Thursday, July 23, 2020

20 years of the Weakerthans' Left and Leaving

When people talk about Canadian rock music in the early 2000s, they talk about Montreal, where Arcade Fire and others turned international eyes and ears toward Canada en masse. Sometimes they talk about Toronto, with its various Broken Social Scene satellites and a lot more. They might even talk about Vancouver, where in 2000 the New Pornographers unknowingly launched the idea that the pseudo-socialist country in North America was full of indie rock “collectives” containing multiple songwriters and singers.

But the record that launched one of the most creatively fertile musical periods in Canada’s history didn’t come from Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. It came from smack dab in the middle of the country, where the music industry dare not tread, where the hipsters dare not look: Winnipeg. The record is the Weakerthans' Left and Leaving.

In 2000, rock music was in the era of rap rock and fourth-generation grunge. Popular punk had become rote and largely juvenile. Garage rock was thriving, but fairly far underground. In the next two years, there would be a so-called “rock revival,” most of which was welcome escapist fantasy in a post-9/11 world. But in the final week of July 2000, a poetic punk band from Winnipeg struck different chords entirely, and released one of the greatest albums of 
the coming decade

“The Weakerthans”-- not a terribly inspiring name. It’s the Canadian insecurity complex incarnate. It’s a name chosen by a band in a Prairie province far removed from the corridors of power, in a country that plays inevitable second fiddle to the superpower to the south. It’s a band whose lyrics could, at an extremely superficial level, be heard as yet another adenoidal adolescent pining for the girl to whom he’s pushing a political pamphlet.

But rarely had the broken sounded so bold. Rarely had the weak sounded so strong. Sure, the characters who populate the Weakerthans’ 2000 album Left and Leaving are, in their own words, defeated, exiled, heartbroken, poor and lonely. In the hands of a lesser writer, they might be either obviously autobiographical, or empty abstracts: anonymous huddled masses. In the pen of singer/songwriter John K. Samson, though, those lives are rich and full, brought to life with Dostoevskian detail, their circumstances universal. That portraiture extends to the music behind him as well: rousing punk anthems with chunky guitars countered by tender ballads that made the band folk festival favourites, all coloured by unusually interesting percussive patterns that contributed colour to the sonic palette rather than simply backing rhythms.

This was not another shitty emo band. These were not mall punks on the Warped Tour. This wasn’t screaming for your attention. This wasn’t even Fugazi or Bad Religion. This was something that could only have come from Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

Winnipeg’s socialist tradition is taught in classrooms across the country, in the story of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It’s not remotely surprising that the Weakerthans took their name, in part, from a line in “Solidarity Forever”: “What force on earth is weaker than the feeble force of one?” (Though I’m entirely unclear why this would inspire anyone to name their band the Weakerthans.) Samson’s inspirations include Billy Bragg; Bragg in turn was inspired by bands like the Clash. Bragg eschewed the idea of being backed by a punk band, and opted to play solo electric guitar instead. Samson wanted to be both Bragg and Strummer; the Weakerthans are what it would sound like if Bragg was actually backed by the Clash, alternating ferocity and fragility, with political sloganeering backbenched in order to examine ennui and daily compromises.

The Weakerthans had debuted in 1997 with Fallow, which was received mostly by fans of the band Samson had just left: Propagandhi. He was the third bassist to join the core members, who formed in Portage la Prairie and played their first show at Winnipeg’s Royal Albert, but he was with the band during their international breakthrough. That happened when they befriended Fat Mike of NOFX after sharing a bill at the Royal Albert. He put out the first two Propagandhi records; the second, 1995’s Less Talk More Rock, is considered a game-changer for the 90s generation of Warped Tour kids (not that Propagandhi played Warped), its provocative radical politics an anomaly in the scene. The album featured two Samson songs, “Gifts” and “Anchorless.” The latter was mere small-town malaise next to the rest of the material, written by a band that quoted Noam Chomsky, advocated veganism, and called out the misogynist, homophobic macho culture of punk. But because Propagandhi stood out so far from their peers, Samson had a lot of clout in punk circles. He reprised “Anchorless” on Fallow, which was released on Propagandhi’s then-new label, G7 Welcoming Committee. For much of the Weakerthans’ career in the U.S., Samson was forever referred to as the “ex-bass player in Propagandhi.” But much of Fallow--particularly the devastatingly beautiful ballad “None of the Above,” featuring a decidedly non-punk pedal steel guitar--proved that Samson was on a much different path. 

Left and Leaving came out July 25, 2000. The Weakerthans were on the cover of Exclaim magazine, a free national music monthly in Canada, but few other outlets were paying close attention, other than CBC’s nascent and niche Radio 3 service (to this day, host Grant Lawrence cites the Weakerthans as his favourite Canadian band ever). Within a year, however, mainstream artists like Gord Downie and Sarah Harmer were champions. A young Ontario band called the Constantines was taking careful notes as they prepared to record their debut album. The Weakerthans toured Canada with the non-punk likes of 90s vets Rheostatics and Lowest of the Low. The album landed on the radar of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe and was nominated for a Juno award. It was no longer the cherished secret of punks, poets, and people likely to buy anarchist books--people like Samson himself, who co-ran Arbeiter Ring Publishing. And it spread through word of mouth: this was an independent band raised on DIY methods and ethics, and existed outside corporate culture. If you heard the Weakerthans on the CBC or campus/community radio and wanted to buy Left and Leaving, you had to find a physical copy (or, uh, find it on Napster, which was just gaining steam). Once you found it, you cherished it for the rest of your life. 

Hyperbole alert, but hear me out: The first three songs on Left and Leaving are perhaps the greatest opening salvo in Canadian guitar rock music. 

“Everything Must Go” begins with a minor-key fanfare of sorts on electric guitar, four bars that give way to unaccompanied bass chords that underpin Samson’s voice singing about a garage sale to “pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” eventually offering a “complicated dream of dignity” in return. Jason Tait enters with a syncopated boom-bap beat on the brushes, with a sprinkling of sizzle cymbals, and later plays a vibraphone solo. The chorus boasts a soaring melody, in which Samson sings of a place "where awkward belongs," and how “recovery comes to the broken ones.” After it ends with a shower of cymbals and Tait’s snare run through distortion, it gives way to a four-count on an open hi-hat announcing the punk flurry of “Aside,” with its fire-alarm guitar riff. That song’s bristling musical confidence contrasts with lyrics about agoraphobia and “leaning on a broken fence / between past and present tense” (a line Gord Downie quoted on stage during the Tragically Hip's induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame). 

Both “Aside” and the third track, “Watermark,” feature Stephen Carroll’s nimble guitar work, injecting countermelodies and flourishes when not doubling up Samson’s rhythm guitar and John P. Sutton’s bass for extra chunk. Throughout, Ian Blurton’s production gives the guitars the glory they deserve, with clarity that never sacrifices the sense of volume. The entire record rings with the immediacy of a live performance, but with the attention to minute detail required of any great recording, like the way the bell of Tait’s ride cymbal is amplified anticipating the bridge in “Aside” before shifting to a triangle playing eighth-notes at a key moment of transition. (Hot tip, guitar bands: hire Ian Blurton to produce your record. He's available.)

Great band, great songs, great production: that describes a lot of beloved records. But the left turns in Left and Leaving always surprise. The whirly tube (corrugated plastic toy) solo in “Elegy for Elsabet.” The malletted toms accompanying beat poetry on “Without Mythologies.” The barroom piano and weeping violin on “Slips and Tangles.” The line about the mayor “killing kids” in the beautiful acoustic “My Favourite Chords,” which also features a musical saw. All these are interspersed with punk songs not particularly far removed from Propagandhi’s musical template, albeit at slightly less frenetic tempos. Each member of the band sees Samson’s lyrics and melodies as a black and white picture with which to imbue colour, no matter the tempo or style. 

No one outside Winnipeg would have considered the Weakerthans a so-called “supergroup” like the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene, but their collective pedigree in their community went beyond the obvious Propagandhi connection: Tait’s skate-punk band Red Fisher was a popular Prairie favourite, and featured John Sutton in its later years, while Tait also played with Stephen Carroll’s Painted Thin, a band that once released a split CD with Samson’s first solo recordings. That these four men ended up pooling their strengths in Winnipeg’s greatest band at the time--in a fertile scene that also spawned Greg MacPherson, the Bonaduces, Sixty Stories, Novillero and more--seemed inevitable. 

Though there are no duds in their discography, the Weakerthans never sounded better than they did on Left and Leaving. The album’s lyrical tone anticipates the band’s trajectory: many of the songs are about a complicated relationship with one’s hometown; “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” presages Samson’s 2003 song “One Great City,” an equally empathetic and scathing municipal anti-anthem. (The Winnipeg Free Press this year named “One Great City” the best song ever written by Manitobans, tied with the Guess Who’s “American Woman.”) Left and Leaving documents a transitory time in one’s mid-20s when friends are leaving: to other towns, to other lives. 

The title track in particular, the album’s centrepiece, set to a descending chord pattern and a percussive brush pattern with a triplet skip at the end of each bar, registers deeply with any Canadian who doesn’t live in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. “My city’s still breathing, it’s true / through buildings gone missing like teeth,” sings Samson; writer Sheldon Birnie would later borrow the phrase Missing Like Teeth to title his book about 90s Winnipeg music. Samson, the eternal Winnipegger, is deeply committed to being a regional writer of universal truths, and there’s no better example than “Left and Leaving.” 

Shortly after the album came out, Tait and Sutton moved to Toronto; Sutton left the band after 2003’s Reconstruction Site, and was replaced by Torontonian Greg Smith. Auxiliary players from Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa floated in and out of the band. (Who's left and who's leaving?) Samson’s writing became more adult, less understood to be autobiographical, more of a short story writer, always with an abundance of empathy. His writing changed and evolved, but it didn’t get better--because it didn’t have to. He was fully formed at 27 years old, with an album that perhaps he could only have written at that age. The same age Joni Mitchell was when she wrote Blue.

Listening to Left and Leaving now, it’s not remotely dated. It’s a timeless rock record, musically and in its production. There are lyrical elements that speak particularly to the melancholy of youth, but are hardly exclusive to that time in one’s life. In “Fire Door,” Samson sings about one emotionally stunted character’s “forty years of failing to describe a feeling.”

Twenty years after Left and Leaving, the strength of the band called the Weakerthans’ is that they never failed at anything, least of all the ability to describe a feeling.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Moneyballing the 2020 Polaris long list

The 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list was announced today. My annual moneyballing follows, but first here’s the list: 

Allie X — Cape God
Anachnid — Dreamweaver
Aquakultre — Legacy
Marie-Pierre Arthur — Des feux pour voir
Backxwash — God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
Badge Époque Ensemble — s/t
Begonia — Fear
P'tit Belliveau — Greatest Hits Vol. 1
Daniel Caesar – Case Study 01
Caribou — Suddenly
Chocolat — Jazz engagé
Louis-Jean Cormier — Quand la nuit tombe
Corridor — Junior
dvsn — A Muse in Her Feelings
Flore Laurentienne — Volume 1
Jacques Greene — Dawn Chorus
Sarah Harmer — Are You Gone
Ice Cream – Fed Up
Junia-T — Studio Monk
Kaytranada — Bubba
Cindy Lee — What's Tonight To Eternity?
Men I Trust — Oncle Jazz
nêhiyawak — nipiy
Obuxum — Re-Birth
Owen Pallett — Island
Pantayo — Pantayo
Lido Pimienta — Miss Colombia
Joel Plaskett — 44
William Prince — Reliever
Jessie Reyez Before Love Came to Kill Us
Riit — ataataga
Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline
Super Duty Tough Work — Studies in Grey
U.S. Girls — Heavy Light
Leif Vollebekk — New Ways
Wares — Survival
The Weeknd — After Hours
Whoop-Szo — Warrior Down
Witch Prophet — DNA Activation
Zen Bamboo – Glu

My stats are, as always, full of subjective slip-ups. All corrections are welcome:


Female-led and female-identified: 17 (includes Backxwash, Cindy Lee, Wares)

Racialized, for lack of a better term: 14

Specifically Indigenous: 6
(Anachnid, Nehiyawak, Lido Pimienta, William Prince, Riit, Whoop-Szo)
That’s quite a diverse range of sounds, sure to shatter any stereotypes. None of those people sound remotely alike.

First-ever Filipina nominees: Pantayo (CORRECTION: First Filipina band. First FilipinX longlister was Vancouver's Kimmortal way back in... 2019. Toronto band Ohbijou performed at the very first Polaris gala beside Owen Pallett, but were never on a long list.)

Francophone: 6
(Marie-Pierre Arthur, P’tit Belliveau, Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier, Corridor, Zen Bamboo) 
Flore Laurentienne is the work of francophone Mathieu David Gagnon, but he makes instrumental music.

Allophone: 4 (Nehiyawak, Pantayo, Lido Pimienta, Riit)

Acadian: P'tit Belliveau. First franglais rapper in Polaris since Radio Radio. Waiting for a Lisa LeBlanc collab. 

Artists over 40 (that I’m aware of): 6
(Caribou, Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier, Sarah Harmer, Owen Pallett, Joel Plaskett)

Bands or duos (vs. solo projects): 11


Specifically hip-hop/R&B: 13
(Aquakultre, Backxwash, Begonia, P’tit Belliveau, Daniel Caesar, Dvsn, Junia T, Kaytranada, Obuxum, Jessie Reyez, Super Duty Tough Work, The Weeknd, Witch Prophet). 

No doubt some will argue about me putting Begonia and P'tit Belliveau in this category.

For the first time ever, I believe, the aforementioned loose genre overshadowed the next one, which is…

What was once known as indie rock: 10
(Chocolate, Jean-Louis Cormier, Corridor, Ice Cream, Cindy Lee, Nehiyawak, Owen Pallett, Wares, Whoop-Szo, Zen Bamboo)

Specifically roots/folk: 4
(Sarah Harmer, William Prince, Andy Shauf, Leif Vollebek). Could include folk festival favourite Joel Plaskett here.

Instrumental: 4 (Badge Epoque Ensemble, Jacques Greene, Flore Laurentienne, Obuxum). Could include Kaytranada here, but most of his record features vocals.

Should be a commercial radio star: 4 (Allie X, Begonia, Dvsn, U.S. Girls) Actual commercial radio stars: 3 (Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, The Weeknd)

Super weird: 3 (Anachnid, Cindy Lee, P’tit Belliveau)
Remotely heavy: 2 (Backxwash, Whoop-Szo)


Owen Pallett
Previous winners: 4
(Caribou, Kaytranada, Owen Pallett, Lido Pimienta. Also Jean-Louis Cormier as member of Karkwa.)
Previous shortlisters (not including above winners): 10
Previous longlisters who have yet to make a shortlist: 3 (Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier solo, Jacques Greene)

Total veterans: 17
Debut albums: 12



Toronto: 17 (two, Jacques Greene and Andy Shauf, come from Montreal and Regina)
Montreal: 10
Winnipeg: 3 (Begonia, William Prince, Super Duty Tough Work)
Halifax: 2 (Aquakultre, Joel Plaskett)
Edmonton: 2 (Nehiyawak, Wares)
Calgary: 1 (Cindy Lee)
Panniqtuq, Nunavut: 1 (Riit)
Guelph: 1 (Whoop-Szo)
Moncton: 1 (P’tit Belliveau)
London, UK: 1 (Caribou)
Kingston: 1 (Sarah Harmer)
Vancouver: 0 (!)

Laurentian elites: 30
Atlantic Canada: 3
Prairies: 6 (7 if you include Andy Shauf)
North: 1


Hall of famers:

All-time hall-of-famer Dan Boeckner missed out this year, as Wolf Parade’s Thin Mind (a great record, by the way) did not make this year's long list. The man who now leads Operators has a total of six nods to date, including two shortlist spots (one each for Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs).

Joel Plaskett and the Weeknd are now at five nods each; Plaskett takes the edge for having been shortlisted twice (which the Weeknd now has a chance to match). They now join a club that includes winners Arcade Fire, as well as repeat shortlisters New Pornographers, Drake, and eternal longlist bridesmaid Tom Wilson. Those last three artists all had eligible records this year; none made the longlist. This marks the first time the New Pornographers have failed to long list (their latest is also a great record, one of their best).

Four-timers Basia Bulat, Daniel Romano and Patrick Watson all failed to longlist this year. The fact that Romano put out seven albums in 2020 alone might—might—have hurt his chances. Matthew Tavares left four-time nominees BadBadNotGood to put out a solo album; it did not longlist. Other four-timers in the hall of fame, who did not put a new record in the last year, are Bahamas and the Sadies (though there is a collection of Sadies odds and sods). 

Also in the four-timer club is Shad, who has had each of his last four records shortlist. He's the only artist with four shortlist nods, which puts him in a class of his own.
UPDATE: Owen Pallett, winner of the inaugural prize in 2006 and shortlisted in 2010 and 2014, has been longlisted again, which now puts him in the four-timer club. Same with Caribou, who won in 2008 and, like Pallett, was shortlisted in 2010 and 2014. If both men shortlist again this year, they'll tie with Shad. And of course, if either wins, they'll be the first repeat winner. Because we're all friends here, Pallett played on the last two Caribou records. 


Things I didn’t see coming at all:

Joel Plaskett’s 44. It’s a four-record set with 44 songs on it, which is a lot to digest, and it came out a month before the deadline. Plaskett has a lot of good will in Canada’s critical community, as he certainly should, but at this point in his career I didn’t expect this risky move to make jurors’ ballots—especially when the jury is skewing younger than, uh, 44.
Zen Bamboo’s Glu: I heard a lot of discussion about many franco artists this year, but not a lot about this one. Produced by Julien Mineau, of the first-ever franco Polaris shortlisted band, Malajube.

Things I’m super sad about not seeing on the long list:

Speaking of francos, Bon Enfant made one of my favourite albums of the last 12 months. Go find it and play it loud in the springtime sun. I’m also upset fellow Montrealers Lil Andy and Little Scream didn’t make the cut, and the absolutely gorgeous Frazey Ford record. I’ve been a huge fan of Lightning Dust for years, and they put out their strongest record to date. The Dears put out a strong new record. Marleana Moore from Edmonton was one of my favourite new finds this year, followed by Boniface and Dana Gavanski. Kacy & Clayton from Saskatchewan suffered from both an anti-roots and anti-Prairie bias. I wrote about all my favourites in four parts, here, here, here and here.

Go listen! Shortlist will be announced July 15.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

My personal Polaris 2020 long list part 4

Day four!
Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.

I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered (10 in each post). Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.

Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so prepare yourself with as many grains of salt you feel are required.

Part 4/4: 

Owen Pallett – Island: This long-delayed album came out two weeks before the Polaris deadline, and yet I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it become one of the most-discussed albums this year. And not just because the first single (with its excellent accompanying video) contains this lyric: "Do not be scared / Surely some disaster will descend and equalize us / a crisis / Will unify the godless and the fearless and the righteous.” Though as lushly orchestrated as much of his work, these songs are centred around acoustic guitar, marking a new(ish) direction for Pallett: very little evidence of his violin-virtuoso past, few of the electronics that shaped 2014’s In Conflict, the orchestration never draws attention to itself, the music rich with subtleties and no concessions at all to pop audiences (usually Pallett would throw a bone or two). This sounds like Pallett’s most musically personal album; it also features the loveliest vocals he’s ever put to tape. For day-one fans, it’s as much a mature, one-man version of Les Mouches as it is a Final Fantasy record. Bandcamp link here.

Pantayo – s/t: Now here’s something you haven’t heard before: a group of Filipinas integrating traditional percussion (kulintang) with R&B and pop that lies somewhere between ESG, Massive Attack and Solange. Yes, the novelty is part of the appeal, and that will help this land on the long list and go possibly much further this Polaris season. But, like Tagaq or Jeremy Dutcher’s work, this is far from mere novelty: it’s an incredibly strong record: the grooves, the vocals, the songs, the sonic textures, the production by Alaska B (Yamantaka // Sonic Titan). Pantayo didn’t start out like this; when I saw them perform at a Long Winter event several years ago, it was definitely more on the traditional side. Now, “V V V (They Lie)” and “Desire” are total radio summer jams, uptempo and down, respectively. There’s even, it seems, some ’80s new wave in the mix here, but that could just the Scarborough boy in me being brought back to a time when I would have first heard traditional Filipino music at high school talent shows 30 years ago and now I’m weirdly conflating a bunch of my own memories in what is apparently a record review. Anyway, this is going to be the record that will make the list and have industry veterans wondering, “Where the hell did this come from?” Bandcamp link here.

Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia: Is it okay to say now that I didn’t like Pimienta’s 2017 Polaris winner La Papessa? That was a milestone win for many reasons (first allophone winner, entirely indie release), but I still heard a nascent artist who had yet to fully bloom. The conversation around the win—and the way Pimienta dealt with an onslaught of hateful criticism—was more worthy than the album itself, in this random white guy’s opinion, FWIW (not much). The Toronto artist took a lot of time and care following it up, and now we can talk about the music again. Everything has stepped up, starting with Pimienta’s own vocals: they’re stronger, express more dynamics and inflection, and generally more emotionally resonant. That’s true of the electronics as well; she’s said part of her challenge here was to make the technology sound beautiful, and she succeeded. The brass arrangements throughout are also a nice touch. Prince Nifty, a.k.a. Owen Pallett collaborator Matt Smith, co-produces here (check out his lovely new solo release), and guests include Colombian palenque group Sexteto Tabala (the collab here will sound familiar to any fans of Caribbean-Colombian legend Toto La Momposina) and South American superstar Li Saumet of electro-cumbia-pop band Bomba Estereo. One could argue that Pimienta won the Polaris prematurely, but if she hadn’t, then this superior record would likely not be getting an international release; its ambition might not even have been possible. Bandcamp link here.

Slow Leaves – Shelf Life: It’s not like critics are stumbling over themselves in a hunt for the new Lightfoot in 2020. But hey, FWIW, Slow Leaves is likely the new Lightfoot, or at least the most worthy contender since Doug Paisley dropped the 2011 classic Constant Companion. Davidson sings with a gentle lilt and affecting tremolo, his breezy folk rock designed to be played on crackly vinyl or around a campfire. Davidson sounds like a middle-aged dad, which he is, and this is an ideal midlife rainy day record when accompanied by coffee and/or scotch. It’s not new or dark or sexy; it’s just life. Hard to make that sound exciting in a record review. But hey, if the likes of Leif Vollebekk can crack the shortlist, surely Slow Leaves can. Bandcamp link here.

Rae Spoon – Mental Health: This artist has had quite a rollercoaster two years: they continue to run the best truly indie label in Canada (Coax Records) and they released two of the best albums of their career (including this one). But shortly after cancelling a tour due to the pandemic the non-binary artist announced they were diagnosed with cancer before even turning 40. Rae Spoon’s music has always been about resilience, which means in 2020 an album like Mental Health strikes particularly potent chords. As a former folk country artist who now makes what could be called electro-tinged indie rock, Spoon is first and foremost a classic pop songwriter: their songs are full of earworms, no matter the arrangements underneath. Lyrically, this record taps into the anxiety age with precision, which makes it essential listening. Bandcamp link here.

Storry – CH III: The Come Up: The back story behind this record is fascinating, terrifying, tragic, and a whole other tale unto itself (read Nick Krewen’s profile here). But the short on Storry is that this debut album (don’t let the CH III title fool you) is about her past life as a sex worker after an opera career went astray. She turns her classically trained voice to gutsy and jazzy R&B with some ace players behind her. The slick veneer might be suited to upscale jazz clubs, but the narratives pull no punches. Even if there wasn’t a back-Storry here (sorry), the woman’s voice is enough of a draw on its own. Ain’t no AutoTune here, she belongs on a stage. Won’t even need a microphone.

US Girls – Heavy Light: It’s weird to think of Meg Remy as a Polaris veteran, but this is likely to be her third appearance on a shortlist and another likely winner—I thought she’d take it for 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, my favourite record that year. Heavy Light picks up where that record left off, and, inspired by her 2018 Polaris performance, features a strong vocal presence from backing singers including arranger Kritty Uranowksi, James Baley (remember that name), and Basia Bulat. E Street saxophonist Jake Clemons also shows up, as do members of Arcade Fire and Ice Cream. The album was recorded largely live in Montreal by Howard Bilerman, and the electric energy is evident. Hard to go wrong with that many all-stars on board, and Remy rises to every challenge: she’s one of the most astute and fascinating lyricists working today, set to beautiful melodies steeped in the history of pop music. Part of this album’s success is due to Remy’s generous and collaborative spirit: she’s not precious about empowering her collaborators, working with co-writers (including Bulat), or even revisiting earlier material from her lo-fi solo days (“Overtime” and “Red Ford Radio” are highlights here). Everything about this exudes empathy and community, which is exactly what we need right now.  

Whoop-Szo – Warrior Down: I’m a lightweight when it comes to heavy music, which makes Whoop-Szo all the more surprising. This is stoner sludgy grunge that packs a wallop, even more so when Adam Sturgeon sings about his family’s experience in residential schools or a cousin being shot by cops in Saskatchewan (The chorus “Warrior down in a Saskatchewan town” says so much with six words, a Neil Young-esque simplicity all political songwriters should study). But this isn’t just a Sabbathian sonic anvil; this band started out as a considerably more experimental project, and there are more delicate moments here and prog diversions and deliciously dirty synth interludes and piano instrumentals. I don’t know who London, Ontario engineer Kyle Ashbourne is, but he’s heavy as fuck when he wants to be, with a Blurtonian touch that serves this material extremely well. Watch out for Whoop-Szo: at least one more record like this and they could turn into the most important rock band in Canada. Bandcamp link here.

Witch Prophet – DNA Activation: I certainly didn’t hear any other Canadian record like this in the last year: Habesha hip-hop beats with an Afrofuturist bent and jazzy saxophone (Karen Ng) throughout. Fans of Erykah Badu’s work with Georgia Anne Muldrow will find a lot to love here. This is hypnotic, healing music for humid days, during days when these lyrics strike deep: “Where do we go from here / When the whole world is falling / Through darkness / And we cannot see the light.” The woman known as Witch Prophet brings that light. Bandcamp link here.

Wolf Parade – Thin Mind: All great bands who feel like they’re hitting a wall should take a seven-year break. It did wonders for Wolf Parade. Both 2017’s Cry Cry Cry and now Thin Mind take everything that was ever intriguing about this group of musicians—as players and songwriters—and amplify all their strengths. Rare is the rock band that actually gets better with age, but this new chapter of Wolf Parade is the prime of their career, and Pacific Northwest star producer John Goodmanson captures it perfectly. Other than the obvious strengths of frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, the MVP here is drummer Arlen Thompson, who gives the material a real swing and swagger. Fuck nostalgia, forge the future. Bandcamp link here.

I’ll feel extremely lucky if even half of those 40 records make the longlist.

These next ones are not my bag, but here are 15 artists whose albums are likely to be longlisted, so give them a listen if you haven't already: 

Marie-Pierre Arthur
Daniel Caesar
Flore Laurentienne
Men I Trust
Nap Eyes
William Prince
Jessie Reyez
Andy Shauf
Super Duty Tough Work 
The Weeknd

The official long list will be announced on Monday June 15.
Jurors will then have a chance to submit their shortlist ballot; the shortlist will be announced July 15, and the winner on Sept. 21.

Happy listening! Buy the music you love! 

My personal Polaris 2020 longlist part 3

Day three!
Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.

I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered (10 in each post). Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.

Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so take all this with as many grains of salt you feel are required.

Part 3/4: 

Kacy & Clayton – Carrying On: This duo are second cousins from south Saskatchewan who have now made two records with producer Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, but you’d be forgiven if you thought this was a lost Laurel Canyon classic. Kacy Anderson takes most of the lead vocals, and, along with Jennifer Castle, she may well be the most compelling female voice in Canadian folk music since Frazey Ford showed up in the Be Good Tanyas. This duo’s take on countrified folk is lazy, hazy and fairly sparse. In other words, it’s perfect. Yet another act I wish I was seeing at a folk festival this summer. Bandcamp link here.

Kaytranada – Bubba: This album dropped in the dying days of December, after a lot of publications assembled their year-end lists, and so got somewhat lost in the shuffle. It was also an album that, though I loved Kaytranada’s Polaris-winning debut, I didn’t want to listen to in the dead of winter. This is summer music! Maybe it was big in Australia five months ago?! Giving it a proper listen now, in warmer climes, it’s a winning follow-up to 99.9%. The worst thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t expand on what the artist has already accomplished, and the guests are less inspiring this time around (especially, perhaps oddly, Pharrell Williams). But it’s head and shoulders above everyone in this genre not named Anderson.Paak. And the hotter it gets, the better it sounds. 

Lightning Dust – Spectre: Josh Wells and Amber Webber left Black Mountain a few years ago; they’d been in that band since the beginning and even before, in its predecessor Jerk With a Bomb. Over the years they put out three duo albums as Lightning Dust; all were great, none of them got much traction. Now that this is their full-time project (when Wells isn’t drumming for Destroyer’s live band), they’ve returned with a whopper. Webber is still one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in Canada, her witchy tremolo perfectly suited to the minor-key psychedelic folk songs she writes with Wells, which sound like they came out between in the years between ’70s soft rock and the birth of new wave (“Run Away” sounds like Patti Smith covering Springsteen’s “The River” in 1981). Honestly, I could listen to Webber sing just about anything, but this is the strongest material she’s ever delivered, while drummer/producer/keyboardist Wells retains his rep as one of the MVPs on the West Coast. This side project now has their full attention, and it shows. Now it deserves yours. Bandcamp link here.

Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied To Us: "All the Love Songs Lied to Us"—the title sounds like something Stephen Merritt would have penned for 69 Love Songs. And that's the league Andy is aiming for here, albeit within a specific sonic space, and tied specifically to country music. Not an urban hipster ironic take on country music, either. Andy is a songwriter in love with the literary side of country music: the clichés that ring true, the wordplay, the storytelling. While the instrumentation doesn't stray from the traditional, the lyrics are resolutely set in the modern world. But about that instrumentation: he's got Montreal MVP Joe Grass at his side here. His guitar playing here is downright magical, like Nels Cline playing straight-up country. Andy's love of Leonard Cohen shows in the ornamental use of female backing vocals, notably on "The Lives of Others." But longtime collaborator Katie Moore—another Montreal MVP—also provides gorgeous, straight-up Emmylou-ish harmonies underneath Andy's rich baritone. This is a country record, but one that transcends genre. Most important, it's a songwriter's record, brilliantly illustrated by top-notch arrangements, sparse and gorgeous production, and lovely vocal performances all around. For years now, Lil Andy has been working somewhat quietly within the confines of a certain Montreal neighbourhood. This record deserves to be heard around the world. Bandcamp link here.

Little Scream – Speed Queen: This is richly produced, textural pop music that sounds like Fleetwood Mac made by art school students: soft rock with real bite, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Lyrically, she's a poetic force, at times Joni-esque, an acute observer with a razor-sharp pen: "I don't mind burning bridges to gated houses I don't want to live in." First single "Dear Leader" is an absolutely essential song for these times (by which I mean at least the last decade, not just the last month). There's some songwriting collaborations here from Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse, Wooden Stars), Mike Dubue (Hilotrons), Pietro Amato (Bell Orchestre, Luyas) and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire); all of them bring their top game here, resulting in what is easily Sprengelmeyer's best album so far. The songwriting, the production (Marcus Paquin: Arcade Fire, Stars, Begonia, Sarah Harmer, etc.), the arrangements, the playing and her inviting vocals are all top-notch. This one took some time to grow on me, and then it hit me hard. Real hard. Bandcamp link here.

Loving – If I Am Only My Thoughts: I don’t have a lot to say about this Victoria band’s second release except that I never liked Mac DeMarco but I love this and listening to it makes me feel too drunk and sun-baked to actually say anything intelligent. Tune in, turn on, drop out and all that. Bandcamp link here.

Jon Mckiel – Bobby Joe Hope: There’s a fascinating backstory to this record, involving an old reel-to-reel tape machine Mckiel purchased, which included tape with instrumental snippets recorded likely decades ago. The Sackville, N.B.-based Mckiel collaborated with Joyfultalk’s Jay Crocker in rural Nova Scotia to “collaborate” with this found material to create hazy folk songs for a psychedelic breakfast. In the lineage of Atlantic Canadian weirdness, this is very much an extension of Eric’s Trip, though obviously its own thing, creating modern magic with vintage tools in a dialogue with the past. Bandcamp link here.

Marleana Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed!: This is another of my favourite discoveries from fellow jurors. This Edmonton songwriter is bound to appeal to anyone raised on 90s indie rock or more recent purveyors like Angel Olsen or this album’s producer, Chad Van Gaalen. Moore has an inviting voice with a wide range, the songwriting is incredibly strong, and the players (including members of Calgary’s Preoccupations) provide perfect colour. I’m at an age where twentysomething indie rock usually either bores me to tears or drives me bananas; this record easily rises far above her peers (i.e. the Boygenius crowd). Extra points for the beautiful cover art and the entirely apt title. Bandcamp link here.

New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights: It’s more than easy to take this band for granted: this is their eighth album, Dan Bejar is long gone, and 2017’s Whiteout Conditions was incredibly disappointing—even more so because it followed the late-career highlight Brill Bruisers in 2014. Morse Code finds the band back on track, playing to all their strengths: lush, inventive, intricate power-pop rock with plenty of left turns and massive harmonies. Just because they’re now celebrating their 20th year together doesn’t mean we should appreciate them any less; this album, like Brill Bruisers, guarantees they won’t remain a nostalgia act. 

Obuxum – Re-Birth: “Take up SPACE!!” is the title of one track here; the emphasis is hers, not mine. It’s a reference to the fact that this young beatmaker from Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood doesn’t see a lot of support for people like her: i.e. a Somali-Canadian woman making electronic music. She travels interstellar paths similar to those of fellow Habesha-Canadian Witch Prophet or L.A.’s Flying Lotus: dreamy, discombobulated, rich with texture. She got some spotlight when she produced “In Women Colour” for Haviah Mighty’s Polaris-winning album last year, but she’s not the type to normally work with MCs. She’s much better off left untethered in her travels, where she can take up as much space as she needs. Bandcamp link here.