It's May and I'm preparing my Polaris Music Prize ballot. Juggling a lot of things reviewed in this space earlier—including La Force, which I'm confident will be No. 1 on my ballot—but here are some more recent releases. And I'll talk about the Snotty Nose Rez Kids in the next post.
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned (En Soul)
This Haitian-Canadian Montreal singer has an audacious plan to release a trilogy exploring nothing less than “the history of African-American music,” of which this album is the second instalment. That’s a tall order, but at the very least she’s made a captivating song cycle here that showcases her spine-tingling vocals and some ace players. “There is Probably Fire” opens with gospel-tinged choral singing over minimal hand drums and clapping, before a long muted trumpet note announces a shift into an Ernest Ranglin-esque reggae groove with upright bass and jazzy piano. Each of those players are as integral to this album’s success as Fils-Aimé’s vocals, although she’s the obvious focal point. As the only credited vocalist, she’s also responsible for the layered harmonies throughout; this album’s one drawback is that she’d likely sound even better feeding off the energy of other live singers, rather than her own multitracks.
Fils-Aimé’s 2018 debut, Nameless, focused on the blues. Stay Tuned is ostensibly rooted in jazz and early R&B, with lyrics drawing from the contemporaneous civil rights movement and feminism (“You don’t treat me like the queen you keep telling me you see,” goes one line.) The next instalment will apparently delve into disco and hip-hop. But there’s a consistency between these first two records, a sound that is very much her own, a sound that pulls from modern R&B and Massive Attack descendants, albeit played on acoustic instruments. That third instalment will likely sound a lot like this one—which is to say, it will be a major work by an important new artist poised to transcend genres and generations.
Stay Tuned closes with a straight-up gospel song with the chorus, “I’ve got joy like a river in my soul.” So will the listener by the time the album’s over.
Stream: “Where There Is Smoke,” “There is Probably Fire,” “Some Body”
Orville Peck – Pony (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)
Let’s say you’re a Toronto guy with a strong lower-register who loves country crooners. You’re also queer and you love Joy Division as much as you do Johnny Cash. You know you’re unlikely to ever reach Kacey Musgraves’s level of success. You’re also unlikely to be embraced by the elders of the Canadian roots music community. At best, you’ll appeal to the same crowd as Timber Timbre, who certainly do well enough, but there’s a glass ceiling there. What do you do?
You dandy up in full rodeo regalia, develop a persona named Orville Peck and reveal very little about yourself—including your face, which you keep veiled behind a mask. The result: everyone is intrigued, no one asks about authenticity, and the music speaks for itself. (It also produces one of my favourite leads in a music story lately, from this Ben Rayner profile in the Toronto Star: “Orville Peck is not difficult to pick out in the crowd at Dundas West hipster haunt Get Well on a Tuesday night, as he’s the only chap in the room in a cowboy hat sipping a pint through a fringed leather bondage mask.”)
Start with the voice: Peck has a commanding presence, his low tenor enhancing the gravity of whatever it is he’s singing about. If we are to believe the little about himself that he’s revealed to the press, he’s a classically trained singer who did time on stage in London’s West End. It’s not hard to believe. There’s certainly some Ian Curtis in the mix, although Peck’s particular accent calls to mind a much more unlikely ’80s reference: Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo. The ’80s loom large here: not just in the overall Twin Peaks vibe (Peck would be a shoo-in for a gig at the Bang Bang Bar featured in the series’ 2017 sequel), but in that decade’s reverb-heavy approach to country music in what was then rebranded as “roots rock”: Steve Earle, BoDeans, Blue Rodeo, R.E.M.
Twangy guitars alone do not country music make; no, it’s the melancholy balladry that puts Peck in a country tradition. A song like “Kansas (Remember Me Now)” or “Roses Are Falling” aches like Patsy Cline, devoid of the drippy string sections, as if Cline were produced by Lee Hazlewood and not Owen Bradley. And titles like “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Old River” and “Big Sky” don’t hurt, either.
There’s a danger that all of this could just add up to shallow shtick, a male counterpart to Lana Del Rey (against whom I hold no prejudice, but also have no love). But Peck is no cypher. The man’s voice has passion and personality to burn—there’s a helluva lotta Elvis in this here building. He sounds completely invested in every note here, as does his backing band (comprised largely of angular Toronto postpunk band Frigs). Even his whistling is on point.
Time to ride Peck’s pony.
Stream: “Dead of Night,” “Buffalo Run,” “Big Sky”
Jayda G – Significant Changes (Ninja Tune)
"Hey, I see you on your phone, checking out Instagram... This is the dance floor, baby! This is where you supposed to get down!" That’s the spoken chorus to “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” and it’s a rallying cry that defines this entire collection of house music, filled with positive vibes, born in a West Coast Canadian music scene some describe as the “Canadian Riviera.” (That’s a new one, to these ears, anyway.)
Jayda G is a Vancouverite who now lives in (of course) Berlin, returning home only to finish her master’s degree in environmental toxicology—an area of study that surfaces via dialogue quoted in “Missy Knows What’s Up,” alongside electric bass lines that would make Chic’s Bernard Edwards proud, melodic piano lines, and pillowy Orb-like synths. For an album called Significant Changes, it’s remarkably conservative. It’s joyously old school; anything here could have been played in a DJ’s house set in 1990. Vocalist Alexa Dash elevates the tracks she’s on, but the instrumentals here are just as strong. House music isn’t normally a genre that works (for me) in an album format, but the fact that Jayda G comes close speaks to her talent—and her future.
Stream: “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” “Leave Room 2 Breathe” feat. Alexa Dash, “Missy Knows What’s Up”