Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Pre-Polaris 2016, day two: Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is six days from now, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 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 listYesterday we talked about Black Mountain and Basia Bulat.

The shortlist:

Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)

Art Angels was the most-anticipated Canadian release of 2015. Which is a bit weird.  

Yes, Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, is in every magazine—from Pitchfork to the New Yorker to Vogue—and she’s managed by Jay Z’s company. But until now, she’s been a musical outlier: her early, experimental records would be considered unlistenable to 99 per cent of her current audience; 2012’s Visions—my personal favourite album of that year—was a huge leap forward in terms of production and melody, but was still far left of Lorde in terms of mainstream appeal. In between then and now, Grimes recorded a full album and scrapped it, leaked one track that was apparently intended for Rihanna, and played coy about the arrival of Art Angels.  

Art Angels is Grimes’s big bid, her grab for the gold, her moonshot. (Note: she refutes this assumption.) There are giant pop anthems with chugging electric guitars. There are EDM disco rave-ups. There’s an acoustic ballad. There’s a song with just voice, a string section, and electronics. It all puts her in the company of Katy Perry and Tegan and Sara and Haim. Not, as we expected, Bjork or FKA Twigs or M.I.A.—even if there is a track with a spaghetti Western guitar riff, a Taiwanese rapper, an avalanche of electronic percussion, heavy-metal riffage and plenty of screaming. It’s called “SCREAM” (emphasis is hers). 

 In pop, only the singles matter, and there she’s completely succeeded. “California,” “Flesh Without Blood,” “Belly of the Beat” and the peppy (and insipid) title track all sound huge and radio-ready. Aggressive club tracks like “SCREAM,” “Kill vs. Maim” and “Venus Fly”—featuring Janelle Monae, one of only two guest spots on this one-woman show—display a much more butch side of Boucher, whose girlish upper range led many to infantilize her in the past.  

And yet for every pop triumph found here, the rest sounds like Boucher dulling her edges and shoehorning herself into someone else’s perception of herself, and ending up sounding like rejects from an ’80s teen movie soundtrack. She’s much, much better than that—as she proves on the other half of this album, and on every track on Visions, for that matter.  

Of course, assigning intent to any artist in any review is ridiculous, and every Grimes album has been so drastically different from the last that there’s no reason to expect anything in her future to be based on what we already think we know about her. Grimes will always keep us guessing—and second-guessing. In the meantime, she’s scored enough hits here to make the rest of the world pay attention.

The world paid attention. The Junos didn’t, which is part of what prompted the #JunosSoMale tempest earlier this year. Part of that debate was why, among other categories, Grimes was not nominated for producer of the year. As one of the rare female producers of any prominence, giving her a nod would be ground-breaking.

But is her snub in the producer category that odd? How many artists get points for producing or engineering themselves, as opposed to facilitating someone else’s vision? (This year’s Juno nominees had two: Dallas Green of City and Colour, and Emilie-Claire Barlow—a woman!—for co-producing her own work. It’s the first of Barlow’s 11 albums on which she’s shared producing duties.) Then there’s also the fact that weirdos like Grimes, regardless of gender, don’t usually get anywhere near those categories, usually reserved for conformists and hitmakers, not rule-breakers.

Women are seldom seen behind the boards in studios, either home or professional, and when they share credit—like Bjork, or Beyoncé—everyone assumes the men do all the heavy lifting. Neo-pop fans feel Grimes deserves credit for doing it all herself and not turning to a team of all-star helpers like (ahem) certain other Polaris shortlisters (who may or may not be part of this same blog post). But isn’t it also a bit patronizing to be somehow amazed that a woman does it all herself? I’m not amazed; it’s what I’d expect from an artist of Grimes’ talent.

I just wish the record was as daring and genre-busting and forward-thinking as she—and everyone else, including me—wants it to be. She has it in her.

But you know what? Don’t listen to anything I say in a random blog post. I implore you to read the esteemed Anwen Crawford in Australia’s The Monthly diving deep into her ambivalence toward Grimes, and how that relates peripherally to Carly Rae Jepsen. I’ve been waiting to read a piece like this for almost year, sorry to have only stumbled across it now.

The chances: Strong. For many critics, this lived up to the hype that preceded it. Many feel she was robbed for the Polaris back in 2013, when Feist’s Metals blinded Visions. This could easily be Grimes’ time. However, Grimes is also nothing if not divisive: if you’re anything less than impressed with her music, chances are you actively hate it. And curiously, for all the talk of sexism, the most virulent reactions to Grimes I’ve witnessed have been from women.

Carly Rae Jepsen ­– E*MO*TION (Universal)

The most overrated underrated record of the year.

For more than a year now, I’ve seen this album showered with laurels, while fretting about how the early release date in Japan impacting North American sales (why this is of interest to critics, or anyone outside Jepsen’s management team, is baffling to me) to lamenting her shut-out from the Juno Awards (she didn’t sell enough records to qualify in the pop category, which is sales-based), to its appearance on many year-end lists. “Carly Rae Jepsen is so underrated!” my peers claim. “E*MO*TION is a pure pop masterpiece! It only failed because she doesn’t work her social media as effectively as Taylor Swift!” I mean: really?! Maybe it’s just not that good, people.

Look, some of my best friends are… wait, I mean some of my favourite records are built on bubblegum, from ABBA to Ariana Grande, from Ronnie Spector to Robyn. I’m happy that this music finally has a place in the Polaris discussion, ever since Tegan and Sara broke the barrier a few years back. Even if I secretly want Polaris to prioritize artists marginalized in the mainstream, I still think we should consider pop music worthy of serious discussion.

Except that I have a lot of trouble believing that we’re talking about an album whose lead single had the chorus, “I really, really, really, really, really, really like you.” The song is incredibly insipid, juvenile and, well, unlikeable. The opening bars of “Boy Problems” are a direct nod to Madonna’s “Holiday”—and a reminder that I’d rather be listening to that than this teenage trifle, which makes the 30-year-old singer sound like a pedophile.

That said, aside from those two songs (which fill me with rage), I don’t dislike this record. When it’s great, this is what I want to hear while binging on cotton candy at the CNE (or PNE, as the case may be). I love the title track. “Your Type” is a great pop single. “LA Hallucinations,” the only track here with Canadian producers, sounds like a watered-down version of the 2102 Major Lazer/Dirty Projectors collaboration. The digitally spliced saxophone on “Run Away With Me” is the “Baker Street” of this generation—a generation whose primary exposure to sax in pop music is the current Hall and Oates revival. But the hiccupping slap bass line on the ballad “All That” is one ’80s joke too many.

Yes, she has a lot of great producers here, from the guy who did Haim to the guy from Vampire Weekend to the guy from Blood Orange to the guy from the Cardigans. But part of the problem for me is that I just don’t find Jepsen interesting as a vocalist. She’s no Alessia Cara (see below). She’s a cipher, replaceable, secondary to the music behind her. Which makes her move to Broadway a sound decision.

The chances: Good. I don’t doubt that people genuinely love this record, but at the same time so much discussion of it seems to be predicated on its underdog status. I dare you to find an article about Jepsen that doesn’t mention how poorly this sold, how her management bungled a formula for her that worked for Justin Bieber mere months later, or how the unwashed masses don’t know good pop music when they hear it. What better Hollywood ending could one ask for than Jepsen winning the Polaris?

Could’ve, should’ve beens:

Alessia Cara – Know-it-All (Universal)

Lorde-y, Lorde-y. This 19-year-old (now 20) from Brampton, Ont., wowed the world with her hit “Here,” and managed to follow it up with a solid album that showcased the depths of her vocal talent, her (not that uncanny) ability to mine teen angst, and went gold in the U.S. (I also seemed to hear it everywhere I went on my vacation in France this year.)

From my November review:

Cara is a walking We Day rally, with inspirational messages for the misfits and the wallflowers: “You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are / you don’t have to change a thing / the world can change its heart.” Her hit, “Here,” has her hanging back from the action at a lame party full of vomiting potheads, realizing she has better things to do with her time—like hanging with friends she actually likes, kicking back and listening to “music with a message.”  

There’s more than a little bit of Lorde here: the nerdy outcast who embraces big pop music to make a point about the vapidity of pop culture. Opening track “Seventeen” has a huge hook and beat worthy of Katy Perry. “Here” rides the same Isaac Hayes sample that underscored Portishead’s “Glory Box,” which is a much less obvious pop bid, but one that’s clearly worked. She channels Amy Winehouse on “Outlaws,” the torchy timbre of her voice belying her actual age.

I’ll admit I hadn’t listened to this album in full since then (I hear the singles on the radio all the time, of course). But returning to it now, it’s remarkably consistent and strong; it’s not just three hit singles and some filler from a not-ready-for-prime-time player. Cara’s the real deal. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: This was a shocker, unless the presence of Jepsen, Bieber, the Weeknd and Grimes meant there simply wasn’t space on people’s ballots for yet another chart-pop record. And yet of all those, I’d say Cara’s voice is second only to the Weeknd, her songs are better than any of them, and her production doesn’t give this old man a headache.

Coeur de Pirate – Roses (Dare to Care)

Polaris has not had a francophone artist on the shortlist since 2011. In the 11-year history of the prize, only four francos have ever made the shortlist: Karkwa (who won), Malajube (shortlisted twice), Radio Radio and Galaxie. I thought this would be the year Coeur de Pirate finally got English Canada’s attention, especially because more than half of Roses is in English. She did make the long list—which she’s done twice before. But I’d argue this is an even better pop record than those by Jepsen, Grimes or Bulat.

My review from last September:

Beatrice Martin is related to neither Swedish hitmaker Max Martin nor Coldplay’s Chris Martin. But Beatrice, a.k.a. Coeur de Pirate, has just made an album full of songs that those men would kill to have in their own repertoire. The Québécois artist has sold a million records in her own province and France, and is the only francophone artist in recent memory to attract any significant notice in English Canada (she sold out Massey Hall in Toronto last year—you can watch that here).

Now, with her first album of original music featuring songs in English—seven of 10 here—Coeur de Pirate is poised for a major crossover.  Martin is all of 25 years old, but writes like she’s studied Brill Building and Broadway and pop masters for decades. Everything here sounds enormous, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound updated for 21st-century fireworks displays. Traces of modern R&B form the rhythm tracks, where Martin nods to her love of The Weeknd (she once covered “Wicked Game”) and Rihanna (replicating the “Umbrella” beat on “I Don’t Want to Break Your Heart”). Meanwhile, tracks like “Undone” are the kind of stadium pop that Bono has been trying to chase for the last 20 years, the kind that Katy Perry might make if her songs weren’t stuffed with sonic steroids. Even the sparse ballads (“Oceans Brawl,” “Cast Away,” “Tu oublieras mon nom”) boast melodies meant to be sung by thousands in unison.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: Maybe it’s too slick? Too top-40ish? Too girlish? That might fly any other year, but not one where we’re seriously discussing Jepsen, Bieber, Bulat, Grimes et al. So: Distinct society. You’d have better luck getting most English Canadian music writers to pull their own teeth than to get them to listen to a francophone record (which this isn’t, but whatever). I get it; I used to be that guy, too. I don’t want to be that guy anymore.

Tomorrow: Kaytranada, Jessy Lanza

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