Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pre-Polaris, day four: Tobias Jesso Jr., New Pornographers

The 10th Polaris Music Prize gala is next Monday, Sept. 21, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000 and a gig with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2016. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list.

Day one is here; day two is here; day three is here. And a whole bunch of relatively unnecessary distractions are here and here.

Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (Arts and Crafts)

The album:
From my April review:
The 1970s in California produced dozens of top-notch songwriters: some famous, some not-so-famous, many of which are rediscovered by subsequent generations, and revisited by young songwriters. The latest of the newbies is Tobias Jesso, Jr., a 29-year-old Vancouver native who retreated home after four years in L.A., only to write songs that suddenly got attention from the calibre of people he’d been trying to impress for years. So here we are, with a debut album of piano ballads for sad sacks on sunny days, produced by John Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer), the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and the man behind hits by Vampire Weekend and Haim (Ariel Rechtshaid), released by Broken Social Scene’s Arts and Crafts label.
I didn’t have much more to say about this album then, and I still don’t. It’s so featherweight that I can’t imagine anyone getting riled up and arguing passionately why it deserves $50,000. The first track is nice: “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”? Well, if “you” means Elliott Smith, then yes, I can’t stop thinking about how much I’d rather be listening to XO right now. The one about how “everyone lies in Hollywood” also strikes a chord: “I don’t know if I can make it / and I don’t know if I should.” Hey buddy, you said it.

OK, to be fair, Jesso obviously has talent, but this debut is super green. I have no idea what it’s doing here.

The chances: Non-existent.

New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Last Gang)

The album:
This was a shocker. Not because the New Pornographers aren’t a great band; they are. Not because this isn’t a great album; it’s one of their better ones (but definitely not their best). But I don’t recall any great critical outpouring greeting its release; being Canadians, we take bands like this for granted. “Oh right, that band with A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar and Neko Case and Kathryn Calder and Kurt Dahle one of Canada’s best producers on bass. Are they still around?” (Well, Dahle split after this record.)

The last album fans all agreed was fantastic was 2005’s Twin Cinema (I loved 2010’s Together, but it was pooh-poohed in most Brill Bruisers reviews), so maybe the 10-year gap renewed our collective appreciation for a solid Pornographers record—which this most definitely is. “Champions of Red Wine” is a total earworm that I had in my head most of last fall. Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” is easily one of his best melodies he’s written for this band (and there’s been quite a few). The keyboards of Blaine Thurier and Kathryn Calder (as heard on her fine 2015 solo release) are brought to the forefront, competing with the chugging guitars and sounding more modern than the new wave throwbacks of earlier albums. And, as has been the case on recent albums, the four- and five-part harmonies and shared lead vocals have supplanted the one-singer, one-song model that made this band seem like a bizarre variety show. The Bejar-Calder duet on “Born With a Sound” is sublime [update: I've since learned this is actually Black Mountain's Amber Webber, not Calder; I have no liner notes!], and unexpected (and rather Arcade Fire-ish; Calder [actually Webber] sounds a bit like RĂ©gine Chassagne here).

My August 2014 review is here.

The chances:

Zilch. Other than Feist’s 2012 win for Metals—an album I love intensely, but that got a lukewarm reception upon release, and was considered to be a curiosity from an artist ever-so-slightly past her prime—Polaris jurors aren’t usually the sentimental type. We’ve all grown up with this band. We still love this band. But can they still blow us away? Also: Vancouver. Don’t discount the central Canadian conspiracy that has clearly cast a curse on West Coast artists at Polaris.

Two of the should’ve, could’ve beens:

Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon)

The album:

Holy cow, what a barn-burner. This is the sound of an artist waking up and deciding to grab life by the balls and live every moment to the fullest. How often do you hear that?

There’s lots to love about Hamiltonian Terra Lightfoot’s second album: her songwriting has improved tenfold; she’s got a roaring rock band behind her; she’s steeped in the most durable elements of classic rock, country and Americana, and her music is exactly what you (okay, me, at least) want to hear when you hit the bar on Friday night.  But records like that are a dime a dozen. Lightfoot has something else going for her. Everyone, it seems, loves a man who sings like a woman. And everyone loves a woman who dresses like one of the guys on stage. But what of the woman in a dress with a masculine—or, at the very least, androgynous—voice? It’s not just that Lightfoot has a lower range, it’s the timbre of her voice that sounds like no one else, male or female. She’s the Alison Moyet of Canadian roots rock. It’s what makes or breaks her appeal; it doesn’t leave anyone sitting on the fence, especially when she hangs onto notes at the climax of a chorus ("No Hurry"). Producer Gus Van Go (Whitehorse) pushes her to go big or go home; even the sparsely arranged ballads here (“NFB,” “Splinter”) don’t shy away from big, brassy moments—and she pulls it off every time.  That approach applies not just to her voice: this is Lightfoot putting all (or most) of her cards on the table. Opening with a rollicking electric waltz, she frontloads the album with rockers before branching out to tender folk songs or a 1950s 6/8 shuffle or two-step country. Every Time My Mind Runs Wild is brimming with confidence, a calling card for a young artist more than ready to make her mark.

Why it didn’t even make the long list:
Her debut album was barely noticed; this one came out in late April and word of mouth started spreading slowly—as did radio play. Come the summertime, she was the talk of festival season. Now that it’s September, it looks like Polaris voters really missed the boat. No matter—she’s already onward and upward, not looking back.

Tre Mission – Stigmata (Big Dada)
The album:

This Toronto MC and producer was one of the most exciting things I heard last year. His charisma and flow as an MC are solid and better than most, but it’s the production here that really stands out. Signed to Ninja Tune subsidiary Big Dada, his ties to British hip-hop, particularly its grime scene, run deep. For Tre Mission, grime is an excuse to blow open boundaries and create futuristic, next-level hip-hop that challenges any cutting-edge electronic artist. Of course, that can also be said of Drake and Kanye, for example, but for whatever reason this music resonates with me more: it’s much more animated, limber and playful than Drake, it’s more sparse, atmospheric and dub-influenced than Kanye. It shares plenty with my other favourite new Toronto MC/producer, Keita Juma, who got lost in this year’s discussion but whose new work I’m looking forward to. For a 23-year-old on his second album, Tre Mission is remarkably accomplished and fully formed. And in a singles-driven genre, Stigmata holds up from top to bottom. I can’t wait to hear what he does next: on his own, or producing other people, or whatever the hell he wants. And I hope to God Canada doesn’t sleep on it.

Why it didn’t make the short list:

Plenty—though not nearly enough—hip-hop records get suggested by the jury; a handful make the long list, and usually no more than one or two make the shortlist. There’s clearly some kind of glass ceiling. This year the biggest rap star in the world and a hip-hop legend both showed up to the Polaris party, which squeezes out smaller voices. One hip-hop fan I know thought this record sounded “too British”—not sure about that, but it is markedly different than most North American hip-hop.

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