Thursday, June 20, 2019

Polaris Music Prize 2019 long list

Here’s your 2019 Polaris Music Prize long list, with my breakdown of it below. For those keeping track, I called 28/40. Always nice to see some surprises.

Tim Baker – Forever Overhead
Tanika Charles – The Gumption
Clairmont the Second – Do You Drive?
Charlotte Cornfield – The Shape of Your Name
Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman
Dilly Dally – Heaven
The Dirty Nil – Master Volume
Dizzy – Baby Teeth
Elisapie – The Ballad of the Runaway Girl
Fet.Nat – Le Mal
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned
Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams
Yves Jarvis – The Same But By Different Means
Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
Kaia Kater – Grenades
Kimmortal – X Marks the Swirl
La Force – s/t
LAL – Dark Beings
Laurence-Anne – Premiere Apparition
Salome Leclerc – Les choses exterieures
Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk
Jean Leloup – L’étrange pays
Shay Lia – Dangerous EP
Les Louanges – Le nuit est une panthere
Loud – Tout ça pour ça
Shawn Mendes – s/t
Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
Operators – Radiant Dawn
Orville Peck – Pony
Sandro Perri – In Another Life
Pup – Morbid Stuff
Lee Reed – The Steal City EP
Jesse Reyez – Being Human in Public EP
Shad – A Short Story About War
Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape
Sydanie – 999
Tobi – Still
Voivod – The Wake
Wintersleep – In the Land Of

Familiarity factor:
The list is almost exactly half new faces, half old faces.

Debut records: 7 (Dizzy, Laurence-Anne, Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty, Orville Peck, Sydanie, Tobi)

First time on a Polaris list (not counting debuts): 13.
Congrats, Voivod! But especially LAL, who’ve existed largely on the margins of even their hometown of Toronto for 20 years now.

Previous winners: 1 (Fucked Up)
Previous shortlisters: 4 (Carly Rae Jepsen, Pup, Shad, Snotty Nose Rez Kids)
I’d say that this year’s shortlist could well include those five very familiar names.

Shortlist-esque: Tim Baker (as member of Hey Rosetta) and Operators (Dan Boeckner with Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade)

Previous longlisters: 14 (includes La Force’s Ariel Engle, as member of AroarA)


Demographics:
Female solo or female-fronted: 19
Male-fronted acts with female instrumentalists who don’t sing: 3 (Fucked Up, Lee Harvey Osmond, Operators, Snotty Nose Rez Kids)

Indigenous-identifying acts: 3 (Elisapie, Lee Harvey Osmond, Snotty Nose Rez Kids)
Acts we’ll refer to as “new Canada”: 13

Francophones: 5 (plus instrumental artist Alexandra Stréliski)
Allophones: 0.25 (some songs on the Elisapie record)

Geezers: LAL, Jean Leloup, Lee Harvey Osmond, Voivod

Getting up there: Fucked Up, Operators, Sandro Perri, Lee Reed, Shad

Genre:
Music roughly defined as pop/rock/indie rock: 14
Hiphop: 8 (this might be a record)
Aggressive: 5 (Dilly Dally, The Dirty Nil, Fucked Up, Pup, Voivod)
R&B: 3 (Tanika Charles, Dominique Fils-Aimé, Shay Lia)
Folk-ish: 4 (Charlotte Cornfield, Kaia Kater, this particular Jean Leloup record, Lee Harvey Osmond)
Country-esque: 1 (Orville Peck, but not really)
Electro: 2 (Marie Davidson, LAL)
Chart pop: 2 (Carly Rae Jepsen, Shawn Mendes)
Music that CBC Music will have considerable difficulty programming: 17

Geography:
As always, assume that about half the acts from Toronto and Montreal originally hail from somewhere else (i.e. Calgarian Yves Jarvis, whose career has been based in Montreal). Also: I have no idea where Shad lives these days. Is he back in Vancouver? I put him in Toronto.

Toronto: 14
Montreal: 14
Vancouver: 3 (Carly Rae Jepsen, Kimmortal, Snotty Nose Rez Kids)
Hamilton: 3 (The Dirty Nil, Lee Harvey Osmond, Lee Reed)
Brampton: 2 (Haviah Mighty, Jesse Reyez)
Oshawa: 1 (Shawn Mendes)
Ottawa/Gatineau: 1 (Fet.Nat)
Halifax: 1 (Wintersleep)
St. John’s: 1 (Tim Baker)

I did not expect to see these 10 on the shortlist:


Charlotte Cornfield. This record has a lot of love on the jury (obviously), but I wasn’t sure this Toronto songwriter (and club booker) would be able to reach beyond her city limits.

Dilly Dally. This band is not on my radar, musically. More power to them for that.

Dizzy. This band is also not on my radar. Partly because I confuse them with Dilly Dally, for reasons that have everything to do with spelling and nothing to do with music. 

The Dirty Nil. I do not get this band at all. Nice shirts, though.

LAL. This duo have been underdogs for so long that I never thought they’d be on a Polaris list. But the latest record got them some incredible reviews, including from younger jurors who might not even know the legacy.

Jean Leloup. The man is a legend, and his last album should have shortlisted (rumour has it that it missed out by a single ballot). But this album appeared a week before this year’s voting deadline, and I wasn’t sure enough jurors from either franco or anglo pools would have time to rally around it, especially because it’s an understated acoustic record.

Shay Lia. This woman has had a good buzz since appearing on Kaytranada’s Polaris-winning album a while back, but I wasn’t sure if this EP would vault her onto the list on her own.

Shawn Mendes. In the category of “it’s so popular that it’s a dark horse,” this chart-topping record garnered some last-minute discussions among jurors, one of whom admitted that this was the one album they listened to the most in the last 12 months, and others (like me) had to admit that they’d come around to its charms. Jim Di Gioia of Dominionated wrote a great piece about poptimist prejudice against male pop stars, who are not afforded the same benefit of the doubt that the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen are among critics.

Operators. Dan Boeckner’s output carries a lot of weight with Polaris jurors, which is why I was shocked that Operators’ debut album didn’t make the long list a couple of years ago. I wondered if jury turnover meant that this new one would miss out as well, so consider this a comeback. (Even though I prefer that neglected debut.)

Sandro Perri. Perri is much beloved among the more experimentally minded corners of the Polaris jury, and this four-song album contains one 23-minute track and three variations on a theme. I wasn’t sure that would break through all the noise, but I’m glad it did.

Lee Reed. This veteran Hamilton MC, who started out with a politically charged, live funk band called Warsawpack in the early 2000s, proves that Snotty Nose Rez Kids are not the only anarcho-punk hip-hop act cranking out future classics.

Tobi. This debut is a lovely R&B record that I discovered late in the Polaris cycle, and I hope it finds many more ears after landing on the long list.

Wintersleep. These veterans have never caught the ear of Polaris before, and those earlier records were wildly successful. I didn’t expect that pattern to break now. But the incredibly catchy radio single “Beneficiary”—with the highly unlikely, Midnight-Oil-ish, white-guilt chorus of “I’m the beneficiary of genocide”—was an unavoidable triumph. 
CORRECTION!!!! Juror Holly Gordon pointed out that they longlisted in 2008. Apologies for missing that. 

Most sorry omission:
Digawolf – Yellowstone. I voted for it. You should hear it.

Shocked not to see:
Akua – Them Spirits. This Solange associate had a lot of love on the jury.  

Also somewhat surprised not to see:
Belle Plaine – Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath
Black Mountain – Destroyer
The Cosmic Range – The Gratitude Principle
Jayda G – Significant Changes
Murray Lightburn – Hear Me Out
Motherhood – Dear Bongo
Nehiyawak – Starlight
Doug Paisley – Starter Home
Rae Spoon – bodiesofwater
Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
Hawksley Workman – Median Age Wasteland


Hall of Fame update: 

Dan Boeckner of Operators now has SIX Polaris nods in the course of his career, including two shortlist spots (one each for Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs). That’s more than anyone else in the prize’s history.

Following him is Tom Wilson of Lee Harvey Osmond, who marks his fifth appearance on a Polaris long list, putting him alongside fellow 5x-ers Drake, the New Pornographers and Arcade Fire (although those three artists either shortlisted or won the prize; Wilson has only ever longlisted).

In the heroes to zeroes category, Drake’s Scorpion did not longlist this year. Neither did the new Black Mountain album, which would have given the Vancouver rockers their fourth Polaris nod.  

Others in the 4x category of the Hall of Fame are BadBadNotGood, Bahamas, Basia Bulat, Joel Plaskett, the Sadies, Daniel Romano, Patrick Watson and The Weeknd. Joining the Hall of Fame this year is Shad, whose last three albums were all shortlisted.

Conspicuously absent from the 2019 list: popular favourites Arkells, Alessia Cara, Drake. But that’s what the Junos and Grammys are for.  



Shortlist will be announced on July 16. The gala is on Sept. 16.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Polaris Music Prize longlist prediction 2019


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Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman

Every year I attempt to predict the Polaris Music Prize long list, based on past juror behaviour, current conversations among jurors, and entirely subjective intuition. Usually I get about 30/40 correct. This year I won’t bother with the longest end of the tail and focus on the 35 I’m almost certain we’ll see when the list is announced next Thursday, June 20. These are records I believe have broad juror appeal beyond the usual confines of genre and geography. 

There's about 20 records that might fill the five empty spots I've omitted below; I won't bore you with those, I will say only three of them have any real name recognition—and none of them are the Arkells. I expect that, for most people, this year's Polaris pool will be rich for discovery. 

(Apologies in advance to anyone who sees themselves on this list and not the real one next week.)

In alphabetical order, by artist:

Akua – Them Spirits
Black Mountain – Destroyer
Tanika Charles – The Gumption
Clairmont the Second – Do You Drive?
Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman
Digawolf – Yellowstone
Elisapie – The Ballad of the Runaway Girl
Fet.Nat – Le Mal
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned
Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams
Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
Yves Jarvis – The Same But By Different Means
Jayda G – Significant Changes
Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
Kaia Kater – Grenades
Kimmortal – X Marks the Swirl
La Force – s/t
LAL – Dark Beings
Laurence-Anne – Premiere Apparition
Salomé Leclerc – Les choses exterieures
Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk
Murray Lightburn – Hear Me Out
Les Louanges – Le nuit est une panthere
Loud – Tout ça pour ça
Motherhood – Dear Bongo
Doug Paisley – Starter Home
Orville Peck – Pony
Pup – Morbid Stuff
Jesse Reyez – Being Human in Public
Shad – A Short Story About War
Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape
Sydanie – 999
Voivod – The Wake
Hawksley Workman – Median Age Wasteland


Prediction for eventual shortlist, assuming all of the above make the longlist:

Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman
Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams
Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
Kimmortal – X Marks the Swirl
Orville Peck – Pony
Pup – Morbid Stuff
Shad – A Short Story About War
Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape


Not that I want to jinx anything, but prediction for eventual winner:

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline

This record is as musically and lyrically strong as it is timely. It gets better every time I put it on. Prime Polaris bait, right here. If they do win, they’d be the first straight-up hip-hop act to do so (some heads questioned Kaytranada), and the Kitimaat duo would be the first Polaris champ from west of… Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Unless you count Saskatchewan-born, Boston-raised Hawaii resident Buffy Sainte-Marie.)


The long list will be announced in Winnipeg on Thursday, June 20, at 11 a.m. local time (noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. Atlantic), and broadcast on the official FB page


Friday, May 17, 2019

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline


Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline (independent)


This is not an album you should hear. It’s an album you have to hear.


It is to Canada in 2019 what Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was to the U.S. in 2015. And it’s not a coincidence that the Rez Kids refer to themselves at one point as “Natives with an attitude”—there are more than a few parallels with the revolution wrought by NWA 30 years ago.


Yes, I just did that awful thing where I use U.S. artists as a benchmark against which to measure homegrown heroes. I only do so because I honestly can’t think of a Canadian hip-hop record in history that does all of the following: that so successfully addresses the political moment; that doesn’t aspire to be a part of the pop music industry; that excels artistically from top to bottom; and shines a spotlight on a marginalized community using a universal language. Correct me if I'm wrong. War Party got this started in the ’90s; Snotty Nose Rez Kids are going to take it even further than A Tribe Called Red.


Snotty Nose Rez Kids are a duo from Kitimaat, B.C., a 15-hour drive north of Vancouver, to which they've since moved. They shot out of obscurity in 2018 when their second album, The Average Savage, landed on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. Their performance at the gala was a showstopper on a stacked bill. They went from having zero expectations to suffering from high expectations. And so they shelved an album of party bangers they’d already finished in favour of making a grand statement, which became Trapline. They raised their game on every level: it’s hard to imagine them coming back stronger than they do here.



Right from the first track, “Rebirth,” their mantra is “resist, revive, indigenize.” As I wrote about The Average Savage, this is not music of reconciliation: it is music of resistance. It is inherently political. It pulls no punches.


But it’s also better than that: it’s clever, it’s funny, rich in metaphor, puns and wordplay, and intersects deep references to Indigenous cultures across the country and the history of hip-hop. One of my many favourite lines, referencing Kendrick: “Priest don’t kill my tribe!” (Runner-up: “I’m a red man with a method, man.” There are too many more to list.) And while the music is inherently of-the-moment, influenced heavily by trap (which makes the title that much more brilliant), the two MCs are a far cry from the opiated mumblemouths who dominate the genre of the day: SNRK's presence is arresting, animated, playful and gripping. They’re rapping like their lives are on the line, grabbing the listener by the collar and demanding an audience. As yet as uncompromising as the lyrics are, the music is full of hooks, and the beats are brassy and bold.



Just like Public Enemy did for me in 1990, behind the visceral thrills of this music are references that will send you down wormholes, whether it’s “Section 35 forever”—a reference to the clause of the Canadian constitution affirming treaty rights—or continuous references to “neechie,” the Ojibwe word for “friend.” It’s a handy (and friendlier) replacement for the n-word in Indigenous hip-hop parlance ("Neechie, please"), though this here urban white man is embarrassed to admit I originally assumed they were talking about a homonymous German philosopher, which would require a whole other level of lyrical analysis.





Then there are the guests. Not surprisingly, Tanya Tagaq shows up on “Rebirth.” Rising Vancouver rapper Kimmortal soars on “Lost Tribe.” Boslen is ferocious on “Creator Made an Animal.” Brevner scores on “Hooligans” and bombs on “Hunger Games.” But it’s the presence of Toronto crew the Sorority on “Son of a Matriarch” that provides the truly historic track here. The Sorority, of course, are a Torontonian all-woman crew (whose Haviah Mighty also has a new record out), and the track is predictably packed with feminist fire (“Don’t forget you was raised with your face in a tit!”). But SNRK don’t just cede the spotlight to the sisters; they join in with some of the fiercest anti-misogynist lines I’ve ever heard from male MCs. Most important: nothing about this track goes down like Michael Franti’s granola (for which I have a soft spot, FYI), nor does it sound like some clunky Consolidated track from the ’90s; it’s ferocious and invigorating.


And essential. Just like the rest of this record.


Stream: “Son of a Matriarch,” “Yuck-Sue-Yaach,” “Rebirth”

Full album here
House of Strombo interview/performance from December 2018 here



Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dominique Fils-Aimé, Orville Peck, Jayda G


It's May and I'm preparing my Polaris Music Prize ballot. Juggling a lot of things reviewed in this space earlier—including La Force, which I'm confident will be No. 1 on my ballot—but here are some more recent releases. And I'll talk about the Snotty Nose Rez Kids in the next post.


Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned (En Soul)

This Haitian-Canadian Montreal singer has an audacious plan to release a trilogy exploring nothing less than “the history of African-American music,” of which this album is the second instalment. That’s a tall order, but at the very least she’s made a captivating song cycle here that showcases her spine-tingling vocals and some ace players. “There is Probably Fire” opens with gospel-tinged choral singing over minimal hand drums and clapping, before a long muted trumpet note announces a shift into an Ernest Ranglin-esque reggae groove with upright bass and jazzy piano. Each of those players are as integral to this album’s success as Fils-Aimé’s vocals, although she’s the obvious focal point. As the only credited vocalist, she’s also responsible for the layered harmonies throughout; this album’s one drawback is that she’d likely sound even better feeding off the energy of other live singers, rather than her own multitracks.



Fils-Aimé’s 2018 debut, Nameless, focused on the blues. Stay Tuned is ostensibly rooted in jazz and early R&B, with lyrics drawing from the contemporaneous civil rights movement and feminism (“You don’t treat me like the queen you keep telling me you see,” goes one line.) The next instalment will apparently delve into disco and hip-hop. But there’s a consistency between these first two records, a sound that is very much her own, a sound that pulls from modern R&B and Massive Attack descendants, albeit played on acoustic instruments. That third instalment will likely sound a lot like this one—which is to say, it will be a major work by an important new artist poised to transcend genres and generations.

Stay Tuned closes with a straight-up gospel song with the chorus, “I’ve got joy like a river in my soul.” So will the listener by the time the album’s over.

Stream: “Where There Is Smoke,” “There is Probably Fire,” “Some Body”



Orville Peck – Pony (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)

Let’s say you’re a Toronto guy with a strong lower-register who loves country crooners. You’re also queer and you love Joy Division as much as you do Johnny Cash. You know you’re unlikely to ever reach Kacey Musgraves’s level of success. You’re also unlikely to be embraced by the elders of the Canadian roots music community. At best, you’ll appeal to the same crowd as Timber Timbre, who certainly do well enough, but there’s a glass ceiling there. What do you do?
  
You dandy up in full rodeo regalia, develop a persona named Orville Peck and reveal very little about yourself—including your face, which you keep veiled behind a mask. The result: everyone is intrigued, no one asks about authenticity, and the music speaks for itself. (It also produces one of my favourite leads in a music story lately, from this Ben Rayner profile in the Toronto Star: “Orville Peck is not difficult to pick out in the crowd at Dundas West hipster haunt Get Well on a Tuesday night, as he’s the only chap in the room in a cowboy hat sipping a pint through a fringed leather bondage mask.”)

Start with the voice: Peck has a commanding presence, his low tenor enhancing the gravity of whatever it is he’s singing about. If we are to believe the little about himself that he’s revealed to the press, he’s a classically trained singer who did time on stage in London’s West End. It’s not hard to believe. There’s certainly some Ian Curtis in the mix, although Peck’s particular accent calls to mind a much more unlikely ’80s reference: Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo. The ’80s loom large here: not just in the overall Twin Peaks vibe (Peck would be a shoo-in for a gig at the Bang Bang Bar featured in the series’ 2017 sequel), but in that decade’s reverb-heavy approach to country music in what was then rebranded as “roots rock”: Steve Earle, BoDeans, Blue Rodeo, R.E.M.



Twangy guitars alone do not country music make; no, it’s the melancholy balladry that puts Peck in a country tradition. A song like “Kansas (Remember Me Now)” or “Roses Are Falling” aches like Patsy Cline, devoid of the drippy string sections, as if Cline were produced by Lee Hazlewood and not Owen Bradley. And titles like “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Old River” and “Big Sky” don’t hurt, either.



There’s a danger that all of this could just add up to shallow shtick, a male counterpart to Lana Del Rey (against whom I hold no prejudice, but also have no love). But Peck is no cypher. The man’s voice has passion and personality to burn—there’s a helluva lotta Elvis in this here building. He sounds completely invested in every note here, as does his backing band (comprised largely of angular Toronto postpunk band Frigs). Even his whistling is on point.

Time to ride Peck’s pony.

Stream: “Dead of Night,” “Buffalo Run,” “Big Sky”


Jayda G – Significant Changes (Ninja Tune)

"Hey, I see you on your phone, checking out Instagram... This is the dance floor, baby! This is where you supposed to get down!" That’s the spoken chorus to “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” and it’s a rallying cry that defines this entire collection of house music, filled with positive vibes, born in a West Coast Canadian music scene some describe as the “Canadian Riviera.” (That’s a new one, to these ears, anyway.)



Jayda G is a Vancouverite who now lives in (of course) Berlin, returning home only to finish her master’s degree in environmental toxicology—an area of study that surfaces via dialogue quoted in “Missy Knows What’s Up,” alongside electric bass lines that would make Chic’s Bernard Edwards proud, melodic piano lines, and pillowy Orb-like synths. For an album called Significant Changes, it’s remarkably conservative. It’s joyously old school; anything here could have been played in a DJ’s house set in 1990. Vocalist Alexa Dash elevates the tracks she’s on, but the instrumentals here are just as strong. House music isn’t normally a genre that works (for me) in an album format, but the fact that Jayda G comes close speaks to her talent—and her future.

Stream: “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” “Leave Room 2 Breathe” feat. Alexa Dash, “Missy Knows What’s Up”