Thursday, September 08, 2011

Polaris Prize short list, part one

The Polaris prize will be handed out on September 19; one artist from the shortlist of 10 will receive $30,000 ($10,000 more than previous years), and all shortlist artists get $2,000. In an annual Canuckistan tradition, we'll look at the nominees and 10 other records that deserve recognition in the Polaris fiscal year (June 1 2010 - May 31 2011).

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Sonovox)

The album: Alphabetical matters aside, why not start with what’s been called the elephant in the room? This is easily the most critically and commercial successful album on the list. It’s won the top Grammy, Juno and Brit Award. Can it take the Polaris as well?

It should. Despite all their earlier achievements—which are not inconsiderable—this band is only now hitting their stride. Win Butler’s voice has matured and he no longer tries to sing outside of his range. Regine Chassagne reappears as a frontwoman, singing two of the album’s strongest songs (“Empty Room,” “Sprawl 2”). Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler and Sarah Neufeld create glorious atmospherics underneath each track, no matter the tempo or the temper. The weakest songs here (“Rococo,” “Half Light 1,” “Sprawl 1”) are still memorable and filled with detail, functioning well as breathers in dense, lengthy song cycle. The bluster that used to be their default setting is applied judiciously; stripped-down songs like “City With No Children” are just as emotionally affecting as the rousing rocker “Ready to Start.” They’re capable of being reductive and simple (the Jay Reatard-influenced “Month of May”) and gloriously epic (“Suburban War”). What were once obvious influences have been successfully consumed into Arcade Fire’s original sound.

There is an all-too-obvious lyrical theme running through the album. It’s obvious because the album is called The Suburbs. And almost every song contains a lyric with the word “suburbs” in it (even as a casual throwaway line between verses, as in “Month of May,” when Win sings, “We were shocked in the suburbs!”). And while that is unapologetically repetitious, it’s not an album exclusively about boredom or living in the shadows of big-box stores.

It's easy to assume that an indie rock band hates the suburbs, and there are more than a few derisive lines on the topic. But this is not a "fuck the conformist suburbs" album. Far from it.

Who are the real targets? Those who "build it up just to burn it back down." Defeatists are taken to task as slackers: "Some people say, we've already lost / But they're afraid to pay the cost for what we've lost." Apathy is death in the face of great challenges: "I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?" In other words, stopping stroking your chin and get to work—themes taken directly from Obama’s inauguration speech. These are themes of hope and escape and dreams, set against a backdrop of fading memories. Every time Butler says something about "wasted hours" in the suburbs (which he does more than once), he counters it by saying he'd gladly waste all those hours again.

Chassagne and the Butler brothers grew up in the suburbs; they're realistic about it. There are amazing things about growing up there and really shitty things about growing up there. The suburbs are a place where imagination runs wild, where the sterility of the surroundings allows you to invent worlds of your own, where you ride bikes all day with your friends and fight imaginary wars, where you spend endless hours riding buses that loop around the town. You dream of escape to something you imagine to be more exciting—and probably is more exciting in the mind of any adult—but for a child, there's something magical about those suburbs that we're now all quick to disdain. And as adults returning to the suburbs years after we grew up there, we now find them unrecognizable, because nothing was ever built to last.

The Suburbs is about memory as much as it is about any specific geography. It’s about a plea for the pleasure of darkness in a blinding array of endless light, about the sensation of stepping off hot pavement onto grass.

And in a year when I probably listened to more new music than ever before in my life, The Suburbs still sounds fresh to me every time I hear it—which, more than 12 months after its release, is still at least once a week.

The chances: Joshua Ostroff of Spinner raised eyebrows when he was quoted on CBC Radio 3 saying that if Arcade Fire do not win it this year, the mandate and methods of the Polaris Prize should be overhauled, with new rules applied specifying that successful records can’t be nominated, or to somehow make it more of a “most-promising artist” award. “There is one great album [on this year’s shortlist], and nine good ones,” he said, not inaccurately.

But just because global consensus is behind it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to find 10 Canadian critics who don’t think The Suburbs is all that great, and for all we know, that might be what ends up happening in the jury room. The Suburbs is one of my favourite albums ever made; obviously, not everyone is obliged to agree with me. And I have many friends who don’t.

If The Suburbs does not win, let’s hope it’s because the 10 jurists really don’t think much of it, that they find it too long or too bloated or too bland or too derivative or lyrically na├»ve—and they don’t just hate it because it’s successful. After all, the Polaris mandate is clearly stated: to recognize “albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history."

In the past, that last point has meant that it doesn’t matter if Colin Stetson is lucky to sell 1,000 copies of his album in Canada—he’s given the same consideration as Drake (who did not even make the long list). Today, it means that Arcade Fire face unspoken concerns about whether they “need” to win the Polaris—shouldn’t it go to someone who could use the profile boost?

No. They don’t need it, but Polaris is not an altruistic charity. It’s supposed to be about the work. Like Ostroff, I personally don’t believe any of the other nine albums come close to the towering achievement that is The Suburbs. But, as Polaris proves time and time again, there are no sure things. And just as Arcade Fire upset the Grammys, there could just as easily be a situation on the morning of September 20 where indignant indie geeks tweet “WHOTHEFUCKISRONSEXSMITH?”

Personal note: I was offered a spot on this year’s grand jury, which was incredibly flattering and something that, frankly, I’ve been coveting since the inception of the prize. However, because Arcade Fire hired me to write their official bio for The Suburbs and contribute to their EPK—and paid me to do so—I felt that might create a conflict of interest. I brought this to the attention of the Polaris team and they thought that even the appearance of conflict might raise eyebrows. In the event of an Arcade Fire win, I’d rather have bowed out than have critics think the process was somehow sullied. So you can take my critical assessment of the album with several grains of salt, if you wish. But Lord knows I’ve been paid to write bios for some truly shitty bands (and plenty of amazing ones, in case anyone reading this has hired me) artists I don’t at all feel obliged to cross the street for afterwards. Arcade Fire is not one of those artists.

Austra - Feel It Break (Paper Bag)

The album: The first of three debuts on the list, Austra is spearheaded by Katie Stelmanis, who began in a riot grrrl band with Austra drummer Maya Postepski called Galaxy (no relation, obviously, to the Quebecois band Galaxie on the shortlist), was an original member of the Bruce Peninsula choir, has sung with Fucked Up, and released a fine solo record on Blocks Recording Club.

Despite that pedigree, Feel It Break still feels like a debut album, like a band finding its feet. A few times they knock it out of the park, as on "Lose It," "Spellwork" and "Beat and the Pulse," all sublime slices of new wave pop that sound like a collaboration between Depeche Mode and Kate Bush in their particularly darker moments, with the operatic vocals of Stelmanis at the forefront.

The vocals are key. There are few, if any, women in Canadian pop music who sing like this and don't waste their voice on boring, pretty music. On her solo album under her own name, Stelmanis admitted to me that she purposely sought out harsh synthetic tones to counterbalance her voice; she also sounded shrill there. In Austra, both she and her synths sound much warmer, which is a big part of why this has taken off while her solo record did not. And even when she strips it down to just acoustic piano and voice, as she does on closing track "The Beast," her goth tendencies prevent it from going anywhere near Sarah McLachlan territory.

Austra is not all Stelmanis's show, however. Postepski is a classically trained percussionist and has her own project (Princess Century), while bassist Dorian Wolf comes from the grossly underrated Spiral Beach. Together they provide a depth to this kind of synth pop that's rarely heard from most musicians who find it easy to use built-in presets as crutches or substitutes for actual creativity. It also doesn't hurt that the album was mixed (and partially recorded) by Damian Taylor, a recently returned Canadian expat who has been Bjork's main engineer in recent years.

The chances: It all sounds fabulous, but outside of the singles, it's more promising than it is an album to return to again and again. Landing on the shortlist was a major coup, but this is not their year. They'll be back.


Kiran Ahluwalia – Aam Zameen: Common Ground (independent)

The album: Cross-cultural “world music” albums made in this country usually mean that someone has set a Scottish reel to a reggae backbeat. In the hands of Kiran Ahluwalia, it means that she’s taken traditional Pakistani music and fused it with the desert blues of Mali, an idea that comes to full fruition when she invites Touareg band Tinariwen to help her cover Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s classic “Mustt Mustt.”

It’s not just her voice or her choice of material that sets this apart from the rest of her discography or other albums made outside the Canadian pop paradigm; the no-fuss production, while lovely, doesn’t try to dress up this material and make it any more pretty than it inherently is (overproduction being one of the worst sins in presenting non-Western music to Western audiences).

Why it didn’t make the list: The “world music” ghetto is real, and it’s hard for Canadian artists in particular to break out of it. I suspect part of this album’s obscurity in Polaris pools is the jury itself: because the community for this music is so small, many of its biggest champions are also concert promoters, which makes them ineligible to be a jury member. Albums such as this don’t even make the Polaris long list. When they do, that will be a major step forward.

Geoff Berner – Victory Party (Mint)

The album: Geoff Berner has written some of the most biting, resonant political satire of the last 10 years, along with a fair share of heartbreakers and tales of lives spun out of control. A solo accordion player who, when he can, performs with a trio—violinist Diona Davies and percussionist Wayne Adams—Berner’s sound has always been sparse and raw, his albums little more than a portrait of his live sound.

Here, however, he joins forces with Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, who widens Berner’s sonic scope and paints every song with a different colour palette, while utilizing the strengths of Berner’s band and some hotshot klezmer ringers from New York City (as well as Dolgin’s own keyboard skills).

The writing is consistently strong, whether he’s penning punk-tinged hipster takedowns, odes to the flora of his hometown of Vancouver, rousing klezmer numbers, or adapting old Yiddish folk songs with modern political lyrics. Dolgin saves Berner from some of his worst habits in the studio, and even convinces him to set a Golem story—which Berner uses as a metaphor for modern Israel, naturally—to drum machines and odd sound effects, for a discombobulated dance track that’s as disturbing as it is ridiculous—in a good way. Likewise, the goofy “Jail” (“I am going to jail / to get a new pair of shoes”) sounds like a throwaway on its own, but next to the rousing chorus of “fuck the police!” heard on "Daloy Polizei," it sounds like the last resort of the disempowered trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Berner is not a folk singer, not a punk rocker, not the kind of klezmer act most people expect. But with Victory Party, his musical vision is brought into sharp focus, and there was no other Canadian record this year that sounded anything like it.

Why it didn’t make the list: Berner’s albums until now have been very inconsistent—even as a big fan, I’ll concede that there are some stinkers on every record—and so if someone had written him off before, they may not have felt like tuning in again. Their loss. But also because he’s funny—frequently hilarious, actually—Berner runs the risk of being seen as a novelty act, much like his friend Carolyn Mark, when really, neither ever goes for a cheap laugh, and every one-liner is meant to inflict a serious wound, either internal or external. A sense of humour rarely wins you any affection outside of the bar, which until now has been fine—Berner has been more than happy to stay in the bar. Victory Party shows he’s capable of much more; hopefully more people clue into that soon enough.

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