris pontifications proliferate. Parts one and two ran earlier this week.

The nominees:

Holy Fuck – LP (XL)
The album:
This band has exceeded expectations from day one. One of about a dozen Brian Borcherdt projects at its inception, it went on to become his main project. This perennial opening act is now headlining. And now, with its second album (following up a largely improvised debut), Holy Fuck cash in on their carpe diem live show, creating a rollicking and rockist take on electronica that sounded just perfect on the day Klaus Dinger died (though how many jury members get that reference might speak well to the band’s chances of winning). A band borne of jamming even conjures a couple of pop singles (“Lovely Allen,” “Royal Gregory”) for good measure, balanced by headtrips like the entrancing driving dub of the closer “Choppers.”

There’s enough variety and ebb and flow to make it work as an album, and the drumming alone surely deserves some kind of prize. But is it actually an excellent album, or merely an album that’s better than we expected from an excellent band whose raison d’etre seems to be the live show? (Which, by the way, hits The Phoenix this Thursday, September 25.)

The chances: I’m guessing that more than one judge on the jury will want to vote for this just as a giant Holy-Fuck-You to Stephen Harper, after the band became a scapegoat in the recent decimation of this country’s arts funding. It might also be tempting to reward them for being the hardest-working band on this list, one who crosses the ocean at a moment’s notice for a gig. But I’m going to guess that while Holy Fuck will get a lot of respect, they won’t get anyone’s final vote.

Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue (Secret City).
The album:
I’d argue this is the most fascinating album on this list; everything else falls into predictably neat patterns and genres, including Holy Fuck and Caribou. Plants and Animals are very much a Quebecois band (though two thirds of them are Maritime expats): there’s a strong roots influence, a prog approach to song structure, African guitars and Radiohead atmospherics.

And yes, at times it does sound like a dog’s breakfast, which prevents me from loving this entire record wholeheartedly. But the many magical moments here supercede the occasional meandering and the inconsequential lyrics, and the end result crafts a unique sound that not only stakes its place in a continuum the began with Neil Young and The Band, but forges their own sound and places Plants and Animals heads and shoulders above any other ensemble likely to be tagged a “jam band.”

This album deserves a place on the list for “Bye Bye Bye” and “Mercy” alone; the fact they can pull off West African jazz on “Guru,” without sounding like tourists, is a bonus. Each member of this trio is a brilliant musician, and they ornament their core sound brilliantly with strings by Sarah Neufeld (Bell Orchestre, Arcade Fire), a bold horn section, female choirs and a heavy piano presence that is sadly missing from their live show. I saw them play shortly after the album’s release, and, while it was fine, I missed the depth and the breadth of the recording—which is as sure a sign as any that this album succeeds on its own terms. It also makes me miss Montreal incredibly, for entirely intangible reasons that I attempted to touch upon here.

The chances: Good, for the reasons outlined above. The ultimate selling point would be the breadth of influences, and how this band actually makes it all work. Only serious drawback: a potential bias against handing another Polaris to Secret City Records, who scored a surprise win last year with Patrick Watson.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballot:

Forest City Lovers – Haunting Moon Sinking (Out of This Spark).
The album:
Kat Burns kills me. For starters, I’m a sucker for subtle ladies who sing melancholy morning melodies with lots of pianos, strings and clarinets. Burns is an unusual female vocalist: she’s certainly not a rocker, and nor is she showy or cutesy; in fact, she’s often totally deadpan, though never dull. She’s consistently strong, steady and with just a hint of a quaver that betrays a slight vulnerability underneath the calm exterior.

She is a vivid writer with an eye for the smallest details, as heard on songs like “Orphans” and “Waiting on the Fence,” and can say so much in the offhand way she delivers a line like: “Maybe I’ll never have your baby, if our love runs out of time.” On top of that, her Lovers are fully engaged in making sure every note counts, knowing exactly when to expand and contract, and with enough ego in check to sit out most of any given song entirely, if necessary. Mika Posen’s violin provides not only the expected textures, but a wonderful melodic counterbalance; she also provides some of the slight Eastern European motifs heard here.

Why it struck out: Forest City Lovers sound simply too humble for most critics to get worked up about. They’re not oddball enough to carry off any kind of subdued mystique; they’re not extroverted enough to get anyone’s blood pumping. Unfortunately, these things can matter when you’re trying to stand out in a crowd; eventually, Burns will succeed on the strength of her writing alone.

Veda Hille – This Riot Life (Ape)
The album: I’m under a lot of tight deadlines this week, so it thrilled my lazy ass this morning to discover that Carl Wilson has written something far more elegant and eloquent than I ever could about Ms. Hille. Please go to his site and read his piece immediately. I second every single word—even though I myself wouldn’t have conjured up a fraction of the allusions he makes. And keep in mind that he’s only talking about the opening track on this fine album (a track that is up for the Echo Songwriting Prize; please vote for it here). The rest of This Riot Life is an embarrassment of riches, in both composition and performance. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Hille as a pianist, as a bandleader and as an adventurous pop composer, though I’ll confess that I’ve never truly cozied up to any of her many recordings. And yet I’m in love with this album from beginning to end. I’d like to thank Spitzer for first putting it into high rotation in my household; her piece on Hille is here.

Why it struck out: This came out on Ape Records, the UK label run by Andy Partridge of XTC; both those associations mean very little to most Canadian music fans (despite the fervour of the XTC fans that do exist here). And people who think they know everything there is to know about Hille based on the past 15 years or so—the sad stereotype being that she’s an inaccessible artiste who survives on arts grants—probably think they can afford to ignore her latest work. They cannot. And neither can you. Small consolation: this did make the Polaris long list, so somebody is listening.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Polaris: Caribou, Kathleen Edwards

More Polaris Prize ponderings and predictions. Part one is here. The winner will be announced next Monday night.

The nominees:

Caribou – Andorra (Merge).

The album: When Dan Snaith first appeared on the scene, paying a bit-too-obvious homages to Boards of Canada and his pal Four Tet, writers who cover electronic music were wowed by his sense of melody—something that had become anathema during the late 90s, as anyone with more than one Pole album in their collection can attest to. Snaith soon upped the pop factor with plenty of vocal ba-ba-ba’s on his second album, Up In Flames, but now he’s finally progressed to writing material that could be easily mistaken for Syd Barrett covers—for better or worse.

I was relatively unimpressed when I first heard this album a year ago, but its subtleties have grown on me slowly. While I love the pure pop and anthemic qualities of “Melody Day,” it’s the second half of Andorra that holds up better, when he delves back into the abstractions and unraveled psychedelia that combine the best moments of his discography to date, with droning pulses, shimmering keyboards, unfolding soundscapes and crashing drums, all doled out with more subtlety than some of the heavier-handed moments heard on Up in Flames and Milk of Human Kindness.

The chances: Excellent. This year’s jury includes Denise Benson, the critic who singlehandedly brought Snaith to public attention from the days of his first 12” singles. Also present is Joshua Ostroff, who, like Snaith, went from writing (about) electronic music to (covering) more mainstream pop. Rockists on the jury will easily recognize touchstones from 60s psychedelic pop; more adventurous ears will appreciate the ambition and the fact that there isn’t really anyone else making this kind of music right now—and certainly not this well—in Canada or anywhere else. Even those that won’t love this record will likely respect it; it could easily be a compromise choice—but what do I know? This would likely get my vote.

Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers (Maple).

The album: Edwards has two principal strengths. One is her lyrical ability, which on the title track and songs like “Scared at Night” and “Run” manages to convey maximum narrative and emotional heft in concise poetry. The other is her comfort with the classic CanRock guitar sound, aided largely by her husband Colin Cripps on guitar (whose work with Crash Vegas still gives me chills); it’s a sound that instantly conjures up images of driving through the Canadian Shield on an autumn day.

Asking for Flowers is certainly her finest collection of songs to date, though she’s still a few steps away from crafting a masterpiece. Single “The Cheapest Key” is one of her most melodic rockers and the most spirited band performance here, and yet it features her signature vocal tics that drive me up the wall, coupled with gimmicky lyrics that make the whole song sound like a toss off. She can actually do gimmicky rather well, as “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” demonstrates; though certainly goofy at times, that song’s specificities ring true in ways that most “rock about rock” so rarely does.

Her female narrators are perpetually grappling with shattered romantic illusions, usually at the hand of an aloof and/or troubled man struggling with commitment. The only times the album takes a serious dip is with her political writing, particularly “Oh, Canada” and “Alicia Ross,” two songs about murdered girls. (Ironically, one takes Canadian media to task for not paying enough attention to black victims of crime. Yet in that same song, said victim remains nameless; meanwhile, Edwards has the chutzpah to write “Alicia Ross” in the first person as the murdered girl.)

The chances: Fair. It all depends on how the jury weighs the comparative merits of music (this is rather conventional and competent) and lyrics (Edwards is second only to the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson among the nominees). But seeing how two nominees—Holy Fuck and Caribou—purposely don’t feature lyrics as the focus (and, arguably, Black Mountain and Plants and Animals shouldn’t even bother), it’s unlikely that the jury deliberations will be taken up with poetry analysis.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies (Anti).

The album: I was underwhelmed by the debut Breaking Kayfabe, which did get a Polaris nod two years ago. Why Mr. Weapon wasn’t recognized for the superior follow-up is a bit of a mystery: musically and lyrically it’s a major step forward. On top of that, he built on his previous Polaris buzz and landed a deal with a highly reputable American label, so it’s not like this album had a low profile. If I hadn’t misplaced my cardboard sleeve advance copy, I’d be able to write about it more eloquently at the moment. Maybe other jury members lost their copies as well.

Why it struck out: I can only speculate that now that the novelty of a quality and quirky Edmonton MC has worn off, this didn’t stand up next to this year’s rock offerings for most mainstream critics to take serious notice. It also got mixed reactions in hip-hop press.

D’Urbervilles – We Are the Hunters (Out of This Spark).

The album: This is the only rock release of the last 12 months that I truly love beginning to end. Let’s start with the most shallow reason of all: it sounds fantastic. Engineer Chris Stringer knows how to make an electric, live and raw rock’n’roll album: every cymbal crash, every buzzing amplifier, every rolling bass line, every monstrous snare hit is pure perfection. Unlike most rockers, guitarists Tim Bruton and John O’Regan know better than to crush and smother their rhythm section; these guys have studied everyone from Stax to Spoon and understand the space between the notes. They know their AC/DC, their Joy Division and their vintage disco singles, and yet they’re able to surrender to visceral pleasures in ways that far too many referential rock acts fail to do.

Listen to the stuttering, minimal drums on “Dragnet,” otherwise decorated with an organ drone and tiny acoustic guitar shots. Listen to the 80s guitar pedals that serve textural purposes other than simply being cheeseball retro signifiers. But most of all, listen to John O’Regan’s vocal delivery, which moves easily from dry new wave detachment to hoarse hardcore hollering. This is a remarkable debut album that instantly surpasses the band’s most immediate peers and even some of their influences.

Why it struck out: Not enough people have seen them live (although you don’t need to, in order appreciate the album). A bit of publicity would also go a long way. I read some press that sounded like the D’Urbervilles suffer from not-another-indie-rock-band-from-Toronto syndrome, not to mention a backlash against punk rock bands who try to dance.

Further D'Urbervilles reading is here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Polaris: Black Mountain, Basia Bulat

The 2008 Polaris Prize awards ceremony will take place a week tonight, and anticipation is reaching a fever pitch—uh, wait, is it really? I can’t say I’ve heard much kafuffle at all since the nominees were announced in July, perhaps because there’s no clear underdog that everyone seems excited about; nor, for that matter, is there a commercial juggernaut of a forerunner that everyone’s ready to be resentful of should they win the prize.

For myself, the ten records that got the nod as nominees are only the surface of the great Canadian music released between June 1, 2007 and May 31, 2008. And I’m not even talking about all the great records from “marginal” genres, or regional secrets that didn’t make a large national impact; it goes without saying that there will always be nitpickers and naysayers who think the Polaris jury process is One Giant Compromise that settles for a safe middle ground.

Because of the two-ballot system, I was able to vote for eight albums this year; none of them ended up on the shortlist. Two of them made the long list. There is only one album on the shortlist that I even considered voting for. Either I’m totally out of touch and a complete contrarian, or this positions me to be a perfectly objective observer of the finalists. I’m going to go with the latter. I consider myself quite malleable on the merits of these contenders, and because I wasn’t invited inside the inner sanctum where the final decision will be made next Monday, consider this my charge to the jury.

My opinion is based solely on the work in question; in my new parental role I don’t run out to live shows as often as I once did. I have seen all of these ten acts live over the years, but after the albums in question were released that number narrows to two (Weakerthans, Plants and Animals); I saw two acts (Black Mountain, Basia Bulat) shortly before their albums’ release.

This week I’ll write about two nominees a day, along with two albums I voted for that I think should be getting equal attention. All are in alphabetical order.

The nominees:

Black Mountain – In the Future (Scratch)
The album: There are several artists on this list with debut (or de facto debut) albums; all of them appear to be nominated on their potential rather than the actual album in question. With Black Mountain, the reverse is true: they’re clearly getting the nod for the fact that their debut missed the eligibility period for the inaugural Polaris prize by six months, going on to be one of the most beloved Canadian rock records of the North American underground in the years that followed.

The follow-up, however, fails on almost every count that made the debut so special. No one ever said Black Mountain boasted an original sound, but this time out the 70s stoner clichés are simply too ridiculous—and, though the debut had its share of doom, this time out there’s simply no fun to be had at all. The future? It’s a bummer, man.

Steve McBean’s guitar tone and noticeably improved soloing are the best things here; otherwise, Black Mountain’s secret weapons misfire completely. Ace drummer Josh Wells sounds like he was deliberately told to dumb it down; check out those clunky fills on “Tyrants,” a song that’s embarrassing on several counts—especially when the “Stairway to Heaven” mellotron shows up at the seven-minute mark. The witchy wails of Amber Wells sound more silly than they do ominous—the polar opposite of how she appears on previous albums by Black Mountain, Jerk With a Bomb and Lightning Dust, where she consistently stole the show; that trademark tremolo is now officially tired (lone exception: album highlight “Queens Will Play”).

The lyrics are uniformly awful, nowhere more so than on the Spider Man soundtrack song “Stay Free”: “Beautiful ponies/ so beautiful/ they’ll kill us all.” How about this from “Evil Ways”: “I’ve been imprisoned by your demon lust/ Cursed by your black magic touch.” How can anyone take this band seriously? One of the better tracks here bears the most unfortunate title: what the fuck is a “Wucan”? Has RZA gone druid?

I don’t hate this entire album, but the reason it makes me angry is a sense of betrayal: unlike other Black Mountain naysayers, I really like this kind of music—no matter how unashamedly retro it is—and I really like this band, as well as their many side projects (except Pink Mountaintops, which should stay in the bedroom). Easily the most disappointing album of 2008—and 1978, which was the last time a rock band could get away with something this lazy and be taken seriously.

The chances: It depends on how many 17-year-old stoner boys are on the jury, and whether everyone else can stay awake during the interminable “Bright Lights”—16 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

I wrote about the band in Magnet earlier this year; interviews are here and here.

Basia Bulat – Oh My Darling (Hardwood).
The album: Lovely voice, lovely woman. But one of the albums of the year? This is a promising debut at best. She may have the voice of an old soul, but this is definitely the early stage of her songwriting career. Producer Howard Bilerman deserves credit for crafting such lovely surroundings for the singer; one of the early live shows I saw suggested that arrangements probably weren't her live band's forte. I never had cause to review or write about this album, so I can't say I've spent a lot of intimate time with it; I have, however, heard this album many times in the foreground and the background, and, while pleasant, never once have I actually remembered anything about it once it's over. My ears do usually perk up by track 10, "The Pilgriming Vine," but that does not a great album make.

The chances: Slim, unless mega-fan Frank Yang of Chromewaves channels Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men in the jury room.

Two should’ve-beens from my ballots:

David Buchbinder – Odessa Havana (Tzadik).
The album: My love for most things related to John Zorn and Tzadik Records brings me closer to this album than I might be under other circumstances, but Odessa Havana is one cross-cultural album that not only doesn’t sound forced in any way, but features fine writing and exemplary performances. It also combines my favourite scales with my favourite rhythms, another reason why I’m predisposed to love it.

Why it struck out: You can probably count on two hands the number of Polaris jurists who actively listen to jazz, never mind write about it. (I certainly don't do either.) Any jazz contender for the Polaris faces a seriously split vote from the few critics qualified to comment. I also suspect that many jurists don’t bother voting for albums they don’t think have a chance of getting on the list. The fact that Tzadik wants nothing to do with publicity machines of any scale didn’t help this album’s chances, either.

Buck 65 – Situation (Warner).
The album: Big beats, pop hooks, tasty guitar riffs, master scratching from co-producer Skratch Bastid, Morricone moments of sublime cinematic flourishes, and focused free-associative lyrics revolving around cultural transitions first sparked 50 years ago. What’s not to love? Buck 65 spent more time working and re-working this album than anything else in his prolific career, and the payoff is perfectly clear—to these ears, anyway. Too bad barely anyone noticed; here’s hoping he’ll be able to quit his new day job eventually and continue to make records as good as this one.
Why it struck out: People take Buck 65 for granted, which is a shame. He’s too old and too eclectic to be taken seriously in hip-hop, and too unorthodox and lyrically dense to truly cross over (despite his current CBC profile). This is all the more frustrating now because this is his most pop album to date, not to mention his most consistent. “I’m the invisible man,” he raps, “stewing in my own juices.”

My interview with Skratch Bastid, discussing Situation, is here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Timber Timbre

I know many a hardcore music geek who professes to love every single genre except the blues. "Yeah, yeah," they protest, "I know it gave birth to rock'n'roll, but I can't listen to the same 12-bar pattern ad nauseum." When it's minimalist, they argue, the blues is too boring; when it's maximalist--think Blues Hammer in Ghost World--it's beyond obnoxious.

And yet there's a reason why it continues to be such a strong thread, and why--for musicians--it's easy to fall into those patterns. There's a reason why the term is so universal that it's been rendered meaningless by corporate branding: House of Blues and the Ottawa Blues Festival have next to nothing to do with the ghosts of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters.

I'll leave it someone more scholarly than I to explain that reason in print. But listening to a band like Tinariwen, from the Saharan desert, or to an artist like Timber Timbre, from southwestern Ontario, it's refreshing to see that it's still possible to make the blues continue to sound mystical, enchanting and raw.

Timber Timbre is one man, Taylor Kirk, and he performs solo guitar with help from harmonica and occasionally a looping pedal (very tastefully and transparently executed). His music is haunting, to say the least, an adjective that rings even more true after you watch this video.

To date I have yet to see Kirk play in a regular rock bar. That may well be one of the reasons he's been so entrancing every time I've seen him play: at first, a brief glimpse around the campfire at the 2005 Track and Field Festival; later, a show at the converted church that is the Music Gallery; later still at a loft party curated by The Burning Hell; and more recently at a church on Toronto Island in the middle of a rainstorm. Sadly, I arrived too late to see him play in the basement of the house belonging to my friends in Bellwoods, Ohbijou.

Both of his albums to date have been location recordings. I'm not sure what he has up his sleeve for his latest, due out this fall on Out Of This Spark (D'urbervilles, Forest City Lovers), but you can catch a preview at this awesome music festival in Guelph happening this weekend.

Other dates are here:
2008-09-27 : Orono ON @ Cow Palace Festival
2008-10-16 : Hamilton ON @ Pepperjack Cafe with Great Lake Swimmers
2008-10-17 : London ON @ Aeolian Hal with Great Lake Swimmers
2008-10-23 : Peterborough ON @ Montreal House with Great Lake Swimmers and Don Brownrigg
2008-10-23 : Wakefield QC @ Blacksheep Inn with Great Lake Swimmers and Don Brownrigg

Timber Timbre, Taylor Kirk
November 15, 2007
Email interview

The most basic question first: How did you get (into) the blues?

My first introduction to blues music was through bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, etc. but I never wanted to hear anything more pure than that. In fact, for a long time I never wanted to hear or play anything that sounded remotely "bluesy." Blues-rock really killed it for me. But more recently I stopped trying to be so deliberate with my writing and allow myself to fall into progressions and meters that sound more traditional and this is where it's taken me.

Do you consider what you to do be blues? It's a much-maligned genre: who are other modern blues artists whom you think do it right?

I suppose so, but I would normally say that I make folk music if anyone asks. I'm weary of accepting it as my genre because when I listen to blues era recordings, it sounds to me like one of, if not the purest form of musical expression. And like you say, presently "the blues" is quite a different thing. I couldn't even tell you about any current blues musicians. I'm mostly listening to the old recordings now, like Son House, Leroy Carr and various Blind Willies.

Have you been in bands before this? What were they like?

Yeah, I used to play in a few rock 'n roll bands around Toronto. I played guitars and synths in an pop-rock group called Codename Laurentians. I also played drums for a few years in a rock group called the Black Napkins. It was tons of fun. I miss playing rock'nroll music sometimes. People don't dance at Timber Timbre shows.

Have you played to more traditional audiences outside of the indie rock circuit?

I played the Peterborough Folk Festival this past summer and it was mostly a more mature crowd of whom I suspect were the local folkies. My set was very well-received which made me think I might do well in that circuit. I've tried to make contact with some of the different folk societies but they won't return my emails. I'm gonna grow a ponytail though, which should help me get my foot in the door. And I already have a dobro so I'll be good to go.

I understand the first album was recorded in a barn near Bobcaygeon. Where and how was [the 2007 album] Medicinals done?

Yes, it was an old timber-frame cabin actually. That's where the name "Timber Timbre" originated. Medicinals was recorded in my Toronto apartment. I'd half moved out and was using the space as a studio. I recorded the beds in empty closets and even some stuff in the bathroom. Medicinals is a digital recording while Cedar Shakes was an analog four-track job. I spent a lot more time on the new one with overdubs and mixing while the first record was kinda like guerilla recording, recorded and mixed in two days.

What's the story of the "It's Only Dark" video? What is in your harmonica attachment?

That video was made on a lark. I was up in Dunchurch, Ontario working on a documentary film with my friend Andrew and his partner Annabelle. We saw this delapidated cabin deep in the woods en route to the home of our subject. I think it was Andy's idea to sneak back there at midnight and film me playing that song. It was a great setting and we were all totally spooked being out there in the pitch black, trying not to fall through the floor. I'm playing a train whistle in the harmonica holder.

I saw a bit of your set at Track and Field, where the outdoor setting really suited your set-up. Have you done much of this?

That was so much fun. Very few of those kinds of things have come up. I know there are some folks around Toronto who throw shows/parties with live music in remote locations of the city. And Ryan McLaren, the guy behind the ALL CAPS! shows had me play a show in his backyard which was really nice too. Those are my favourite venues to play. I'd be quite happy to never play another nightclub ever again.

Why does "O Messiah" incorporate "Twist and Shout"? How does it fit thematically? Have you heard the Mamas and the Papas version, which yours kind of resembles?
That song is about the dismantling of a cult called the Ant Hill Kids commune near Burnt River, Ontario. When I was writing that song, I didn't have all the words worked out, so I was using that "Twist and Shout" bit as a kind of placeholder and I ended up keeping it in. I liked the juxtaposition of pairing something really sacharrine and celebratory like the Beatles with this dark subject. It's the light at the end of the tunnel. The happy-ending. I've never heard the Mamas and the Papas version. I'll have to track that down.

Devils, ghosts and death inform most of the songs here. Where does that come from—films, literature, your personal life? What attracts you to morbid material?

I used to write very literal kind of lyrics. Very personal, romantic, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of sentimental stuff. Those sentiments are still there, but now I prefer to shroud those ideas in imagery that I find interesting as a means of separating myself from the music a bit. I've always been attracted to work that's emotive in a visceral way and that fearful symbolism yields a power that I really like to exploit for that purpose. I like scaring and being scared. I think that's also why I perform; it scares the shit out me every single time.

This might be a stretch for a fogey like myself, but are you familiar with the first Cowboy Junkies album at all? (Whites Off Earth Now) If so, do you see any similarities?

Not that record in particular, but my folks were always into Cowboy Junkies so I heard their music a lot around the house as a teenager. I think they're really good. I'm sure it made its impression.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Angela Desveaux

I've tried on two occasions to write about Angela Desveaux, a Montreal singer/songwriter that pushes all the right buttons when it comes to my taste in roots music. And yet each time I try to explain what elevates her songwriting and her performance above the ordinary, I stumble over words. Part of the problem is that, objectively speaking, there really is nothing remarkable about Desveaux: her voice instantly exudes melancholy, her arrangements are conservative and tasteful, and her writing is plainspoken and yet can reduce this vulnerable listener to tears during weaker moments. And yet while trying to convince others of what I consider to be her immense talent, I'm often met with shrugs from the skeptics. "That's nice," they'll say, patting my head politely.

Desveaux's 2006 debut, Wandering Eyes, received respectable notices but nothing earth-shattering. She keeps odd company on the Thrill Jockey label, an association that seems impressive until you wonder why she hasn't become a CanCon staple in her homeland, seeing as how there's plenty of room to capture the same kind of crossover audiences as Corb Lund, Carolyn Mark, Jim Bryson, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies--the kind of roots that Canadians still do best. That might be remedied this time out with a domestic release, although Sonic Unyon isn't exactly known for its roots cred either.

The new album, The Mighty Ship (also the name of her touring band) features a noticeably more raucous touch, while the slower numbers are more lush and languid. Song-for-song, the debut may well be the better entry point for beginners--but perhaps that's because it sounds instantly familiar; Wandering Eyes was a better Lucinda Williams record than Williams herself has made in the last decade.

But while that record was basically a bare-bones portrait of Desveaux's songwriting, The Mighty Ship shows much greater care paid to arrangements, thanks to Ottawa producer Dave Draves (Kathleen Edwards, Howe Gelb, Snailhouse). The sound of subtle tensions unraveling in the opening track, "Other Side," is gorgeous, as are the string arrangements played by the Chow brothers from Islands. And Desveaux is lucky to have the services of Snailhouse's Mike Feuerstack (aka MVP of the Montreal scene, now also a permanent member of Bell Orchestre) on guitar, something she talks about below.

This conversation was conducted for this article in the new Exclaim. Desveaux plays The Boat in Toronto tonight with Andy Swan; more dates can be found here.

Angela Desveaux
August 6, 2008
Locale: phone from her Montreal home

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your writing, and it’s here again on the new album, is the character narratives—how believable they are, how believable the situation is and the honesty with which they’re addressing the situation. The last time we spoke, which was when the last record came out, there’s obviously a danger in discussing these songs; the audience will always assume they’re autobiographical. They’ll assume you’re a sadsack, heartbroken person. When I asked you about that directly, you said that was in the past for you, and that you had just started going out with [drummer/boyfriend] Gilles. And yet here we have a whole new record of often quite painful songs. So I have to ask: where do they come from?

I think it’s always good versus evil for me. I really enjoy science fiction novels and movies; I always see life as a struggle. I’m always complaining and I always think everything is unfair—and yet I’m a really happy person! It depends on what mood I’m in; I can get really sensitive and think that everything’s unfair and sucks. I think I write songs as advice to myself, and I hope that maybe it consoles other people who have similar problems, but they’re always very general or a bigger topic. They’re not specific problems. When I read my own lyrics, they’re always advice to myself. If I can’t say no to someone, a song will be called “Hide From You.” I don’t like disappointing people, so I’d rather hide from someone than face them and tell them that I can’t do something for them.

You even manage to make falling in love sound depressing here: "There's something about joining another that makes you feel sad/ Leaving part of yourself, convinced that it's bad."

I think my voice has a bit of a weird tremolo in it that sounds sad. If Willie Nelson is singing something, it will always sound sad—no matter how happy the lyric. I saw an old interview with Margaret Atwood, where the young interviewer was saying how Atwood was really depressed and a negative person and painting a bad picture of the world. I don't hide the fact that love is a constant struggle. Gilles knows that I love him a lot, but the first year with him was a constant struggle. You always have to pay a price for something that is good. You always have to struggle. I like highlighting the fact that there is a bad part. Honestly, I'm a really happy person.

I don’t know how literal the lyrics are on “For Design,” but it appears to be about shame and body image issues.

Definitely. It's about fashion and appearance. I've never been too concerned about outer image. I don't think this generation is any worse off than any other, but I see young girls being very skinny and having eating disorders and I wonder where the communication is in the family. I think it's important to teach young girls that instead of fashion, health should be your #1 priority. Maybe this is ruining the romance of the song, but it's about teaching people to love and respect their bodies. I get disgusted when fashion becomes a top priority to the point where a mother won't even approach their child about their weight or wearing bikinis to school.

I imagine you probably deal with some of that working at a health food store.

I've seen two girls come in here regularly, and they were skinny to the point where they would buy three almonds each, and they would hardly have the strength to open the front door. They were both white as ghosts. Why isn't she in a hospital bed and seeing a psychologist? Working in a health food store I see so many eating disorders. A lot of people who come in here are really paranoid obsessive-compulsives.

I was reading about a nutrition prof who would discuss healthy diet issues around the dinner table with his family, and his daughter ended up anoxeric.

I've had a few friends who grew up vegan or vegetarian and weren't allowed to have sugar anywhere in their lunchboxes. Then, of course, they binged on junk food as soon as they left the house, just to rebel. When I first started working here, I bought every pill I thought would help: liquid calcium, fibre supplements. Then I realized my fridge looked like an old lady's and I was spending half my paycheque on this stuff. I’m probably not the best sales person in a health food store.

Your characters always seem to be at a crossroads in life, contemplating major upheavals or coming to terms with settling. “Even though I know, I'm not sure where I'm going/ but I'm going/ I'm sure enough to know it will stay this way forever.” “I need you to remind me of exactly all I'm running from.”

There’s a lot of indecision. They're thinking, “One day I'll be really sure of what I'm doing in life.” The older I get the more I realize that I'm never going to be certain of what I'm doing. The fact I know that is more comfortable now. I'll never be perfectly content, but this is the way life is; it's uncertain.

Speaking of changes, what’s different for you on this album?

On the first album, I had those songs and I rehearsed briefly with Howard [Bilerman] and Harris [Newman] and Mike [Feuerstack] and had a rough idea of how it would sound. This album is a good example of how Mike Feuerstack and Eric Digras and Gilles Castoux and I sound like, how we’ve been playing together and developing these songs. Since we put out Wandering Eyes we’ve been playing new songs for two years. It’s less of my complete ideas and more of a band thing, which is why the title of the album is Angela Desveaux and the Mighty Ship, pushing this idea of a band name.

Are there co-writes on this album?

It’s still mostly my songs. The first album was very much verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-end. It’s not like that as much on this album. Mike has definitely shaped the songs a lot. It’s more of a group effort, though I wrote most of the songs and all the lyrics.

Would a new song like “Worried Mind” work if you were playing a solo show? It seems written with band textures and rhythms in mind.

People always ask me to play alone or as a duet, but then I only play one song off the new album. “Mighty Ship” is the most folk/country song here. Everything else needs the band and their textures. This album will have to be promoted and toured that way, which is what I will do at whatever cost. I want to leave behind playing solo acoustic. These are the songs that I play with these band members, and that’s what I want to show people right now.

When I saw you play in New York at CMJ—where I seem to recall you drove down there and back to Montreal in the same 12-hour stretch—it struck me of how much of a band project it was. I think there was even a Snailhouse song in the set, and you also covered a Paul McCartney and Wings song.

We recorded the McCartney song, but decided not to put it on the album for a bunch of reasons. But we still play it live. And we still try to give Mike one or two songs in the set. When you have someone like him in the band, you have to mention his work and show it to people. It’s amazing—I’m a huge Snailhouse fan.

What’s it like having that dynamic in the band? I know him very well—well enough to know that he’s a generous musician and a generous all-around guy.


What’s it like working with a songwriter who has a large catalogue of his own songs?

He’s such a strong artist. I’ve played with other people; I can play with a really good guitarist who knows the perfect lick for the perfect part. But Mike is really tasteful and he brings me what I’m looking for. Although my songs are straightforward and have a country/pop flavour, he’ll always bring something that’s unique and that I really value. When you have a harmony back-up singer, it can be smooth and perfect, but singing with Mike has a lot of character and it shows when we sing together. That’s the only thing on the album that I feel we didn’t have enough time to work on. At the time, Mike was having an operation for a polyp on his throat, so he didn’t sing as much on the album. I would have liked more harmonies, but it wasn’t good timing.

I thought I did notice a more textural approach to both vocals and instrumentation on this album. Which makes sense when I learn that the first album was very much spontaneous arrangements, as opposed to a band that has had time to sink their teeth into it. I know you did some tours either solo or with Mike as a duo. But did the band do much touring in Europe and the US?

No, not in Europe. I did a Bruce Cockburn tour with just me and Mike as a duo. And then we didn’t tour extensively after that. We did some one-off shows with Elliot Brood and the Sadies, and often last-minute shows would come up that I’d do on my own. I feel like I’m saving up my energy for a big blowout in September and October. Mike released his own album this year and he’s working on that, as well as Bell Orchestre. I’ll probably be playing with other musicians once in a while, but the tour will definitely be a band effort.

When your debut arrived on Thrill Jockey, it stuck out on that label’s roster—many people were surprised to see it there, even though they have other roots acts like Giant Sand and Freakwater.

I don't fit in indie or underground music, and I'm not mainstream. It's a struggle for the label. I wanted to try something different on this one. I know I have to venture out and work with different people. Wandering Eyes did great for a first album, but I don't feel I've reached my audience yet. It's hard with expectations with a second album. I want to find my audience, whether it's 10-year-old girls or 60-year-old men.