This year’s Polaris Prize is perhaps the most wide-open race in the short history of the award. It’s proven difficult to predict in the past, of course, but this year I would argue that it could really go in any direction—there are really only three albums on the shortlist that would be a totally shocking winner. The composition of the jury is part of the mystery—the organizers usually pick the most open-minded people they can find, but of the six jury members that I either know personally or read regularly, I can’t honestly say where their biases might lie in this particular contest.
So for what it’s worth, this my annual five-part charge to the jury, along with an alternate shortlist of 10 more Canadian albums that I would have loved to have seen sharing space with the artists who will be taking the stage on Monday night. (For the first time in the gala’s history, all 10 nominees will be performing.)
Elliot Brood – Mountain Meadows (Six Shooter)
The album: Well, I might as well start off on a contrarian note: I don’t get this at all. I like music with banjos and mandolins; even more so, I like music that does something more with them than use them in traditional settings. I love a good two-step or driving shuffle. I love raspy voices. And yet Mountain Meadows is like nails on a chalkboard for me, and not just Mark Sasso’s voice, which can give me Rod Stewart nightmares.
And it’s not because nothing ever seems to happen in Elliot Brood songs, but because it always sounds like something might—and never does. Every song is a tease with no payoff—and no melody, for that matter either, and the aesthetic isn’t compelling enough to stand on its own. If their objective is a trancelike state, then they should embrace that fully, and forge a new and bizarre Canadian bluegrass take on Afrobeat or something; instead, it sounds like they just forgot to write songs.
While I understand why people might like this band—I’ve seen them live several times, and people do lose their shit (and, I’d argue, their critical faculties, but that’s just me)—I have absolutely no idea why someone would love them. So… humbug, says I.
The chances: Slim, as this seems to be one of the headscratchers for most Polaris observers, proving that this is a polarizing album.
Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)
The album: When the shortlist nominees were announced at Toronto’s Drake Hotel in July, Fucked Up got the biggest cheer from the assembled criterati. And to be sure, there is much genuine love for these hardcore heroes. But their presence at Polaris is also a breakthrough: they are far and away the most aggressive act yet to crack the list, and they give the fist-pumping contingent something to counterbalance the Great Lake Swimmers of the world. For a variety of obvious reasons, Fucked Up are also the only Polaris act unlikely to be assimilated into the mainstream or CBC Radio playlists.
While that is a small victory of sorts, it’s also part of a larger narrative that seems to say: “pretty good, for a hardcore band.” Fucked Up are not only ideal fodder for critics who shelved their Black Flag records a long time ago, but they’ve also made new fans for their epic song lengths and use of synths, strings, flutes and bongos, as well as guest singers to counterbalance the growling rage of frontman Pink Eyes. It’s a kind of genre-crossing that critics eat up, because transgression is always more interesting than an artist who sticks to expected parameters. It makes for a better story (angering purists! polarizing the band itself!) and, sometimes, better music.
But is The Chemistry of Common Life any good? If you didn’t know anything about Fucked Up, would the music transcend the tale?
Based on the opening track, “Son the Father,” the answer would be yes. The track begins with a lone flute passage that’s soon joined by harmonious guitar feedback; 90 seconds into it, Pink Eyes unleashes a classic rock’n’roll scream, the guitars build and crash with embellishment from some Stooges-style wah-pedal, and Lullabye Arkestra’s Kat Taylor and Justin Small help scream a triumphant chorus that asks the eternal question: “It’s hard enough being born in the first place/ why would I ever want to be born again?”
If “Son the Father” was a stand-alone single, it would justify the avalanche of praise that this incredibly hard-working band has accumulated over the past year.
Sadly, from there Chemistry falls into the counterintuitive trap of aggressive music that aims for the jugular yet emerges bloodless, if not downright innocuous. Pink Eyes is monotonous, not monstrous; the guitars chug along faithfully, devoid of riffs, solos, or rhythmic intensity; only the drummer shows any signs of life. Carl Wilson makes a case for the lyrical content, but this here grandpa can’t make out a single word.
What does it mean that the album on this list that is supposedly the most incendiary is actually a total bore?
Full disclosure: I’ve never liked hardcore, despite being surrounded by it my entire adult life and having its gospel constantly preached at me. I’ve always considered it an adolescent phase that musicians go through before they do something infinitely more interesting.
The chances: Slim. Though they had sufficient critical traction to crack the short list, I doubt that Chemistry will hold up as an album and not a political genre statement.
Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)
The album: William S. Burroughs can be heard drawling about the “immeasurably old and ravenously young”—a perfect fit for Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman. At 42, Whiteman is a seasoned veteran who seems to be still in the early stages of his ongoing creative quest. Eats Darkness encapsulates his infinite musical curiosities—African guitars, Latin rhythms, rock’n’roll fury, soul-inflected pop, poetry, sound collage, hip-hop, dub … shall we go on?—with a precision and brevity that brings it all into a clear focus. Previous albums have been sprawling; this one is dense and delivers. It’s also the least belaboured AoH album, which works to its benefit; the creative combustion that erupts between Whiteman, Julian Brown, Dean Stone and Martin Kinack should be exploited more than once every two years, and preferably in short, sharp bursts like this one.
Why it struck out: The obvious reason is that, with a mid-May release date, it came out too close to the June 1, 2009 deadline for Polaris qualification. The larger reason is that AoH has never been particularly popular, with most of the press concerned mainly with Whiteman’s Broken Social Scene connection. Whatever—Whiteman gets more wonderful the weirder he gets, and free from any commercial or critical considerations, he can continue doing whatever the hell he wants to.
The Awkward Stage – Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (Mint)
The album: Shane Nelken wrote the best pop album of 2008—and by pop, I don’t mean popular, unfortunately. But Slimming Mirrors Flattering Lights catapulted Nelken from a sideman and promising songwriter into the leagues of Aimee Mann, Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, Lucinda Williams—hell, even Burt Fucking Bacharach. Yes, it’s that good.
As I’ve argued before, Nelken is a pop music classicist who knows the value of major seventh chords and countermelodies written for trumpet, as well as bridges written in waltz time in the middle of a raging glam rock tune—and he makes it all sound perfectly natural, not like some know-it-all jackass with a composition degree. And when he sits down with just an acoustic guitar—as he does on the devastating modern-day-Mad-Men mid-life-crisis song “We Dreamt of Houses”—he makes Ron Sexsmith sound like a chump.
I realize that whenever I write about The Awkward Stage, I sound oppositional: if people love Artist X so much, why not this brilliant record? And Nelken himself had a bit of small-man syndrome in his earlier songs, much like Joe Jackson’s first few albums, and here he sings about having “been an angry baby all of my life.” That was much more in evidence on his debut album, where even the title—Heaven is For Easy Girls—suggested a lifetime of unrequited sexual longing and hints of misogyny.
True to his band’s name, Nelken doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, whether it’s poignant portrayals of broken lives in “Skeletal Blonde” or “Only Good Days Caught on Camera,” or the squirmy Lolita-baiting “Hey Modern School Girl,” which is a darker take on 50 years of “Chantilly Lace”: “Hey modern school girl, you are one to wear it on your sleeve/ you may be innocent, but your innocence is cruel and naïve.”
No matter how dark his themes might get, however, Nelken finds a way to set them to sunny West Coast melodies. And while he used to tend toward the twee—and still does occasionally, as on “True Love on Three With Feeling”—Slimming Mirrors is considerably more muscular at moments (“Anime Eyes,” “Hey Modern School Girl”), and its moods are more diverse overall, resulting in a thoroughly satisfying whole.
Older interview here.
Why it struck out: Other than the fact that Vancouver has been a musical wasteland for new acts in recent years (go ahead—try and argue otherwise, which makes Japandroids’ breakthough all the more remarkable), it’s a total mystery why this album made seemingly zero impression on anyone other than me. Don’t rock critics froth at the mouth over intensely melodic pop with lyrics that are equally smart, sad and funny?
Tomorrow: Great Lake Swimmers, Hey Rosetta