Sunday, September 30, 2012

Get It Wrong, Get It Right

Photo of the jury by Dustin Rabin. I'm top right.
I've read a lot of strange things in the week since Feist was named winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Then again, I read strange things after every year's winner is announced. Shouldn't we be used to all this by now? The winner is barely even the point; the process of getting there, on the other hand, gets us all talking about excellence in Canadian music for four months of the year (between announcement of the long list and the gala), drawing the spotlight to dozens of artists who otherwise slip through the cracks.

As a juror this year, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement at the beginning of deliberations last Sunday night. (Apparently this is in part because, one year, a juror approached Artist X at the gala and told them how much Prominent Media Personality Y hated their record.) And so when I sat down to write about my experience, I had to be very careful not to quote anyone in the room other than myself, and not to suggest that any record made it into any particular round of voting. 

As I say often in the piece I ended up writing: every stage of the voting was very close, and very surprising. Records that I thought most of the jurors liked were voted out right away, and some of the more divisive records went all the way to the end. 

I collected my thoughts in this tell-all (well, tell-some) for Maclean's that went up today. Enjoy! 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Pre-Polaris: Yamantaka / Sonic Titan

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Yamantaka/Sonic Titan – s/t

First impressions:

This is the only shortlist album that I didn’t write a review of at the time of its release. Why? Because I didn’t really know what to make of it, and I didn’t think the readers of my small-town newspaper were dying to know my opinion of it. 

For an excellent introduction to what this band is about, read Benjamin Boles's cover story in Now Magazine a couple of weeks ago here. Or Stuart Berman's buzz-building Pitchfork review here.


--Opening track “Raccoon Song” is a haunting incantation set to a thunderstorm, leading right into “Queens,” which begins with a sing-song Asian melody over a droning, John Lord-organ for a good two minutes before Bonhamesque drums come crashing in. Ever wondered what Yoko Ono would sound like with Led Zeppelin? Now you know, and it’s awesome, and perhaps the most powerful beginning of any of the shortlisted albums.

--“Oak of Guernica” and “Murder of a Spider” are decent psych-folk tracks and welcome left turns—on an album that’s full of them.

--“Hoshi Neko” owes a debt to Stereolab and Neu!, and Kato Attwood’s vocals are at their most effective and chilling here.

--“Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees” manages to get some seriously jazz-fusion keyboard licks into an instrumental psych-metal track, and Alaska B’s drums are at their most thunderous here.


--“Reverse Crystal” isn’t much more than a relentless B-list Black Sabbath track with better singing and a Rick Wakeman organ interlude

--After the interesting doom-ambient beginning of “A Star Over Pureland,” the track quickly devolves into sludgy, repetitive metal with a not-great guitar solo, concluding with a cacophony of howling, screeching primal screams and ululations over the same beat.

--For a band that shows great promise, they don’t fully deliver here. I expect great things from them, but I have trouble listening all the way through an album so short that it barely squeaked by Polaris qualifications for length.

Things I’m not supposed to consider:

It’s tempting to say that this is entirely original and that no one else in Canada is doing it—except that a lot of people are doing this and have been doing this since the ’70s, the only difference this time being a) it’s better than most psychedelic rock made in the past 35 years; b) an Asian woman is singing, and c) apparently the live shows have more of a theatrical bent to them (the one I saw merely featured makeup). The best and worst thing about this album is that it would be a typical Polaris wild card winner: brand new band, split between Montreal and Toronto, unusual sound, next to zero promotional hype but heaps of critical acclaim, interesting story and concepts outside of the music itself. It’s also the first primarily Asian-Canadian act to be shortlisted.

Pre-Polaris: Japandroids

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock

First impression (published May 31, 2012):

Japandroids sound like the best of Vancouver’s storied punk rock history, dating back to 1976 and right up to compatriots The Pack A.D, who share the Japandroids’ approach to maximizing the amount of sound and fury that can be made by a guitar-drums duo. There are also of plenty oh-oh-oh-oh melodic choruses that could have been cribbed from the New Pornographers, and ringing, raging electric guitars and thundering drums that could be Black Mountain covering Superchunk songs. This is not lazy, laid-back Vancouver chilling out in Stanley Park; this is the sound of the street punk trying to scale the mountains.

It’s been over three years since Japandroids’ debut album made them the only rock’n’roll band out of Vancouver in the last 10 years, other than Black Mountain, to be worth crossing the Rockies for. They also nearly broke up right around the time that album came out, choosing to continue only because it became popular. They could just as easily called the whole thing off after that tour ended. The songs here are proof that they had a lot more life in them; this is not a band that takes itself for granted.

The songwriting has improved tenfold; Japandroids are longer content to simply hide behind pure aggression, noise and energy—which is what, if anything, carried the debut album. Instead, these songs are Springsteen anthems designed for stadiums of people to sing in unison. The production is note-perfect: clean without ever sacrificing the raw power of the band’s live show; every guitar chord is gigantic, every drum roll a punch in the gut. The sound of fireworks may bookend the music here as a cute play on the album title, but there are actual moments in nearly every song when you expect to hear some kind of pyrotechnics go off in time with the music.

Celebration Rock could well be to 2012 what the Constantines’ Shine A Light was back in 2002: a life-affirming, fist-pumping rock’n’roll tour de force that soundtracks a new generation. In other words, Japandroids have plenty to celebrate.


--This album kicks ass in the most visceral way. I haven’t heard a Canadian rock record do it for me like this one does since the D’Urbervilles highly underrated debut (which I hope has a renaissance with recent Diamond Rings fans). The woah-oh-oh hooks borrow the best parts of Arcade Fire’s Funeral—the kind Springsteen stole back for the title track of his 2012 album—but recast for a garage rock duo ferocious enough to challenge a band six times their size.

--Much of the album taps into a nostalgia for youth, the kind that Springsteen has been milking ever since he was still a young pup himself. It all starts with opening track “Days of Wine and Roses,” but it summed up in “Younger Us”: “Remember when we said things like we’ll sleep when we’re dead, and thinking this feeling was never going to end?” “Give me that naked new skin rush / give me younger us.” It’s the kind of album that appeals to twentysomethings who can’t wait to feel nostalgic about their current life, and new parents who remember what it was like to come home at the same time in the morning they’re now getting up to nurse their infants.

--The guitar work sounds huge, although it’s just one person; knowing that he can never afford to split duties between rhythm and lead, he manages to craft brilliantly melodic leads as a component of the “continuous thunder” of the rhythm part.

--On an entirely primal level, this is the only shortlist album that makes me do windmills and sing along.

--This reminds me a lot—a whole lot—of the Constantines, and makes me miss that band even more.


--The only serious failing is the cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy,” which is by no means terrible, but it’s inferior to every other song here.

--I’m somewhat concerned about the fact I respond to this album primarily on a visceral level musically, and lyrically as a 40-year-old new dad realizing his youth is forever gone.

Things I’m not supposed to think about:

No one really expects this album to win. Which, of course, means it probably will.

Pre-Polaris: Handsome Furs

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

First impressions (published June 30, 2011):

Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry have spent the last two years touring almost every corner of the world, especially the ones that few other Canadian bands dare to tread: Azerbaijan? Burma? Lebanon? Check, check, and check. They’ve learned that the unifying global music is not rock’n’roll—it’s synth pop that blares out of basement clubs, taxicabs and storefronts the world over. And so Boeckner sets his guitar aside for most of Sound Kapital, and joins Perry in programming the synths and drum machines, making the kind of joyous, abrasive and raucous music that the likes of Kraftwerk, Suicide and even Depeche Mode could never have visualized.

Anyone who loved his now-disbanded group Wolf Parade knows that Boeckner writes killer songs and is a powerful howler of a rock singer. In Handsome Furs, he still highlights those strengths while he and Perry dive deep into sound sculpting. Their 2009 album Face Control featured some of the most delicious guitar sounds put to tape in recent memory, contrasted with harsh synths and deep drum machines; here the guitar is only a texture, taking a back seat to icy Europop synths that Lady Gaga would love to get her hands on. (The album was mixed in Finland and Berlin, for whatever that’s worth.)

Sound Kapital isn’t as jam-packed with hooks and riffs as Face Control was, but it’s a different, darker beast. Boeckner takes more pointedly political turns than ever before, singing in a voice of the disembodied and disenfranchised about the “damage of the Western world,” vowing to “never be repatriated,” railing about how “you don’t serve the people” and asking “what about us?”


--Dan Boeckner has a voice of rock’n’roll longing, of the nervous, twitching small town guy who can’t wait to see the world. He has that rockabilly yelp in the back of his throat, the kind that when you hear on oldies radio driving late into the night. “I feel low, but I feel all right”—that sums up the redemptive power of rock’n’roll right there.

--“When I get back / I won’t feel the same anymore,” he sings, like the guitar-loving punk who finds himself playing in squats in former Soviet republics and learning that the sound of revolution over there is tinny techno pop that Lady Gaga would love. When the punk gets back home, he channels that into his own sound.

--Even if you didn’t know what stamps this band has on their passports, they paint vivid pictures both musically and lyrically of their travels: “Get me drunk when the sun comes up / over socialist tower block / with the cigarettes and the terrible weather”

--“Cheap Music” is an anthem for a new global, budget-minded revolution rock, cut off from the past and ready to forge a future by any means necessary: “No nostalgia on the stereo / No hits coz there’s no radio / no replacement, no replacement / a thousand lonely kids making noise in the basement.” This song is the kind of rallying cry that most rock’n’rollers are too jaded and cynical—or, conversely, too earnest—to write effectively anymore.

--“Damage” sounds like ’80s Vancouver neighbours Skinny Puppy and Colin James actually decided to get together one night over a few lines of cocaine and get it on. And may that be the only time those two artists ever get namechecked together.

--Though primarily a synth album, the guitar sounds are fantastic, rich and nasty—and you barely notice they’re there unless you’re looking for them.

--At a time when everyone feels disenfranchised from everything, Handsome Furs sum up the zeitgeist in simple phrases, giving voice to those feeling left behind: “What about us?” “You don’t serve the people.” Sound Kapital is a place where the economy is bust, where the leaders can’t be trusted, where sex, drugs and rock’n’roll really are the only salvation and source of sanity.

--“What About Us?” has not only some of the best lyrics of the album (“They’re an army of thieves, they’ve got everything they need / but what about us?”), but the final third of the song keeps the beat while lowering the intensity and taking the song somewhere else entirely.

--The three-song punch of “What About Us?,” “Repatriated” and “Cheap Music” is perhaps my favourite sequence of any of the albums on the shortlist


--The entire first side drags: the programming relatively uninspired, the melodies merely okay; the power ballad “Serve the People” and the opening anthem “When I Get Back” each achieve only half of the gravitas they’re aiming for. This record really only comes alive on side two.

--For all the talk about how “nostalgia never meant much to me,” Boeckner is consistently singing over synthesizers that don’t sound any newer than 1992.

Things I’m not supposed to consider:

The band announced their breakup a few weeks before the Polaris long list was announced. Should that matter? Either way, by Boeckner standards, this is merely a pretty good album. The previous Handsome Furs album, Face Control, was a top-to-bottom electro-rock masterpiece, and I still consider it one of the greatest crimes in the short history of Polaris that it didn’t make that year’s shortlist. The new album by Boeckner, as Divine Fits, is just as thrilling, if not more so. Sandwiched between those two records, Sound Kapital is a poor, backwater cousin, despite its consistent conceptual thread. On the other hand, Boeckner is one of this country’s greatest songwriters of the past decade—and also the most underappreciated. He deserves some kind of award doesn’t he?

Pre-Polaris: Grimes

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Grimes – Visions

First impressions (published Feb. 23, 2012):

Who would dare earnestly embrace Mariah Carey and Animal Collective? Meet the deliriously confounding 23-year-old Montreal musician Clare Boucher, aka Grimes.

On her third album, Boucher’s girlish and acrobatic voice is delivered rich with reverb, layered with towers of her own harmonies and electronically pitched into the stratosphere. No matter how strange she makes herself sound, she is almost always singing bubblegum melodies. Her sonic backdrop owes as much to Robyn as it does to Aphex Twin or to The Weeknd—or, given the ’80s sheen of Visions, she conjures sonic images of the Cocteau Twins singing Debbie Gibson songs with Men Without Hats as the backing band.

Like Braids—her fellow weird Western Canadian transplants, Montreal neighbours and Arbutus label mates—her love of sound supersedes all else. So even if Visions boasts big beats here designed for dance floors, even if she’s writing sing-song melodies, the ecstasy of Grimes’s music comes from the opaque luxuriousness of the sonic landscape, a world as stimulating, disorienting and brightly lit as Tokyo at night, a trip through a psychedelic children’s cartoon, an abstract collision of sounds that perhaps only an ADD-addled, self-taught musician could stumble upon and decide to assemble together.

It’s entirely possible that Boucher may be a lucky musical naïf—a listen to her nebulous, earlier recordings would suggest this—but Visions displays a bold sophistication and originality, not to mention confidence and drive (she recorded this in a three-week stint, locked in her bedroom with blacked-out windows). As good as it is, Visions also suggests a dozen different directions she could go from here. An intensely creative and restless spirit, Boucher may find herself in Bjork’s company sooner than later.


--Of all the albums on the list, this is the only one I enjoy more with each listen (and I liked it to begin with). Whereas everything else falls into a fairly easy and predictable formula, one never knows with Grimes exactly when the beat is going to drop, when the drums are going to lurch in a different direction, how high exactly her voice is going to go, even what her voice is going to sound like from one song to the next.

--Though she has a few synth sounds she favours, every song has a different enough palette that nothing here sounds like a crutch.

--Grimes manages that ideal balance between avant-garde abstraction and pure pop melodies; some songs here are downright bubblegum (“Oblivion”).

--On a 13-track album, only one track (“Eight”) falls flat entirely, due to Boucher pitch-shifting her voice both into the stratosphere and into a low, Vocoder monotone; lo and behold, it's under two minutes long, so it's easily forgivable.

---Many debts are owed here, though to nothing much older than Boucher herself, born in 1988. From the '80s: Prince (there's an almost-obvious beat crib from “When Doves Cry” on “Colour of Moonlight,” and many harmonies throughout Visions would only ever appear on Prince albums), Debbie Gibson (for the chipper sing-song elements), Kate Bush (all-around adventurousness) and the Cocteau Twins (for indecipherable, atmospheric abstraction). From the '90s: some new jack R&B (there's a delicious "mmmmmm" in “Vowels = Space and Time”), some post-rave chillout ala Aphex Twin, the gravity-defying vocals of Mariah Carey and a healthy dose of Bjork's first four game-changing albums. (Boucher says she worshipped Marilyn Manson as a kid; that's not at all evident here.) From the '00s: the artsy precociousness of the Williamsburg scene (Animal Collective, Coco Rosie, the Juan Maclean, etc.), genre-collapsing pop stars like Robyn and Beyonce, and self-sampling solitary showmen like Owen Pallett and TuneYards. If someone consciously set out to imitate all these artists, they would fail miserably. If someone conjures those allusions entirely effortlessly, that's the mark of a true original.


--Boucher already has a high voice: why does she feel the need to pitch-shift it into helium territory? It's distracting and occasionally downright annoying. There's a fine line between girlish and infantile.

--If you don't like the sound of her voice, there is no way you'll ever be able to sit through this record. Ostensibly that shouldn't be held against her, but even the most open-minded listener knows of a quirky voice or two who drives you up the bend within a few syllables, no matter the merits of their music (for me: Drake, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and any of the whiny emo-metal my teenage stepkiddo listens to).

--Lyrics are all but incomprehensible; maybe that's a good thing, as the few snippets that emerge through the atmospheric layering are nothing worth writing down. Do they matter? Are they the point of this album? Should I think of this the same way I would consider a foreign-language album?

--This is one of the rare albums that sounds better on MP3 (which is how I first heard it) than on a CD; the bass tones in particular are less appealing in higher definition. 

--Despite everything Boucher achieves on this album (almost in spite of herself, it seems), there is a sense that the whole thing is entirely ephemeral and weightless; there's zero sense of gravity or meaning here, just pure pleasure, one continuous hit of ecstasy or morphine. Maybe that's all pop music has to be; maybe that's all it can be in the 21st century--music like this couldn't exist any time before now.

Things I shouldn't be considering:

No woman has yet to win Polaris; the only woman even in a winner's band is bassist Sandy Miranda of Fucked Up, one of six people in that band. [UPDATE: How on Earth could I get that wrong? Of course, there are two women in the core lineup of Arcade Fire. Consider me completely embarrassed for missing that, considering my history with the band.] Grimes is a one-woman show, making this 100 per cent estrogen-powered. Though she became Grimes in Montreal, Boucher grew up in Vancouver; that would make her technically the first winner west of Hamilton (Caribou is from adjacent Dundas, Ont.). Visions is a 10,000 per cent improvement over anything else she's done; she deserves points for serious growth alone. On the con side, this is the ugliest album cover ever for a shortlisted album; it's beyond hideous, and inside, it's not much better. And every time I see a picture of Boucher in some ridiculous get-up combining the worst crimes of '80s new wave, rave culture and Japanese anime--or worse, sit through one of her excruciatingly embarrassing videos--I honestly have trouble fathoming her winning the prize.

Pre-Polaris: Fucked Up

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

First impression (June 16, 2011):

I was one of the few unconvinced that this Toronto band’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life was somehow a watershed moment for hardcore punk, despite the fact it won the Polaris Prize, got them signed to one of the most-respected American indie labels, and garnered attention from plenty of mainstream press and even public radio both here and in the U.S. To an aggressive genre born and ossified in the early ’80s, Fucked Up brought broad ambition, flutes, violins, female vocals and other distractions to counteract Damian Abraham’s visceral one-note growl. But on the album itself, somewhere underneath the 70 layers of guitar tracks, they forgot how to be a great punk band (which you can hear them be on the 2009 compilation Couple Tracks); Common Life was as bloated as the prog rock that punk was created to slay in the first place.

Now comes what the band claims is a rock opera. At 18 tracks and 70 minutes, Fucked Up prove once again that they don’t lack for ambition. And the first third of this album sounds like it’s paid off: the production is 10 times better than on Common Life, with the guitars roaring out of the speakers, Abraham comfortably placed in the mix instead of sounding like the guy who’s always belching loudly at the party, and songs that match fist-pumping punk energy with, well, the idea of a rock opera that The Who pioneered in the late ’60s.

Yet the album loses steam quickly after that, and not just because Abraham sounds monotonous even on a good day, and not because it’s impossible to honestly comprehend the narrative, which apparently has something to do with living in Thatcher’s England. After the initial burst of inspiration on the opening tracks, the music doesn’t function as punk, not as prog, not as pop, and certainly not as rock opera. The production—especially the guitar tones—is the only consistent strength here, and it’s curious how close the band comes to sounding like U2 at times, which surely was not what they were going for. But who knows?


--The three-guitar attack sounds utterly fantastic here, in ways this band never has before. 

--Drummer Mr. Jo whips everyone into shape and provides solid drive even when the guitarists start phoning it in.

--The production is perfect for a rock’n’roll record, sounding raw yet crisp at the same time. 

--At his best, singer Pink Eyes has developed from a monotonous growler to an inspiring howler.  

--Several tracks here capture this band at what they do best, mixing hardcore punk fury with influences ranging from The Who, The Clash, and, uh, early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Ship of Fools,” “The Other Shoe,” “Running on Nothing,” “Queen of Hearts, Under My Nose.”


--Outside of the tracks mentioned above, and despite the high energy level throughout this is terribly boring. Shouldn’t I be on the edge of my seat, pumping my fists in the air? There is very little, if any, dynamic range—which is fine for a 30-minute album, not a 70-minute one. For an album called David Comes To Life, it is remarkably moribund. And that’s not always the fault of the band—it’s the fault of the songs, and the fact that none of them has a vocal melody consisting of more than one note.

--Track 12 of 18, “Ship of Fools,” is the last time this album sounds like it has any life in it. Why plod on for another six tracks?

--Pink Eyes: he is far more effective in small doses, which is the only Fucked Up record I’ve ever enjoyed is their singles collection. I’m also inherently suspect of any singer who maintains an exaggerated emotional state over the course of an entire record.

 --As an ostensible concept album, I have no idea what’s going on.

Things I’m not supposed to think about:

This band has already won the Polaris Prize. And I know from anecdotal evidence that even people who love this band and admire this ambitious project (and who even voted for it to be on this list) can't make it all the way through this album.

Pre-Polaris: Feist

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Feist – Metals

First impressions (published Oct. 6, 2011):

Four long years after Feist’s breakthrough album The Reminder, the Toronto singer admits that she became entirely burnt out on relentless touring, as that album’s slow-burn success made her an international star. And so after taking on a full-on break from making music, she returns singing: “Makes me remember the things that I forgot / it’s as much what it is as what it is not.”

What Metals is not is obvious. It is not an album with a peppy hit single like “1234” or “Mushaboom.” It is not an album that gives away all its goods on first listen. Though it is rich in melody and harmony, it is not a pop album. Though there are many intimate moments featuring only Feist and her guitar, it is not a singer/songwriter album. Though it has supple grooves borrowed from the slowest, sexiest side of Al Green, it is not a soul album. And though it contains elements of The Reminder’s quieter moments and the majesty of her long-unavailable debut album Monarch, Metals marks new territory for Feist.

Many songs start from a bluesy base, something very simple and primal, built around a tension of delicate but forceful instrumentation; but from there, a song can easily move from a solitary guitar motif before erupting with a strident choir, electric guitars crashing in a loping waltz time, and punctuated by clanging chain percussion. Few songs here fall into a steady template; they wait to be pulled or pushed apart, to have their meter toyed with, suspended while a string section or the sound of scraping metal sneaks into the background scene.

Then of course there is Feist’s calm, steadying, pitch-perfect voice, one that’s almost devoid of emotion, conveying everything and nothing at the same time. What is she singing about? Who cares? It’s “true life in haiku,” she sings, but whatever you’re looking for in these songs—either love or loss, comfort or concern—you’ll find them.

That tabula rasa extends to the music. While Feist was the undisputed star of earlier Feist records, Metals is much more communal. The various accompanying ensembles are one reason: string sections, brass sections, and choirs all transform the most intimate moments into something larger and yet still tender. But even though Feist’s voice is front and centre, it’s just as important as every piano chord, bass drum kick, or subtle sonic shading; together, every carefully arranged element establishes the tenor of the album, which works remarkably well as a whole. The only odd duck is “A Commotion,” pushed along by pulsing cellos and a man choir shouting the chorus; it’s curious, joyous, sparse and somewhat unsettling, the closest Feist gets to rocking out here, and it’s one of the most captivating tracks she’s ever recorded.

Metals also sounds like the most honest album since her debut: if Let It Die was her role-playing as a pretty pop star, and The Reminder found her trying to reconcile several different sides of her musical personality, Metals is its own world entirely—a world where Feist roams freely, devoid of expectation or constraint, a world with plenty for all to explore.


 --Yes, the songs are very good and Feist is a fantastic singer, but it’s the dynamics and arrangements here that really stand out. The horns and strings are not just syrupy decoration; they provide tension and texture, and are often doing something extremely subtle and playful under the radar that takes the song somewhere else, like Colin Stetson’s arpeggiating bass clarinet that pops up near the end of “The Bad in Each Other.”

--The percussion here is in a world of its own, often defining an entire arrangement, like the rattlesnake tambourine of “Undiscovered First.”

--At times this sounds like Sigur Ros arranged a blues album for the Rheostatics’ Martin Tielli.

--Feist’s take on primal blues and soul music registers far more deeply with me than Cat Power’s attempts at the same thing; Feist is also far more creative with her pursuit, whereas Cat Power too often gets by on charisma alone.

--No matter how stellar the arrangements and the production, any one of these songs would be just as effective with just Feist and her guitar or piano.

--At the end of “Undiscovered First,” as the band abandons its crescendo and retreats to the smallest of sounds, we hear Feist singing off-microphone, seemingly trudging off in the distance, still singing “is this the right mountain?”—questioning, even as she embarks on the adventure.

--Three of these songs are in ¾. That always scores points with me.

--“A Commotion,” with its hollering man chorus, is totally unexpected and gloriously heavy. I love the relentless pulse of the string section, the obtrusive organ that echoes her vocal line, the a cappella staccato chanting in the final verse, the push-and-pull of the whole thing, and the fact that a song this heavy—later covered by metal band Mastadon—appears in the middle of this otherwise very pretty record.

--The one line in “The Circle Married the Line,” “It’s as much what it is as what it is not,” sums up much of what I love about this album.


I honestly can’t think of any. I don’t think there’s a wrong note on this record. Yes, it’s all a bit mannered and pleasant to listen to, but I don’t think it goes for easy answers. I also get that some people find Feist’s vocal delivery somewhat stilted and removed; that’s entirely subjective. If I vote for another record over this one, it will be because that record does more for me emotionally or intellectually or zeitgeist-y—or all three—than Metals does. (Or because everyone else in the room hates this album.)

Things I’m not supposed to think about:

This is a safe and solid choice. Something inside me wants to resist safe choices. I have to resist that urge to resist safe choices. You follow?

Pre-Polaris: Kathleen Edwards

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur

First impressions (published Jan. 12, 2012):

In the advance hype leading up to Voyageur, much has been made of Kathleen Edwards’ creative and romantic partnership with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the indie sensation whose 2010 album topped many year-end lists and garnered several Grammy nominations. On the surface, it’s a strange combination: Edwards has rarely strayed from the Canadiana roots rock template of her peers Sarah Harmer, Jim Bryson and Blue Rodeo; Vernon makes sensitive, mellow pseudo-folk music that sounds like it’s sung by space aliens and a ’70s L.A. studio band. What would Vernon do with Edwards’ music? Hook her up to a helium tank? Demand she strip away any literal language in her lyrics? Impose a five-piece horn section on every song?

Vernon is all about the opaque; Edwards is never anything but blunt and direct. Using their lyrics, let’s imagine a typical conversation between them. Edwards: “I know your heart is a sacred thing. You’re a comedian hiding behind your funny face.” Vernon: “In a mother, out a moth, furling forests for the soft, gotta know been lead aloft.” Edwards: “Out of the shadows, out of the cameras and the lights, you’re a chameleon and you hide behind your darker side.” Vernon: “I’m ridding all your stories. What I know is, what it is, is pouring—wire it up!”

Thankfully, Vernon doesn’t impose himself on Edwards’ music; the production is crisp and clean, and there’s little here to distinguish it from any other Edwards album, other than her continuing maturity as a writer—although 2008’s Asking For Flowers was the real sea change, where she expanded her writing voice, constructing strong narratives that were clearly not autobiographical, setting short stories to songs. Here she’s back to writing what could easily be seen as personal stories; in the last year she divorced previous collaborator Colin Cripps before taking up with Vernon, and much of the album is about beginnings and endings of relationships. She and Vernon have very little in common, musically, although her “House Full of Empty Rooms” shares chords and sounds somewhat like Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” only without a Mike and the Mechanics backdrop and with about 1/20th the amount of reverb.

And yet if enough potential fans who would never give Kathleen Edwards the time of day before are suddenly interested because of the Bon Iver connection, more power to her. Edwards has yet to make a weak record, and Voyageur finds her more than ready for her close-up.


--The production is fantastic, although, as no fan of Bon Iver records, I prefer to think this is due to a more experienced Edwards and her band learning to let the music breathe, and utilizing more interesting guitar and keyboard textures (see: “Going to Hell”) than most standard roots rock bands do.

--“I’m looking for a soft place to land”—is there a more tender admission to a new lover from someone on the rebound? That’s the sound of the evening proposal; "Sidecar" is the sound of the buoyant next morning, the couple ready to burst out of the house, hand-in-hand, jump on their bikes in jubilation and watch the world erupt into a giant lip dub in their wake.

--Edwards has a way of drawing maximum emotional resonance out of a chorus lyric like “I don’t need a punchline.”

--The opening, descending half-note piano chords on “Soft Place to Land” are as delicate as snowfall; the spaces between notes on this album often speak volumes.

--She calls in some heavyweight guests here—Bon Iver, Norah Jones, Bahamas, Hawksley Workman, the Good Lovelies, Jim Bryson—but they all fit seamlessly into the puzzle. I didn’t even recognize Norah Jones on “For the Record.” This is a great singer/songwriter album where the woman in question is always front and centre; everything else is just texture. (“For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.”)

--Gord Tough’s guitar sound captures Canadiana roots rock—from Neil Young to the Grapes of Wrath to the Rheostatics to Weeping Tile—like very few others; he’s a major asset here.

--“House Full of Empty Rooms” is hardly an original metaphor in a divorce song, but title aside, Edwards expertly captures the slow dissolution of a couple falling out of love.

--“Pink Champagne” has this awesome zinger: “In a dress to kill and a glass to fill.”


--I’m still not sold on Edwards’s upper register; the notes she’s aiming for always seem just ever-so-slightly out of her grasp (not unlike Joel Plaskett, who really, really milks this). When she’s competing with Feist and Cold Specks, this is a major shortcoming.

--“Change the sheets and then change me” is not a great lyric to hang a chorus on.

--It’s hard to fault Voyageur for much, but at the same time there’s little that would ever make me place it above all other records I heard in any given 12-month period.

Things I’m not supposed to think about:

Her 2008 album, Asking for Flowers, was much better, rooted more in obviously fictional narratives and showing her development as a short-story teller. 

Pre-Polaris: Drake

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Drake - Take Care

First impression (published Nov. 24, 2011, in a joint review with Nickelback):

…Wasn’t Drake that charming young man who hosted the Junos? Isn’t he a well-adjusted TV star from a tony Toronto neighbourhood? Isn’t Stevie Wonder on this new album? Isn’t his new single with Nicki Minaj, called “Make Me Proud,” supposed to be an empowering ode to the fairer sex?

Drake can play the sensitive guy all he wants, but his lyrical output is nothing short of vile, a portrait of a guy who is “addicted to naked pictures and sittin’ talking ’bout bitches,” and who loves breast-implanted strippers even more than Chad Kroeger does. It’s not like he hides this part of his personality: on the first track, “Over My Dead Body” (with music by Chantal Kreviazuk), Drake goes on about his six-figure salary, white women, and gives a bizarre “shout out to Asian girls / let the lights dim sum.” As an opening salvo, it doesn’t bode well. It’s actually one of the better tracks here.

“I don’t make music for niggers that don’t get pussy,” he claims, a throwaway line that would be more offensive if it wasn’t so ridiculous—especially over decidedly unsexy beats. What’s actually offensive is how much insipid whining he does about his broken heart, like a crybaby emo teenager instead of the supposedly macho playa that he pretends to be on 80 per cent of the tracks here. His defenders claim that dichotomy is part of his appeal; mostly he sounds like a two-faced hypocrite. “I know you’ve been hurt by someone else,” he pays his ex-girlfriend Rihanna to croon to him on the title track. I’m sure it wasn’t her idea.

Take Care is one of the most anticipated albums of the year. It’s also by far the dullest: 17 songs of Drake discussing his fame and sexual conquests over hook-less music that’s just as tedious as his rhymes. It’s one thing to make a terrible album; it’s another to make a terrible album that’s interminable.

Drake’s dry delivery throughout—when either singing or rapping—is devoid of charisma and impossible to take seriously. That doesn’t stop him from aiming for maximum gravitas at every available opportunity, especially on the eight-minute drunk-dialling epic “Marvin’s Room.” It’s ostensibly a Marvin Gaye homage (?) about a jilted lover cursing his ex’s new partner. But the lyrics are downright laughable: he croons softly in the chorus, “fuck that nigger that you love so bad,” calls his lover only after he’s been left alone by all the bitches he invited over to party, and he boasts about having sex four times that week to help him get over his pain and adjust to fame. What a charmer.

"Marvin’s Room" is made worse by Drake’s earnest, AutoTuned vocals, which are shamelessly trying to ape his protégé The Weeknd—an artist who, on his own records, nails the fine line between distasteful decadence and self-loathing better than Drake could ever dream of doing. (Plus, Abel Tesfaye of The Weeknd can actually sing.)

So why does Drake get such a free ride, not just from his audience but from respectable mainstream media? Is his million-dollar smile really so blinding that we can overlook his countless shortcomings? Speaking of millions of dollars, listening to Take Care—what a condescending title, by the way—is like enduring 70 minutes listening to Marie Antoinette blather on at the precipice of the French Revolution. Do regular schmoes listen to Drake for the same deluded and self-defeating reason that poor people vote Republican?

Even worse—Drake doesn’t make it sound like his life is any fun at all. Say what you will about Nickelback, they’re having an amazing time being kings of the world and don’t care what you think…


--I’ll admit that some tracks on this album have grown on me since I’ve subjected myself to this album on endless rotation as part of my Polaris duties. So let’s focus on the positive for a second: the first voice you hear is not Drake’s but Chantal Kreviazuk, an artist I’ve never cared for until now, when she offers respite from Drake.

--That opening track, “Over My Dead Body,” has one line I’ll admit is pretty good: “Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.”

--The first five tracks on Take Care are tolerable, if not pretty good. I respect Drake’s decision to downplay the beats, which is almost heresy in hip-hop. There are no drums at all on “Over My Dead Body”; Shot For Me has little more than fingersnaps on the verses. The opening suite culminates with the title track, produced by Jamie “xx” Smith, based largely on his remix of a track from the final Gil-Scott Heron album; obviously, it owes a large debt to The Xx, featuring guitar by Romy Madley-Croft (surely the only woman on this album who isn’t singing), but Drake also manages to get the most honest, emotional vocal performance out of Rihanna—perhaps ever. The first two minutes of this track, before Drake steps in, is completely sublime.

--As much as I hate Drake’s flow and his vocal timbre, I have to admit that it actually works on “Headlines,” and the drum programming is superb. The drums are even better on “Crew Love,” probably this album’s production high point, and featuring a vocal by The Weeknd.

--The production on “Marvin’s Room” could have been done by Grimes; as much as I loathe this song in general, again, I have to respect that Drake is reaching for something different here.

--I’m mysteriously intrigued by this line: “Slave to the pussy but I’m playing the field nigger.” Is there supposed to be a comma between “field” and “nigger” or is he purposely baiting anyone whose studied African-American history? I’m not sure this is worth expending any energy trying to decipher.

--On track 12 (when there’s still 1/3 of the album left to go, people!), “Doing it Wrong,” Drake finally sounds like he’s singing in his own voice, not run through a thousand machines. Did the fact Stevie Wonder shows up to play some plaintive harmonica here make Drake want to step up on the soul quotient? Wonder’s presence is the most incongruous element on this entire record: absolutely no one has played harmonica in any genre in the last 30 years, except maybe Beck when he was trying to do Dylan, and so it’s a strange, archaic moment in this otherwise entirely 21st century recording to hear that old familiar wheezing sound.


--I love downer records. I love that this is a relatively minimal, atmospheric record flying in the face of overproduced mainstream hip-hop. But if Drake was merely drowning in his own misery, that’d be fine. Instead, the fact that he—or his narrator—is such a pompous ass in love with conspicuous consumption makes it impossible to relate to him on any level at all, or even enjoy him vicariously. He’s a spoiled, whiny motherfucker, and spending 80 minutes with him is torturous.

--Eighty minutes—that’s far too long for any album, but especially Drake. Has anyone other than masochistic Polaris jurors ever sat through all 17 tracks in one sitting?

--I hate everything about both his singing voice and his flow as an MC; he has zero personality as a vocalist. It would be one thing if he faded into the background as just another element of the music, ala Massive Attack (where the raps are the weakest link), but this is all about Drake, all the time. Hating his vocals is, of course, entirely subjective, but: “All those flows borin’ me / paint dryin’.” Hey, you said it.

--Those first five tracks I like hit a brick wall with track six, “Marvin’s Room.” Playing a jilted, drunk ex-lover, he croons “fuck that nigger you love so bad” as a chorus, and sounds suitably ridiculous doing so, with loathsome delivery. Is there a woman in the world who finds this endearing? What is it about the fact he fucked four bitches before pleading with his ex like a jealous, jilted dick, that people find sexy? Is there a man in the world who wouldn’t find this song whiny and humiliating? I almost feel embarrassed for Drake listening to this. “I’m just sayin’, you could do better.”

--Here’s the heartwarming verse in question: “I think I’m addicted to naked pictures and sittin’ talking about bitches that we almost had / I don’t think I’m conscious of making monsters out of the women I sponsor until it all goes bad / but it’s all good / We threw a party, yeah we threw a party / bitches came over, yeah we threw a party / I was just calling because they were just leaving / talk to me please… / I’ve had sex four times this week, just sayin’ / I’m having a hard time adjusting to fame.” Cry me a fuckin’ river, pal.

--The first line of “Crew Love,” as crooned by The Weeknd, is, if I’m not mistaken, “Take your nose off my keyboard.” WTF?

--“Make Me Proud” is supposedly his sensitive-guy shout-out to the fairer sex. Drake is so proud of his lady because … her hair looks good when she comes out of the shower? Because “she sounds like” she graduated college? Because she has the internal stamina to stave off horny jackals? When Nicki Minaj takes charge halfway through, she injects the track with so much life it doesn’t matter that she’s barely saying anything—it’s all in her delivery. The woman has sheer charisma and can get away with talkin’ shit in the middle of a puzzling, patronizing track from a guy trying to prove he’s not a total dick. And that octave-jumpin hook? Juvenile—save it for your Crazy Frog collab.

--The drummer on the overblown, choir-laded bombast of "Lord Knows" insisted that his credit read in part “of

--It’s hard to pick the worst verse on this album, but my vote goes to this one from “Lord Knows”: “I’m a descendent of either Marley or Hendrix / I haven’t figured it out because my story is far from finished / I’m hearing all of the jokes I know they’re trying to push me / I know that showin’ emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy / I don’t make music for niggas who don’t get pussy.”

--Even his guests sink to new lyrical lows, like this one from Rick Ross: “I fell in love with the pen, started fucking the ink.” Let's all meditate on that for a second. Or not.

--Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, final track "The Ride" features this doozy about his latest conquest: “Brand new titties, stitches still showin’ / she’s just praying that it heals good / I’m just praying that it feels good.” He later admits, “I blew six million on myself and I feel amazing.” Bully for you, buddy. Go hang out with Mitt Romney; I’m sure he’s a big fan.

Things I’m not supposed to think about: 

The Polaris money wouldn’t even cover a weekend with his buddies: “There are times when I might blow 50k on a vacation for all my soldiers just to see the looks on all their faces / all it took was patience / I’ve never really been one for the preservation of money.”

Pre-Polaris: Cold Specks

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion

First impression (published May 24, 2012):

Cold Specks is the young singer/songwrier Al Spx (not her real name) from the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, and her debut album has been building buzz ever since she leaked the song “Winter Solstice” online. Listening to that track, there is much to love: Spx’s full-throated, soulful voice, with its deep gospel and blues influences, is put to work on a slow build of a song that’s stirring and spiritual.

Listening to the rest of the album, however, there is not as much to love. Spx’s amazing voice (reminiscent of another great Toronto singer, Kate Fenner) only goes so far: her songs don’t carry the weight her voice deserves, and her accompanying musicians are often plodding and unexpressive. Too often, her voice overpowers this material: like Aretha Franklin trying to make a sombre Leonard Cohen album.

The graceful expulsion promised by the album title sounds like it’s still a bit off in the future.


--That voice. Holy crap, that voice. Spx can take a simple phrase—“sons and daughters,” “I am a goddam believer”—and make it sound like Shakespeare delivered by Laurence Olivier. For her voice alone, Spx is a major new talent who has been vaulted from obscurity to have the ear of the world.

--“Winter Solstice” is a stunning track, and if the rest of the album was just as good, I’d have no problem handing her the Polaris. The first minute, with just Spx and piano, is breathtaking—and then it only gets better once the pulsing bass drum, electric guitar, and choir of male hummers enter for the chorus, leaving immediately again for the second verse. The strings, when they come in closer to the end, are just as simple, sparse and effective as the percussion. For a song that never strays from one chord, the overall effect is stunning.

--“Hector” is the one track that breaks from the formula—it’s also the only one that requires a full band, which Spx employs to great effect.

--She recently opened for Great Lake Swimmers across Canada; on “Elephant Head” she namechecks the sequential Toronto subway stations Bathurst, Spadina, St. George and Bay, which to me is an obvious nod to the Swimmers’ song “I Will Never See the Sun,” which does the same thing, and often the mood on Expulsion reminds me of the Swimmers’ finest work.


--“Heavy Hands” is indeed, heavy-handed. With a two-note chorus melody consisting of just two words—“Fire away!”—it’s echoed each and every time by a groaning violin, just in case we missed it. It’s a shame, because outside of the choruses, it’s a lovely, subtle song—until that ocean of obviousness comes cascading through the chorus.

--As beautiful as “Winter Solstice” is, I feel like the exact same chord progression, with only slight variations, appears throughout this record (despite the fact that, um, “Winter Solstice” only really has one chord). Often I start singing “Winter Solstice” to myself when one of any number of other tracks is playing. On its own, “Blank Maps” is a great song—except the arrangement is almost identical to “Winter Solstice,” substituting a steady build for the second-verse dropout.

--One could argue that any historically great folk singer recycles motifs and musical themes; one could also argue that Spx is still a very green songwriter. If this record was massively popular and subject to a major backlash, I’m sure some mash-up artist could successfully sync up every track here.

--The entire album ends on a suspended, non-root chord, which sums up the entire album: something is not quite finished.

Things I shouldn’t be thinking about:

Polaris has never gone to a debut album before. Why start now?