Monday, September 12, 2016

Pre-Polaris 2016 Day One: Black Mountain, Basia Bulat

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is a week tonight, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of 10 shortlisted artists will get $50,000. 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

The shortlist:

Black Mountain – IV (Dine Alone)

“Our Strongest Material To Date.” That was the in-jest working title of the new album by this Vancouver band, according to keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. A joke, perhaps, but not without truth.  

When Black Mountain debuted in 2004, they were a total throwback to psychedelic hard rock of the ’70s, equal parts Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. Very little has changed, other than the increased prominence of co-lead vocalist Amber Webber, who’s a welcome disruptor to the sausage party led by songwriter and guitarist Stephen McBean. The more whimsical side of the band has also evaporated; they’re heavier and naturally more humourless—and more power to them. (Maybe that’s why they dropped the working title and went with the Zeppelinesque IV.)   

Most important, however, is that Black Mountain has found the perfect balance of sludgy, head-banging riffs and the respite of intervals soundtracked primarily by Schmidt’s spacey keyboards—as well as McBean’s guitar, which is more textural here than it’s ever been, not merely power chords and solos (though his wrenching lead on closer “Space to Bakersfield” is surely his finest moment, the closest he’s come to Eddie Hazel’s work on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”). 

The most accomplished tracks here run more than eight minutes long, showcasing all the band’s strengths simultaneously; these are songs that celebrate Black Mountain’s longevity, their unity of purpose six years after their most recent albums, their ability to mature within their imposed parameters and push themselves to their full potential. One of Canada’s greatest rock bands of all time is back—yes, with their strongest material date.

I’d be willing to give this record the Polaris on the basis of that “Space to Bakersfield” guitar solo alone. And I don't even like guitar solos.

The chances: Fair. Depends on the rock leanings of the 11-member jury that decides the winner on Sept. 19, and this is certainly better (i.e. more interesting and layered) than the shortlisted Pup record, although both are decidedly retro. I don't really consider there to be any heavyweight sure shots on the shortlist, so I’m going to be very wishy-washy this has as much of a chance as anything else. But if I were voting, it’d be my #2 pick.

Basia Bulat – Good Advice (Secret City)

With Good Advice on the 2016 shortlist, Bulat becomes one of six artists to be shortlisted three times (Owen Pallett, Drake, Shad, Metric, Caribou).

Basia Bulat’s voice can reduce a grown man to tears. That’s what happened to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James during the recording of the fourth album by this Montreal-based songwriter, which he produced. That emotional response is no small compliment, considering James’s own powerful pipes. But that’s what Bulat does nightly when on tour; to see for yourself, check out the short documentary capturing her sold-out, headlining show at Massey Hall in 2014.  

Weeks before that show, she drove solo to Kentucky to start recording with James and a bunch of musicians she’d never met before. Unlike previous producers she’d worked with, James has a distinct sound: trippy modern psychedelia filtered through classic Southern rock and reggae. Thankfully, James didn’t make a record that sounds like Basia Bulat fronting My Morning Jacket—but he did grant her free reign with all his synthesizers, which makes Good Advice a sonic makeover for the woman best known for wielding an autoharp. That said, it never overwhelms That Voice or the songs she’s singing; this is not a case of a producer’s stamp overshadowing the artist’s core strengths.

Perhaps the album’s title refers to him.  Instead, we’re told, it refers to female friendship, shoulders on whom Bulat relied during a recent breakup. For what is ostensibly a heartbreak record, Good Advice is remarkably upbeat: even the spacy ballads (“The Garden,” “Someday Soon”) are in major keys. 2013’s Tall Tall Shadow found Bulat bringing in more gospel and soul music to her palette, and that buoyancy remains here. 

 Some artists come roaring out of the gate with what turns out to be the best work of their career, to which they spend the rest of their lives measuring up. Bulat, on the other hand, keeps getting better and better, 10 years on and four albums deep.

Objectively, I think this album is fabulous. Bulat’s talent, craft and dedication are undeniable. She should be a massive mainstream star. Though her last record was co-produced by Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury (and she plays in his solo project, Sam Patch), it’s here that I hear more of an Arcade Fire influence (particularly one song that seemingly riffs on the melody of “Tunnels”). Subjectively, this record doesn’t move me as much as Tall Tall Shadow did, even if I find the instrumentation here more interesting.

There is a sameness at work here. Opening track “La La Lie” is a barn-burner with a driving quarter-note pulse, underscored by droning, fuzzy guitar and featuring Bulat’s vocals seemingly pushed into the red, while a small gospel choir backs her up. It’s a great formula: one she repeats almost entirely on “Infamous,” only syncopating the beat rather than going four-on-the-floor. With the exception of the single “Infamous,” the album starts to drag for me in the second half.

The chances: Not bad. Her only problem this year is that she’s up against Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen and Andy Shauf, with all of whom she shares some similarities. All those artists’ albums carry more critical heft than Bulat’s, but maybe the third time will be a charm.

Could've, should've beens:

Geoff Berner – We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians (Coax)

Do the horrors of the world make any form of distraction inevitably hollow and dishonest? Or is the only way to deal with the horrors of the world to embrace escapist hedonism? Geoff Berner, a.k.a. the Whiskey Rabbi, is here to tell you that there is another way.  

Berner, an accordionist and novelist and brilliant satirist, is not one to ever shy away from uncomfortable, or even upsetting, subject matter. You might even say he delights in this. But the Vancouver songwriter is also capable of making you laugh through your tears, while he and his band tear through raucous klezmer punk and acerbic folk songs, arranged with incongruously elegant flair by Montreal polyglot producer Socalled (who also helmed Berner’s last record, 2011’s Victory Party). Berner and Socalled are surrounded by top-notch players: violinists Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer, clarinetist Michael Winograd, bassist Keith Rose and longtime drummer Wayne Adams, who has never sounded better than he does here.  

Berner’s whole mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted—a job that used to belong to journalists—and he spares no scorn on the album’s mission statement, a track called “Dance and Celebrate”: “Let’s dance and celebrate the misfortunes of people we hate … Schadenfreude needs no translation / so I guess I’ll take it as a reparation / out on a date / where we’ll dance and celebrate.” Later, on "Thank You No Thank You," Berner lambastes politicians who claim to be “friends of Israel”—and he’s happy to name names—as a way to either mask Islamophobia or a way to facilitate a Holy War that will result in the Second Coming (not, as one might hope, a fringe belief in the U.S.).  

Naturally, this is all not your typical wedding band fare. But Berner doesn’t write knee-jerk screeds: he takes on Benjamin Netanyahu because he finds him an embarrassment to Judaism; he takes on the mayor of Vancouver because the city’s endless embrace of condo developers is pricing Berner and his peers out of the hometown they love. Berner could cry, but he’d rather laugh instead—without ever minimizing the various atrocities we’re all witness to every day.  

And then there are the simple pleasures that make life worth living: two other key, and wordy, titles here are “I Don’t Feel So Mad At God When I See You in Your Summer Dress,” and “When DD Gets Her Donkey Everything Will Be All Right.” They’re also the catchiest melodies here, of course. 

Geoff Berner doesn’t want to make nice background music that everybody likes. He’d be happy sending half of any given audience storming out the door in indignation, for reasons either political or musical, and carousing all night with those that remain. Geoff Berner’s music is meant to stir your blood, meant to make you feel alive and present in a world of horrible contradictions, to make you raise a glass and embrace your neighbour and try to make some semblance of sense of it all.  

What more could you possibly want from a record?

You can stream it here

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Because #PolarisSoGentile? No, just kidding. (Hi, Drake!) Granted, klezmer is not hot right now. And Geoff Berner does not care whether you like him or not. He plays accordion, for Chrissakes. (Disclosure: so do I.) The opening track is called “Swing a Chicken 3 Times Over Your Head”—and yes, that is what it’s about. Political satire is expected from television hosts, not musicians. Berner will never sand off his rough edges, musically or politically. Socalled, while surrounding Berner with top-notch klezmer musicians, is happy to let Berner scream his head off or play wrong notes on occasion. 

(Speaking of Socalled, also highly underrated this year is another record he produced: Ben Caplan's Birds With Broken Wings, released a year ago. Sample him here.)

Maybe Berner’s biggest Polaris moment will remain his stirring introduction speech for his friend Tanya Tagaq in 2014. But it’d sure be great if people paid attention to his records.

Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place (Fixed Hinge)

By his own admission, this Ottawa songwriter “carries the weight of the world around.” He tells his lover, “You never seem to worry about loneliness and doubt / but it seems to be all I ever think about.”

To be sure, Bryson excels at the Canadiana take on “sad bastard music”—perhaps never better than he did on 2003’s “Something Else,” later covered by his frequent employer, Kathleen Edwards—but the mild-mannered, self-deprecating frontman is also fond of big sing-a-long melodies and huge guitars. He started out in the punk band Punchbuggy, and his last record—a whole five years ago now—was recorded with the Weakerthans as his bold backing band.
Here, Bryson teams up with producer Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene), who gives his music a different kind of swagger and groove—most evident on lead single “The Depression Dance.” Bryson, who produces other artists in his home studio (Oh Susanna, Kalle Mattson), surrenders to Spearin and Grammy-nominated mixer Shawn Everett (who helmed Alabama Shakes’ stellar Sound and Color) and emerges with the most colourful album of his career, sonically speaking.

I’d like to say that his songwriting has improved as well—but it hasn’t, if only because he’s always been this good; Bryson is nothing if not consistent. With the muscle of Spearin and Everett behind him, however, the songs sound better than ever.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Bryson is a slow burner. Most of his records sound better months, years later after their release. I already love this record more than I did back in February; his music is playing the long game, far outside release cycles or award deadlines. And besides, exquisitely produced, mid-tempo Canadiana folk rock doesn’t usually make the Po—oh shit, wait, what’s that Andy Shauf record doing on the shortlist?

Tomorrow: Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen and two more could’ve should’ves.

1 comment:

Ford Pier said...

I dunno, I can't agree about the evaporated whimsy for the Black Mountain group. That record makes me laugh and laugh. Have you seen the videos for "Mothers Of The Sun" or "Florian Saucer Attack?" (Florian Saucer Attack???) Purely musically, there are many jokes and winks. I would suggest that the band's humour has, one album after the other, assumed ever greater prominence - and as we all know, humour is often the difference between good and great!