Friday, May 22, 2015

Polaris pondering, prior to the 2015 long list

Siskiyou - Nervous
It's almost time to submit my five-album ballot for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize. It's always hard to whittle diverse genres of music down to five albums that I'd place over all others: usually there are two or maybe three albums I think are near-perfect: encapsulations of an artist's (assumed) intent, reflecting the zeitgeist and/or something I keep coming back to again and again and hearing new delights. Then there's a bunch of very good albums that fill out the rest of my ballot. 

These are by no means all the good Canadian records released between June 1, 2014 and May 30, 2015, but these are the ones that I found completely captivating, and the ones I'm considering for my ballot. Of course, I'd love it if these 20 records composed half the long list, but my track record suggests that's not going to happen. 

And of course there are records I haven't heard: procrastinating Polaris jurors suggested no fewer than 20 albums in the last week. Frankly, I'm not going to listen to any of them I hadn't heard already—or at least not for Polaris purposes. With three exceptions (all May releases), I've been sitting with the records below for many months now. No matter what shakes down between now and the Sept. 21 gala, you should get to know them, too.

Here's my dance card, in alphabetical order:

Afiara Quartet + Skratch Bastid – Spin City (Centrediscs)
Lydia Ainsworth – Right From Real (Arbutus)
Bahamas – Is Afie (Brushfire)
Boogat – Neo-Reconquista (Maisonnette)
Jennifer Castle – Pink City (Idée Fixe)
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Sony)
Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath (Recital)
Amelia Curran – They Promised You Mercy (Six Shooter)
Keita Juma – Chaos Theory (independent)
Pierre Kwenders – Le dernier empereur bantou (Bonsound)
Daniel Lanois – Flesh and Machine (Anti)
Lee Harvey Osmond – Beautiful Scars (Latent)
Jean Leloup – A Paradis City (Grosse Boite)
Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon)
Native North America – Various Artists (Light in the Attic)
Sagot – Valse 333 (Simone)
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (True North)
Siskiyou – Nervous (Constellation)
Tre Mission – Stigmata (Big Dada)
Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid – Spin Cycle

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid – Spin Cycle (Centrediscs)

If you only listen to one collaboration between a string quartet and a hip-hop DJ collab this year—this is the one.

This young Toronto string quartet commissioned four composers to write new pieces for them, which they recorded and then handed over to turntablist Skratch Bastid (Buck 65, Shad) to remix; the musicians then went back to the composers to add more material responding to the remix, furthering the musical conversation.

The idea sounds like it’s better suited for an arts grant proposal than a record you’d actually want to listen to. But this works. The composers and the players here aren’t looking to write music for the 18th century: this is modern work for modern players, whose often-percussive style suits the transformation to hip-hop perfectly, and their playing strutd and swaggers.

String quartets have an inherently nimble nature that all small ensembles do, which makes their work easier to isolate and pull apart—especially if you’re doing so with their complete participation. Skratch Bastid will take an eight-bar riff and loop it, then take the violin line and make it sing in new ways with pitch shifting, while bringing in sampled drums and keyboards and anything else he likes.

Obviously the remixes are the real draw here, but the original works—by Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau—stand entirely on their own merit, and not just as remix fodder. It’s there that Afiara shows off their subtle and dynamic side, where they prove that they’re not just brash players who secretly want to be in a rock band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Oil and water? Nothing a little emulsification can’t fix.

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid will be playing this material at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Saturday, May 23 (upgraded from a smaller venue), and they’ll be accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of the New Creations Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on March 5, 2016.

Download: “A Letter from the After-life,” “Skratch My Bach,” “Dirty Laundry, Heavy Load”

Monday, May 11, 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Power in the Blood

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (Gypsy Boy/True North)

“There is power in the blood”? No kidding, especially when you’re Buffy Sainte-Marie, a 74-year-old woman who’s been making records for more than 50 years, a woman who has never sacrificed her role as a protest singer, an educator (she has a Ph.D. in education), and a curious artist fusing modern sounds with traditional music, in ways virtually none of her peers continue to do. Only Neil Young is louder, but even he’s been making the same two records for decades now, whereas Buffy continues to evolve—or, in her term, “ripen.” 

Oh, and incidentally, she's also a woman who has physically aged even better than Tina Turner—who is two years older than Buffy, and now retired. Buffy Sainte-Marie is not retiring. Far from it.

Power in the Blood is only her third album of new material since her 1992 comeback (which followed 16 years away from recording studios, for a variety of reasons—though during that time, she won an Oscar for co-writing “Up Where We Belong,” sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes). She covers all her bases: modern electro, country, plaintive folk, old campfire songs, reggae, blues rock and slick pop. She once again employs British producer Chris Birkett, with whom she’s worked since 1992, but also pulls in Torontonians Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado and Michael Philip Wojewoda (Rheostatics, Ashley MacIsaac), with Wojewoda mixing the whole record and giving it a sonic consistency—and a punch that’s sadly lacking on her records with Birkett.

That all adds up to a bold musical statement and perhaps her best-ever assembly of songs outside of 1996’s re-recorded greatest hits collection. If much of her modern work has sounded dated, shackled to keyboard presets of the day, Power in the Blood roars to life. The title track, featuring Alabama 3 (best known for The Sopranos theme), with a thumping techno backbeat and Vocoders, sounds like it’s trying a bit too hard, but Buffy makes it her own—and it’s thunderous. Even the cheeziest song here, “Love Charms,” coasts along with the cool of a classic Sade track; if Buffy doesn’t score a hit with it herself, someone is bound to scoop it up sooner than later. (This is a woman, of course, who’s been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand to Neko Case and Owen Pallett.)

Four songs hail from earlier in her career: the uplifting closer “Carry It On”—which should be the closing number in a Broadway jukebox musical of Buffy music—is a rewrite of 1976’s “Look at the Facts”; “Generation” first appeared on 1974’s Buffy, though it’s been updated to reference Idle No More; “Not the Lovin Kind” appeared in an almost identical arrangement on 1972’s Moonshot, though the guitar of Ian Blurton (Change of Heart, Public Animal) here is a welcome addition; and “It’s My Way” was the title track of her 1964 debut, and lyrics like ,“I’ve got my own seeds / I got my own weeds / I got my own harvest that I’ve sown” mean a lot more from a woman who’s lived 74 active and fascinating years, as opposed to 24. She also nods to her late husband, Jack Nietzche, by adapting a melody he wrote in 1990 for a long-forgotten soundtrack on the haunting “Orion.”

Most striking is her cover of UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song”: here is an Aboriginal American woman covering Brits playing Jamaican music and writing a song about South Africa. So whose song is it exactly? I, for one, had completely forgotten that UB40 wrote decent songs of their own instead of just doing reggae covers. Buffy resurrects this song of struggle, throws in a vocal sample from the powwow group Northern Cree (also heard in A Tribe Called Red tracks) and modifies the lyrics: “Native America run, we will no longer succumb to oil and to ore / we will be Idle No More.” Needless to say, only a woman as ballsy as Buffy Sainte-Marie would even attempt to pull something like this off—and she does.

But she’s not just borrowing from others and her past. The four all-new original songs here are just as strong as the rest of the record: the aforementioned “Love Charms,” the folkie ballad “Ke Sakihitin Awasis,” the country ode to her Hawaiian home (“Farm in the Middle of Nowhere”) and “The Uranium War,” a worthy follow-up to what is perhaps her most powerful protest song (with apologies to “Universal Soldier”): 1992’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

If you don’t know much about Buffy Sainte-Marie—and, frankly, most people don’t—chances are she’s not what you think she is. She’s not just a protest singer. She’s not just a writer of sometimes sappy love songs. She’s not just an Aboriginal artist and activist. She’s not just an old hippie. She is all those things, but she’s even more. She shouldn’t have to prove herself, although she certainly has here. There’s plenty more power in that blood.

Download: “Generation,” “Love Charms,” “Carry It On”

Monday, May 04, 2015

Mac McCaughan – Non-Believers

Mac McCaughan – Non-Believers (Merge)

Words you will never hear in the Durham, N.C., offices of Merge Records: “Oh crap, the boss wants us to put out another one of his own records.” The boss, in this case, is Mac McCaughan, who started Merge with his Superchunk bandmate Laura Ballance more than 25 years ago; that band was the label’s star attraction until the likes of Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel showed up. McCaughan also records under the name Portastatic, which started out as a bedroom solo project and slowly evolved into a band and an outlet for soundtrack work.

Why this man with 16 albums behind him has suddenly decided to start recording under his own name is anyone’s guess. But for such a prolific guy with almost as many misses as hits, Non-Believers is easily one of the finest records he’s ever made, with big melodies and tiny textural flourishes, practically perfect from start to finish. Might as well put your own name on it.

McCaughan made his name playing incredibly loud, overdriven punk guitar and singing slightly higher than his range would allow: here, he lets his lower range luxuriate, takes guitar inspiration from ’80s Brits like Johnny Marr and Robert Smith, and his overall aesthetic from New Zealand acts with whom he’s had a long love affair, like The Clean, the Tall Dwarfs and the 3Ds.

Closer to home, much of Non-Believers echoes East River Pipe, one of Merge Records’ most underrated artists: led by singer/songwriter F.M. Curnog, East River Pipe made the kind of low-key, homemade records you’d play during a melancholy drive around your old hometown, trying to find traces of the people and places you once knew and wondering how the hell the world has shifted beneath your feet.

Synths abound here, competing comfortably with the layers of guitars, never as an ironic gimmick or signifier. Usually rock musicians slap synths on top of something for mere effect or to substitute for something else; here, they’re as carefully arranged as a chamber orchestra.

Though there are obvious sonic touchstones, Non-Believers is stuck in neither a rut nor a groove: for every synth-drenched new wave song, there’s a power-pop rave-up like “Box Batteries” or a pseudo-country song like “Barely There.” Does it all just add up to record-collector rock for middle-aged ’90s indie kids who’ve tuned out the last few Yo La Tengo albums? On one level, absolutely. But it’s also the work of a man whose life immersed in music—indeed, a life spent midwifing some of the greatest North American records of the last 20 years—whose well is nowhere near dry, who’s not resting on his laurels, who still wants to make the best record of his career. This time, he might have done just that. 

Download: “Only Do,” “Box Batteries,” “Lost Again”