Wednesday, September 19, 2018

La Force

La Force – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

Ariel Engle made my favourite recordof 2013, “In the Pines,” as one-half of the duo AroarA. Five years later, on her debut as La Force, Engle has once again announced herself as a major talent—this time under a new name, and with her alone in the spotlight.

In the interim, she and her friends Leslie Feist and Snowblink’s Daniela Gesundheit formed a trio called Hydra, mainly as a social club with which Engle could play summer festivals with her newborn in tow. She then followed Feist into the latest incarnation of Broken Social Scene; Engle joined the already-crowded band on their comeback record, 2017’s “Hug of Thunder,” and easily carved out her own space beside the starpower of Feist and Emily Haines. Broken Social Scene also features Andrew Whiteman, who was not only Engle’s partner in AroarA, but off-stage as well. He co-wrote the music for La Force, but this is her project. She’s more than ready for her close-up.

For starters, she’s an arresting vocalist, every bit as compelling—if not more so—as her more famous friends. (The sole distraction on the album is on “Upside Down Wolf,” where she sounds remarkably like Cat Power—for an artist whose voice is so otherwise distinctive, this presumably accidental homage is somewhat jarring. It’s still a great song, though.) Her melodies are lovely, often based—as the best folk songs are—on as few chords as possible, if not just a plain drone (like the opener, “The Tide”).

But where Engle truly shines is in her rhythm: not just in the live and/or electronic percussion behind her, but in the role that every instrument plays on this record, starting with her own guitar playing. Latin rhythms often percolate underneath, not always in recognizable ways, though the bossa nova vibe of “Mama Papa” is undeniable. The overall production aesthetic is that of slick, art-rock torch music with more than a few nods to ’80s new wave (see the redundantly titled “Epistolary Love Letter”), with thoroughly modern technology; there’s nothing retro here, other than a sheer devotion to craft. As perfect as this record is, it also leaves the future of La Force wide open. This is an artist who could easily pivot in any which way: into darker corners, into sunnier settings, situated anywhere in the world.

Even though all her other projects have been with dear friends and loved ones, once this record makes the rounds, Ariel Engle’s own work will never be seen as an adjunct to someone else. Viva La Force!

La Force is on tour now. She plays Adelaide Hall in Toronto on Thursday, September 20. Full dates here.

Stream: “The Tide,” “TBT,” “Lucky One”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Polaris Music Prize, day 5: U.S. Girls, Weaves

The final day of my annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day. Yes, this alphabetical saves the best for last.

(Day 4: Partner, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, + Zaki Ibrahim and Terra Lightfoot discussed here.)

(Day 3: Hubert Lenoir, Pierre Kwenders, + Cold Specks and Dennis Ellsworth discussed here.)
(Day 2: Daniel Caesar, Jeremy Dutcher, + Cadence Weapon and Bonjay discussed here.)
(Day 1: Alvvays, Jean-Michel Blais, + Arcade Fire and Geoff Berner discussed here.)

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)

The album:

In a Poem Unlimited is the sound of an experimental artist embracing pop music without losing her edge—in other words, an absolute recipe for success that appeals on several levels. I love everything about this record: music, lyrics, band, production, politics, and obviously the woman at the centre of it all, Meg Remy.

Excerpt from my Feb. 23 review for the Waterloo Record (which appears in full here):

“Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” That’s the title of a musical interlude on the latest album by Meg Remy, a.k.a. U.S. Girls. It describes a situation unlikely to ever happen to this outspoken artist: she has a hell of a lot to say, and she wants to make sure you hear it. To make sure that happens, Remy has made her most musically accomplished album to date, evolving from what was once a very solitary, homemade affair to a large, vibrant band whose energy was captured in a professional studio. The result? One of the slickest, catchiest pop songs here, “Pearly Gates,” is about being sexually violated by St. Peter in order to gain access to heaven …
 The rest of the album is no less unflinching … Everything about In a Poem Unlimited plays to the aphorism of a “fist in a velvet glove”: the more difficult the message, the more accessible the music—much of it here references late ’70s David Bowie, or even at times an art-damaged Madonna, with plenty of nods to the ’50s and ’60s pop of Motown and Phil Spector… In connecting musical threads from the past into a modern context, Remy is also underscoring that the abuse and the malaise she describes so vividly is timeless: some of these songs may appear to be ripped from current headlines, but there’s nothing new here—other than the fact that artists like Remy are shining lights into dark corners and asking, “What are we going to do to change?”

Side note, unrelated to Polaris, because the prize should not take into consideration live performance or anything but the album itself: the current incarnation of U.S. Girls put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE, at this year’s Hillside Festival in Guelph. Don’t miss them as they continue to tour this fall, including Sept. 29 in Montreal and Nov. 7 in Toronto.

The chances:

Extremely strong. This record works on so many levels, and is so smartly done: not just the music, but the lyrics, which pull off the near-impossible feat of functioning as either background pop music or searing critique. This is not just a great party record, but it’s the kind of album you can sit around debating for hours and like it even more at the end of the discussion. Which… seems to be tailor-made for a jury-room victory. In any other year, I’d say this is a shoo-in—but again, tough year.

Weaves – Wide Open (Buzz)

The album:

My Oct. 6, 2017 review:

If the best rock record of 2017 sounds like 2003, that’s fine: as long as 2003 can be defined by Deerhoof’s Apple O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, and Arcade Fire’s debut EP. Those records, and this one, are the sound of rock’n’roll falling apart and reconstituted into something visceral that never travels in a straight line, yet with pop melodies keeping everything on course.
 Listening to the second record by this Toronto quartet is a total rush, right from the opening track “#53,” as surefire an anthem as can still be written without falling into hoary cliche. Sure, the “Born to Run” glockenspiel on the track has led to an onslaught of Springsteen comparisons already, but Weaves are not a band easily reduced to influences.
 The first thing that jumps out is singer Jasmyn Burke, whose gripping presence and commanding articulation almost overshadows the fact that she’s also just a really great singer who’s more than capable of nailing any pitch, but prefers to play with it instead. Guitarist Morgan Waters unleashes a flurry of sound with punk rock energy, but he also knows when to lay back and let the song speak for itself, like on “Walkaway” or the gentle 6/8 lilt of the title track, drenched in Daniel Lanois-esque reverb. Rhythm section Spencer Cole and Zach Bines are just as responsible for driving this record as Waters and Burke; Weaves is very much four equal parts. Tanya Tagaq shows up on the album’s most abrasive track, “Scream,” a daring move in the middle of an album that is highly likely to pull this band up from the underground.

Next time someone tries to tell you that The National or War on Drugs are the greatest rock bands working today, tell them to either go back to the nursing home or listen to Weaves instead.

The chances:

Strong. I’d say the only knock against this thrilling album—other than the strength of the competition—is that it sands off some of the edges of this band’s prior record, which was shortlisted last year (making Weaves one of the very few Polaris artists shortlisted in two subsequent years). I’ve heard some jurors gripe about this, though I think that makes it a much stronger record, a sign of maturity and growth, and it’s not like there still aren’t plenty of tasty weird bits here to chew on—because there are. So other than competing against nine other records on the shortlist, Weaves appear to be also competing against themselves. Which is ridiculous. This record is an absolute triumph, on its own terms. Every single track is a goddam delight. It was my favourite record of 2017, period. It deserves a serious shot at the big pot.

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Maylee Todd – Acts of Love (Do Right!)

The album:

An excerpt from my Nov. 9, 2017, review in the Waterloo Record:

Maylee Todd has always been a massive talent who made somewhat light R&B (“Aerobics in Space”) that only hinted at her greater gifts. This, her third album, is an astounding burst of creativity that marks her as a major artist.  The most immediately gripping songs here are the ones that sound like soft-pop hits descended from Donna Summer and Madonna, rich with ’80s synth bass and tightly wound rhythm guitar lines, or the type of early ’90s house music employed by Bjork on Debut. Having recorded everything herself in her bedroom, she sits beside modern R&B electro innovators like Solange and Jessy Lanza. On the more downtempo tracks, however, she pushes herself into more political and personal terrain, with the necessary sonic innovation to illustrate it further. On “From This Moment,” so smooth is her voice and the groove underneath—with its digitally pitched backing vocals, marimbas, stuttering beats, weeping strings and a lilting harp—that Todd can delve into heavy topics with incredible ease… Most affecting is her devastating vocal turn on “That’s All I’ll Do,” set only to a string octet, where Todd dives into the deeper end of her range to thrilling effect.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

Too Toronto, is my guess, and from what I can tell she spent more time in Japan than in Canada promoting it. Glad to see at least one country showing interest.

Whitehorse – Panther in the Dollhouse (Six Shooter)

The album:

An excerpt from my July 20, 2017, review in the Waterloo Record (found here):

Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland keep setting their own bar higher and higher—which would be impressive for anyone, never mind two people whose median age is 40. Whitehorse is, at its core, two master musicians schooled in folk and rock, juggling guitar, bass and live drum loops in a live setting, with swoony harmonies. This time out, they employ more electronics than just loop pedals, as well as some funkier beats, courtesy of NYC hip-hop production duo Like Minds (Q Tip, the Roots). Nothing drastic: Doucet’s monstrously rich, twangy and tremolo guitar work is still front and centre, as are McClelland’s melodic bass lines. If Whitehorse’s music is inherently slick and pretty, the subject matter is not, fractured relationships set in societal underbellies amidst predators and populist nativism.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

Polaris has always been no country for old (wo)men, with the notable exception of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 2015 win. But with a generational shift in the larger jury recently, it’s even tougher for the over-40 crowd to be noticed. Which royally sucks for Whitehorse, because here are two artists who are hitting their prime, making the best work of their career(s), either in or outside this band. If you’ve listened to the entire Polaris lists and for whatever reason don’t understand what the young whippersnappers are up to, rest easy knowing that Whitehorse are making great records and filling Massey Hall. When their stunning performance of “Die Alone” comes out on a forthcoming Arts and Crafts release, Live at Massey Hall Vol. 1, prepare your jaw for a drop.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Polaris Music Prize, day 4: Partner, Snotty Nose Rez Kids

Day four of my annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day:

Partner – In Search of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)

The album:

The first song on this Weezer-derived ’90s homage opens with a line about grocery shopping after doing 13 bong hits. Which, even for this here Big Lebowski fan, is a good enough reason to stop listening right away. That’s even before the interstitial skits show up, a relic of ’90s hip-hop for which absolutely nobody laments.

But that’s just me.

This album is here for a reason: people love it. Specifically, people younger than me love it—people who were born in the ’90s or shortly before. It's not like this is a terrible band or a terrible record—far from it. Whereas the likes of me never need to hear another album like this in my life, it does sound fresh for the legalization generation (Rock doesn’t have to be deathly serious! Real live rock bands are exciting! Dual-guitar leads are corny but fun!). It's been suggested to me that because Partner is fronted by two queer lyricists who also shred on guitar goes a long way for the argument that this is much more than a retro rehash. But I’ll just say this: thank God that the almighty Courtney Barnett exists, and that she didn’t decide on her career path after getting too baked listening to Barenaked Ladies. (Pound of salt: I say this as someone who has generational, geographical and social affection for Barenaked Ladies.)

The chances:

Slim, and not just because I’m a grumpy grampa. It’s just that I’d be downright shocked if any traditional rock record ever won the Polaris again (see also: Alvvays). It’s just so… ’90s. Note: if either this or Alvvays or Jeremy Dutcher wins, it will mark the first time a Maritime artist takes the Polaris.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – The Average Savage (independent)

The album:

It’s safe to say this one surprised a lot of people by making the shortlist. But that’s only because of its obscurity; it more than deserves to be here. Audacious, modern, funny, explosively political—this is not music for reconciliation, it’s music for confrontation, and it’s stronger for it. It’s also about a lot more than just the lyrics: these MCs have great flow and commanding voices, and the music underneath them overshadows anything coming out of the moroseness of the so-called Toronto sound.

There’s a lot more where it came from: It’s the second of two records they released in 2017 (this came out last September), with a third due in the fall of 2018.

Minor point: I keep hearing the chorus of the track “Savages” as “Sammiches.” Am I the only one? Wait, don’t answer that. I’m probably just hungry.

My July 21 review for the Waterloo Record:

Hip-hop has been popular in Indigenous communities for the past 30 years; just like blues music before it, songs sprung from African-American oppression resonate clearly in persecuted communities here. Until very recently, of course, Indigenous music in general flew under the mainstream radar, and SNRK are the first hip-hop act to ride this new wave.

They’re able to do so for the most obvious reason: they’ve got serious skills, both as MCs and as producers. Rappers Yung Trybez and Young D have both chemistry and charisma, while the beats underneath them draw from Dan the Automator’s work in the early 2000s (Gorillaz, Del the Funkee Homosapien), Kanye West, as well as modern trap. 
Other than those objective strengths, it’s the fiery politics here that set this apart from all other rap in Canada in 2018. The SNRK do not mince words: this is a voice of Indigenous resistance. If Tanya Tagaq communicates non-verbally, and A Tribe Called Red is an instrumental act, and Jeremy Dutcher sings in a language only 100 people still speak, then SNRK speak their truth in plain English, and demand that their country pay attention: “Until we cut all the bullshit there will always be three K’s in KKKanada.”  There’s nothing odd about this group’s sudden arrival in the national musical conversation. What’s odd is that they’re the only rap group in 2018 who not only dare to include skits (there are six of them here), but they actually work.

The chances:

This seems crazy, but these guys could actually win this thing—despite the fact that they were completely unknown outside Indigenous communities a mere four months ago. Again, as with Hubert Lenoir, because this record is so fresh in jurors’ minds—I doubt that anyone who didn’t vote for either spent much time with either record before the shortlist—it might trump familiar sounds in the jury room. And if the francophone Lenoir is an appealing underdog, how about a fiery hip-hop act from Kitimat, B.C.?

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Zaki Ibrahim – The Secret Life of Plants (independent)

The album:

From my Feb. 2 Waterloo Record column:

Zaki Ibrahim is in no hurry. Totally independent, she doesn’t owe anybody anything, and so her pursuit of her art has taken a long and luxurious path, resulting in a new album that rewards the listener who lets it marinate. The Nanaimo-born singer built some buzz in Toronto 10 years ago, then relocated to her father’s homeland of South Africa, where she made 2012’s Every Opposite—an album that landed on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist with no label, no publicist, nothing but a defining statement that placed her at the forefront of electronic R&B, a sound she started calling “sci-fi soul.”
After taking some downtime during which she lost her father and gained a son, Ibrahim slowly pieced together The Secret Life of Planets using plenty of analog equipment. As a result, her record doesn’t fall easily into any patterns or predictable sounds, other than her naturally alluring and commanding voice, which has the carefully controlled skill of a jazz stylist. Her writing is equally open-ended, borrowing from smooth R&B, avant-garde electronics, house music, and sounds she absorbed during her time in Africa; it’s not a combination that delivers immediate pop thrills, but the layers here are what pull the listener back again and again. 
Even in a genre in which the most progressive pop music is being made right now, Ibrahim’s unique approach sets her far apart.

Why it didn’t shortlist:

No idea, but I’d say it was probably close—there is a lot of love for this record. My only guess is that it split votes with Bonjay, Allie and Charlotte Day Wilson. There’s also the fact that Ibrahim didn’t do a lot of promo upon the album’s release, outside of a CBC session and one gig in Toronto. (Her first-ever Western Canadian tour kicks off the day after Polaris; dates here.) But none of that stopped 2012’s Every Opposite from being propelled onto the shortlist while Ibrahim lived in South Africa, with no label or publicist working her record. No matter: shortlist or not, this album has definitely found the right ears. Be sure to read Anupa Mistry’s excellent review in Pitchfork.

Terra Lightfoot – New Mistakes (Sonic Unyon)

The album:

I love this record. LOVE this record. I’m going to be driving around Canada for much of October, and I can’t wait to blast this from my rental car across the Prairies (along with the Dennis Ellsworth album I talked about yesterday).

What’s not to love? Terra Lightfoot, she of the killer guitar chops and soaring androgynous voice. Terra Lightfoot, the songwriter who captures tiny perfect distillations of falling in and out of love, and writes character sketches on par with Lucinda Williams and John Prine. Terra Lightfoot, the band leader whose musicians know when to rock out like a fuzzed-up ZZ Top and when to play with the sensitivity of the gentlest Nashville studio pro. Dig “Pinball King,” obviously set at Ottawa’s House of Targ, for a rollicking rocker. Weep along with “Norma Gale,” about the trials of a single mom from Toronto who made her way to Nashville in the ’70s. Rock along to the Springsteenian song that even features a Jake Clemons sax solo.

Mistakes, new or otherwise? I don’t hear any.

As I’ve made clear in other entries this week, a rock’n’roll band has to be absolutely killer to peak my interest these days. And I keep coming back to Terra Lightfoot, again and again and again.

Why it didn’t shortlist:

My guess is that there was only room for one traditional rock record on the shortlist, and this year that went to Partner. Lightfoot slays every single time she steps on stage, but a large part of the hype around her is tied to legacy acts (Blue Rodeo, Bruce Cockburn, Daniel Lanois, etc.—even Willie Nelson last weekend), so maybe this woman in her early 30s isn’t considered “new” enough, or is too old-school to even be retro cool? Whatever. Terra Lightfoot doesn’t need attention from Polaris jurors, when she’s getting showered with real live affection from audiences every single night.

Tomorrow: U.S. Girls, Weaves, and the final two shoulda-woulda-coulda.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Polaris Music Prize, day 3: Pierre Kwenders, Hubert Lenoir

Day three of my annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day:

Pierre Kwenders – Makanda (Bonsound)

The album:

My Sept. 14 review:

This Montreal artist burst onto the scene with 2014’s Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, a multi-lingual, genre-hopping record rooted in Congolese rumba that landed him nominations for the Junos, the Polaris Music Prize, and Quebec’s ADISQs. Born in Kinshasa, Kwenders wanted to dive deeper into his Congolese roots on his second album. To do so, he travelled to Seattle to work with Tendai Baba Maraire, the Zimbabwean-American half of psychedelic hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. Makanda moves Kwenders away from modern dance trends and further into mid-tempo polyrhythms. Kwenders is a natural star, but some of the best tracks here are where he cedes the spotlight, sharing it with Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler on the title track, and duetting with Tanyaradzwa on the lush, string-drenched ballad “Zonga.”

I also wrote about Kwenders, alongside Zaki Ibrahim, Kae Sun and Afrotronix, in an article for the Globe and Mail here.

I wished I liked this record more than I do; I was a huge fan of Empereur Bantou, and voted for it that year on my Polaris ballot. I’m also a big Shabazz Palaces fan, so this should be right up my alley. I can’t even put my finger on what’s missing here for me, but I do know that the mysteriously popular single “Sexus Plexus Lexus” makes me absolutely cringe.  

The chances:

Slim. Happy though I was for Kwenders, I was shocked this made the shortlist. It’s a unique record here, but not in ways that I think will do it any favours in the jury room. Also, this year’s shortlist has some huge heavyweights that will be hard to overshadow.

Hubert Lenoir – Darlène (Simone)

The album:

This 23-year-old put his punk band on hold to make a genre-bending pop album, based on a new novel by his friend Noémie D. Leclerc, where the first five tracks jump from jazz piano to ’70s glam to Black Sabbath to gospel-inspired pop to Fleetwood Mac, with plenty of tenor saxophone all over the arrangements, which occasionally nod to Joe Jackson’s 1984 album Body and Soul. It’s totally bonkers in a way that only the Québecois can pull off—or maybe the Flaming Lips, on a good day. Is it a retro record? Absolutely, but it’s also audacious in its scope, and Lenoir has the songwriting chops, the production values, plenty of earworms and the pure charisma to pull it all off. And yes, francophobes, there is one song in English (“Wild and Free”), so you have no excuse not to start there and then dive deeper.

The chances:

Strong. It’s a great album that gets better with each listen and transcends the retro tag it’s been saddled with. I’ll admit I was initially dismissive, but it quickly grew on me once it shortlisted—and if my experience is true for this year’s grand jurors, then the scent of the new will also propel this further in the jury-room discussion. The fact that it’s the first francophone record to shortlist in seven years also gives it strong underdog appeal.

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Cold Specks – Fool’s Paradise (Arts and Crafts)

The album:

My review for the Waterloo Record, Sept. 21, 2017:

A few years ago, I was working at a magazine that ran very little music coverage. A freelancer had successfully pitched a story about struggles facing a new wave of female R&B voices out of Canada: Divine Brown, Melanie Fiona and Jully Black among them. The story started out by talking about Cold Specks, the musical project for a young woman who then called herself Al Spx, who possessed a powerful voice and played stark, haunting music she termed “doom soul.” Wait a minute, I asked the editor: why is Cold Specks in this article? Spx played slow, guitar-based music that has more in common with Nick Cave than Nicki Minaj. Is it because she’s black, one of the few African-Canadian women to have any kind of profile in this country’s music scene? Because otherwise, we’re talking about apples and oranges here.

Two albums and a couple of Polaris nods later, Cold Specks—who dropped the Al Spx pseudonym, and now goes by her birth name, Ladan Hussein—has indeed drawn closer to R&B, although Fool’s Paradise is more Massive Attack than Mary J. Blige. There are barely any guitars: synths and drum programming dominate. The background isn’t necessarily important: as always, it’s Hussein’s voice that draws you in first and foremost, but it does sound even better with some deep bass and beats behind it, situating her somewhere between Sade and Bjork (“Ancient Habits” borrows a bit from Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”), if either artist wrote almost exclusively in minor keys. Hussein also slips into Somali on the title track, acknowledging a family history she once felt she had to mask to make it in the Canadian music industry.If third albums are where an artist really proves themselves—after the potential fluke of a debut, and the transition of a second album—then Cold Specks has most definitely stepped up. The songs are strong, the setting is right, and she’s evolving easily. There’s nothing remotely foolish about Fool’s Paradise.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

What the living hell. This woman shortlisted with her debut album, back in 2013, so it’s not like she’s unknown. But she’s long since abandoned her supposed “doom-folk” genre, and now makes downtempo, synth-ridden R&B—so maybe critics only liked her when she was wielding a guitar? Who knows. In a year where we’re talking about singers like Daniel Caesar and Alanna Stuart, we should also be talking about Ladan Hussein. This album is incredible. I hope it found an audience. It's not too late.

Dennis Ellsworth – Things Change (Pyramid Scheme)

The album:

I had no idea who this P.E.I. songwriter was. I spent a lot of time driving around Ontario in April, and grabbed this CD (yes, CD) off my promo pile and brought it with me. It never left my player. As I reconnected with old friends and family across the province— celebrating a personal triumph while hearing tales of divorce, disease and age—the song “Cruel But Beautiful” was constantly in my head. It hasn’t left, five months later.

An exceprt from my Waterloo Record review:

Right after Bruce Springsteen finished 1987’s Tunnel of Love, he recorded a legendary, long-lost album with fellow New Jerseyites Yo La Tengo, which for its 30thanniversary in 2018 is finally being—oh, wait, no, that’s not it at all. This is a new record by P.E.I. songwriter Dennis Ellsworth, his fifth.  Ellsworth is a new name to me, as I suspect he is to you—although his last couple of albums came out on Kitchener label Busted Flat, and were produced by either Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) or David Barbe (Bob Mould’s Sugar), and featured many of my favourite Ontario musicians. This time out, he headed east to Joel Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, N.S., with other Halifax Pop Explosion veterans Charles Austin and Dave Marsh. So, yes, fans of ’90s indie rock and singer-songwriters will find plenty to love here, with shades of Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams (or Aimee Mann, or Eric Bachmann, or…). Ellsworth’s songs are as worthy as any found in the canon of those artists: he has an incredibly strong sense of melody, writing songs to be sung at the top of your lungs, whether they’re anthems like “The Bottom” or “Stoned,” or dream pop songs like “Caught in the Waves.” Plaskett once again proves his mettle as a producer—as heard on his own work as well as Mo Kenney and others—giving Ellsworth a gritty rock’n’roll backdrop with rich, Big Star vocal harmonies.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

I’d never heard of him. Have you? Let’s all work on changing that.

Conflict of interest alert: Since falling in love with Ellsworth’s music, I discovered that he also fronts a Tragically Hip cover band in his spare time, the Fabulously Rich. So when I bring my book tour east this fall—the Carleton in Halifax on Oct. 13, and the Charlottetown Beer Garden on Oct. 17—they’ll be performing after my talk. (Full list of events here.)

Tomorrow: Partner, Snotty Nose Rez Kids and two more coulda-woulda-shoulda.

Polaris Music Prize 2018, day 2: Daniel Caesar, Jeremy Dutcher

Day two of my annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day:

Daniel Caesar – Freudian (Golden Child)

The album:

If, at the sound of Daniel Caesar’s voice in the opening track here, “Get You,” you don’t melt even just a little bit, then you are one cold fish.

Even in a genre where a voice like this is almost necessary, Caesar easily stands out in the crowd. There is a significantly larger influence from gospel than we often hear in 2018. There is a focus on old-school skills, matched with modern production that is decidedly stripped down, with nods to the sparse production of The Xx, as well as to obvious R&B classics like D’Angelo’s Voodoo. There are pleasant twists, like the rich, Prince-like harmonies on the a cappella “Neu Roses.” And, unlike, oh, I don’t know, The Weeknd, there’s zero sign of creepy misogyny.

Freudian is a song cycle: boy meets girl, girl is his everything, they split, he’s bitter, they get back together—and by the end of the album, he’s declaring that she “saved my soul like Jesus” and thanking her for “saving my life.” Standard pop lyrical fare, with the occasional clunker (“You’re my sunshine in the rain when it’s pouring … if life is a movie, then you’re the best part”), but with a voice like Caesar’s, one hardly minds.

Almost everything about this record is solid—and yet it’s not that different from the Alvvays record: a major step up from the debut, an album that turns heads around the world, but simply… nice. Much like the somewhat similar Sampha debut—which won the Mercury Prize, mind you—Freudian sounds like a major talent just getting warmed up.

The chances:

Jurors younger than I consider this a shoo-in as winner. Because—why? Because it’s the most commercially successful shortlister? That logic has historically never applied to Polaris, with one exception: Arcade Fire’s 2011 win for The Suburbs. Caesar has a strong shot, no doubt, but I think other albums here hold up more to repeat listens as a whole work.

Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (independent)

The album:

An excerpt from my April 6 review for the Waterloo Record, which can be read here in full:

“When you bring the songs, you’re going to bring the dances back. You’ll bring the people back. You’ll bring everything back.” That’s a tall order to hear from an elder in your community, a community where the past 100 years of colonialism have left fewer than 100 people speaking the Wolastoqiyik language of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. Those remaining people are known as the “song carriers”—needless to say, they are all elderly.  Except one. His name is Jeremy Dutcher, a young, classically trained tenor singer and pianist who lives in Toronto and hangs around experimental circles. His debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, is not merely an academic project that involved him listening to his ancestors singing these songs, stored on 100-year-old wax cylinders at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. If it was merely an interesting and culturally significant history project, that would be enough. But Dutcher’s voice and arrangements transform these songs into a stunning contemporary classical record—which was entirely the point. Even without the high concept, this would be a stunning work…
 Jeremy Dutcher’s dance with the dead is nothing short of transformative. That it’s his debut record makes it all the more remarkable.

The chances:

Extremely strong. The story is undeniably compelling, which makes critics want to pay closer attention. When they do, the music more than holds up. Dutcher is an arresting singer—as opera singers tend to be, of course. His arrangements draw deeply from modern classical; these ears even hear a bit of Moondog. His piano playing is entrancing, and the minimal additions—a few drums here, some cello there—pull the listener even deeper inside.

If there’s a knock against this record, it’s that opera is inherently off-putting to some listeners—not unlike trap or hardcore punk or any other extreme approach, like the Colin Stetsons of the world. But that’s never managed to completely scare off Polaris voters before (Fucked Up, Tagaq). A win would also make it the third Indigenous record to win Polaris (four if you include Lido Pimienta), and the second allophone record to do so (after Pimienta), which would all be remarkable on many levels.

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Bonjay – Lush Life (Mysteries of Trade)

The album:

I know a lot of people who would vote for Daniel Caesar as the best new vocalist in Canada, but I, for one, am left totally floored by what Alanna Stuart does with her voice, both on this record and in her work with the Queer Songbook Orchestra. Fact: when she sang “Constant Craving” with the QSO in Calgary, none other than k.d. lang was in the audience. Stuart’s bandmates didn’t want to tell her this before she went on. Of course, the legendary singer was as wowed as everyone else at the show and told Stuart as much afterwards. Because that’s the level of excellence we’re talking about here.

An excerpt from my May18 review for the Waterloo Record:  

Vocal powerhouse Alanna Stuart and producer Ian Swain, who as Bonjay make thrilling modern R&B inflected with Jamaican dancehall rhythms and German electronic music, somewhere on the spectrum between Solange and Kate Bush, but decidedly funkier than either, with some of the sci-fi soul of South African Toronto expat Zaki Ibrahim in the mix as well. This should be known as the Toronto sound. Stuart is nothing short of stunning: soulful and seductive, with the occasional operatic flourish. The music underneath her rarely goes for the obvious; despite Stuart’s clear star appeal, these aren’t straightforward pop songs, and they’re stronger for it. Lush Life arrives several years after this duo’s debut EP. The wait was entirely worth it.

Why it didn’t shortlist:

Timing. This is a deep record that rewards repeat listening, but it came out mere weeks before the Polaris deadline. I don’t doubt that if jurors had more time to spend with it, that it would easily have shortlisted. The only other knock against it is that it’s very much a Toronto record; I’m not sure this band has a large profile outside of the GTA—yet.

Cadence Weapon – s/t (EOne)

The album:

An excerpt from my Jan. 27 review; you can read that and my interview with him (about Bob Dylan, Gord Downie, and other things) here.

Six years is a long time in the rap game. But that’s how long Cadence Weapon has been out of the visible (or audible) action, after spending time as the poet laureate of his hometown of Edmonton, moving to Montreal and collaborating with beatmakers Kaytranada and Jacques Greene while DJing loft parties, and finally relocating to Toronto, where he met the producer Harrison and the singer Brendan Philip. That journey through time, through cities, and through experiences is abundantly evident on his fourth album, one on which the former solo bedroom producer invites plenty of talented new friends into his process ... His fourth album is self-titled, a designation normally reserved for debuts that introduce an artist to the world. In this case, it’s a summation of his musical career to date, and he claims it’s also his most autobiographical. Cadence Weapon claims that he’s never bonded with other rappers, instead finding kindred spirits in electronic and experimental scenes—if true, that’s hip-hop’s loss. As both a producer and a rapper, Cadence Weapon gets better and better with age. 

Why it didn’t shortlist:

No idea. I thought this would be a shoo-in, because it’s an excellent work by a familiar face. If I had to guess, I’d say that hip-hop doesn’t reward its elders—and it’s certainly weird to think of Cadence Weapon as an elder, but his debut was released 12 years ago, and he’s already been shortlisted twice before. But I know plenty of hip-hop critics who don’t at all understand this artist’s appeal with more general listeners—which, I don’t know, I thought would help his chances instead of trapping him inside a genre ghetto. Maybe Cadence Weapon is too much of square peg to still make shortlists, but no matter: he’s got plenty of reviews hailing this as the best thing he’s ever done, prizes be damned.

Tomorrow: Pierre Kwenders, Hubert Lenoir, and two more shoulda-woulda-coulda.