Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Polaris: Caribou, Kathleen Edwards

More Polaris Prize ponderings and predictions. Part one is here. The winner will be announced next Monday night.

The nominees:

Caribou – Andorra (Merge).

The album: When Dan Snaith first appeared on the scene, paying a bit-too-obvious homages to Boards of Canada and his pal Four Tet, writers who cover electronic music were wowed by his sense of melody—something that had become anathema during the late 90s, as anyone with more than one Pole album in their collection can attest to. Snaith soon upped the pop factor with plenty of vocal ba-ba-ba’s on his second album, Up In Flames, but now he’s finally progressed to writing material that could be easily mistaken for Syd Barrett covers—for better or worse.

I was relatively unimpressed when I first heard this album a year ago, but its subtleties have grown on me slowly. While I love the pure pop and anthemic qualities of “Melody Day,” it’s the second half of Andorra that holds up better, when he delves back into the abstractions and unraveled psychedelia that combine the best moments of his discography to date, with droning pulses, shimmering keyboards, unfolding soundscapes and crashing drums, all doled out with more subtlety than some of the heavier-handed moments heard on Up in Flames and Milk of Human Kindness.

The chances: Excellent. This year’s jury includes Denise Benson, the critic who singlehandedly brought Snaith to public attention from the days of his first 12” singles. Also present is Joshua Ostroff, who, like Snaith, went from writing (about) electronic music to (covering) more mainstream pop. Rockists on the jury will easily recognize touchstones from 60s psychedelic pop; more adventurous ears will appreciate the ambition and the fact that there isn’t really anyone else making this kind of music right now—and certainly not this well—in Canada or anywhere else. Even those that won’t love this record will likely respect it; it could easily be a compromise choice—but what do I know? This would likely get my vote.

Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers (Maple).

The album: Edwards has two principal strengths. One is her lyrical ability, which on the title track and songs like “Scared at Night” and “Run” manages to convey maximum narrative and emotional heft in concise poetry. The other is her comfort with the classic CanRock guitar sound, aided largely by her husband Colin Cripps on guitar (whose work with Crash Vegas still gives me chills); it’s a sound that instantly conjures up images of driving through the Canadian Shield on an autumn day.

Asking for Flowers is certainly her finest collection of songs to date, though she’s still a few steps away from crafting a masterpiece. Single “The Cheapest Key” is one of her most melodic rockers and the most spirited band performance here, and yet it features her signature vocal tics that drive me up the wall, coupled with gimmicky lyrics that make the whole song sound like a toss off. She can actually do gimmicky rather well, as “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” demonstrates; though certainly goofy at times, that song’s specificities ring true in ways that most “rock about rock” so rarely does.

Her female narrators are perpetually grappling with shattered romantic illusions, usually at the hand of an aloof and/or troubled man struggling with commitment. The only times the album takes a serious dip is with her political writing, particularly “Oh, Canada” and “Alicia Ross,” two songs about murdered girls. (Ironically, one takes Canadian media to task for not paying enough attention to black victims of crime. Yet in that same song, said victim remains nameless; meanwhile, Edwards has the chutzpah to write “Alicia Ross” in the first person as the murdered girl.)

The chances: Fair. It all depends on how the jury weighs the comparative merits of music (this is rather conventional and competent) and lyrics (Edwards is second only to the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson among the nominees). But seeing how two nominees—Holy Fuck and Caribou—purposely don’t feature lyrics as the focus (and, arguably, Black Mountain and Plants and Animals shouldn’t even bother), it’s unlikely that the jury deliberations will be taken up with poetry analysis.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies (Anti).

The album: I was underwhelmed by the debut Breaking Kayfabe, which did get a Polaris nod two years ago. Why Mr. Weapon wasn’t recognized for the superior follow-up is a bit of a mystery: musically and lyrically it’s a major step forward. On top of that, he built on his previous Polaris buzz and landed a deal with a highly reputable American label, so it’s not like this album had a low profile. If I hadn’t misplaced my cardboard sleeve advance copy, I’d be able to write about it more eloquently at the moment. Maybe other jury members lost their copies as well.

Why it struck out: I can only speculate that now that the novelty of a quality and quirky Edmonton MC has worn off, this didn’t stand up next to this year’s rock offerings for most mainstream critics to take serious notice. It also got mixed reactions in hip-hop press.

D’Urbervilles – We Are the Hunters (Out of This Spark).

The album: This is the only rock release of the last 12 months that I truly love beginning to end. Let’s start with the most shallow reason of all: it sounds fantastic. Engineer Chris Stringer knows how to make an electric, live and raw rock’n’roll album: every cymbal crash, every buzzing amplifier, every rolling bass line, every monstrous snare hit is pure perfection. Unlike most rockers, guitarists Tim Bruton and John O’Regan know better than to crush and smother their rhythm section; these guys have studied everyone from Stax to Spoon and understand the space between the notes. They know their AC/DC, their Joy Division and their vintage disco singles, and yet they’re able to surrender to visceral pleasures in ways that far too many referential rock acts fail to do.

Listen to the stuttering, minimal drums on “Dragnet,” otherwise decorated with an organ drone and tiny acoustic guitar shots. Listen to the 80s guitar pedals that serve textural purposes other than simply being cheeseball retro signifiers. But most of all, listen to John O’Regan’s vocal delivery, which moves easily from dry new wave detachment to hoarse hardcore hollering. This is a remarkable debut album that instantly surpasses the band’s most immediate peers and even some of their influences.

Why it struck out: Not enough people have seen them live (although you don’t need to, in order appreciate the album). A bit of publicity would also go a long way. I read some press that sounded like the D’Urbervilles suffer from not-another-indie-rock-band-from-Toronto syndrome, not to mention a backlash against punk rock bands who try to dance.

Further D'Urbervilles reading is here.


Unknown said...

The D'urbs did have some publicity, they got pretty good coverage for their album release tour across the country in February.

But the unfortunate fact is that most typical publicity is out of reach for most indie labels, that are not of the major-indie category.

Ads in exclaim, hiring publicists or having full time staff is an expensive endeavor and our label and other labels that I respect, would rather put what little resources we have into putting out records and paying our bands well then winning over prize juries.

When I am faced with the choice of choosing between publicity and actually paying people and treating people in a way that is respectable, I am not going to choose publicity.

I think we have this discussion before but awards like the Polaris are always going to favour the labels that have the money, there will always be some exceptions like Final Fantasy, but if you generally look at the long and short list from this year (particularly this year's short list) a lot of amazing records which I think are of great quality got left off the list, because they were on smaller labels.

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