Thursday, September 25, 2008

Polaris: Shad, Stars

Penultimate Polaris post today. But first, I'd like to alert you all to an Ottawa oddsmaker's take on everyone's chances. These do not represent the opinions of Radio Free Canuckistan, and are intended for entertainment purposes only. That said, place your bets!

Black Mtn- 2.5:1
Basia Bulat- 3:1
Caribou- 3:1
Kathleen Edwards- 4:1
Holy Fuck- n/a (they are going to win), but I will bet anyone if you give me at least 3:1
Plants and Animals- 2:1
Shad- 4:1
Stars- 4:1
Two Hours Traffic- 3:1
The Weakerthans- 4:1

The nominees:

Shad – The Old Prince (Black Box).

The album: I didn’t hear this when it first came out; I’m only spending significant time with it now. I’ve been a fan of Shad since I first saw him about two years ago, and his live show is considerably more compelling than anything heard here. Shad is a fascinating character, and yet while his music does fall outside the hip-hop mainstream, I don’t hear much personality in his backing tracks at all. He’s openly self-deprecating about the fact that he’s not a “hard” MC, which is great (and very Canadian of him), but one can’t help but wish for a bit more bounce to the ounce. It’s telling that one of the most likeable tracks here is the a cappella at the end of “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home.” He also fares well with “Brother,” “Compromise” and “Exile,” but nothing measures up to his full potential.

The chances: Slim. In this rockist country of ours, it will take a hip-hop album with significantly greater momentum than this one to take this prize, unless this jury is feeling particularly contrarian (and there are at least two major hip-hop fans on the jury). Plus, I didn’t get the sense that this was a lot of hip-hop fans’ number one choice for Canadian hip-hop album of the year. The fact that it’s on the shortlist is likely a compromise choice; it’s doubtful Shad will pull off the same feat for the main event.

Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War (Arts and Crafts).

The album: Critics love to hate this band; it’s a bit of a shocker that it made the list. Part of this is because Torquil Campbell is cockily convinced that he’s doing it all for the kids—and anyone who isn’t making pop music for lonely teenage romantics should go into another profession. Canadian musicians aren’t expected to be controversial, and Campbell’s big mouth gets him into trouble—like when he complained about a good review of this album on Pitchfork, and told all rock critics to get laid and do drugs before reviewing CDs. (He talks about this here.) I actually think the review in question, which gives the album a 7.4 rating, is very well written—an admission which obviously gives Campbell permission to place no credence at all in anything I now have to say about his band (not that he ever should have, and not that he ever did).

But here’s what any objective ear will hopefully recognize: In the Bedroom After the War is a fantastic pop album, one that aims high, occasionally fails, and encapsulates all the teen angst and ache that this band has been trying to capture since they started. Almost every song is incredibly catchy classic pop with fantastic production. It’s full of tasty little bits: Campbell’s falsetto on “Genova Heights,” a delicate string arrangement on “My Favourite Book,” and the fact that they manage to bring Momus to the masses on their homage, “Personal.” Listen to Amy Millan’s “My Favourite Book” and “Bitches in Tokyo” for the key to Stars’ success here: the soft pop is sublime; the rock moments ring true, which they never did for me on the predecessor Set Yourself On Fire. I’m also willing to love this record for the sole reason that no one writes proper male/female duets in pop music anymore.

Polaris jurors should take note of the album’s flow; this is a band who clearly conceptualizes their beginnings and ends. It starts with a slowly reveal, an opening suite that leads into the first lyric and defining statement (“the night starts here/ forget your name/ forget your fear”). It concludes with what has been described as a ticker-tape parade of old-timey musical theatre glory, perfect for closing credits of some epic Oscar bait.

There are a couple of clunkers here—there’s no way a song seriously titled “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” could possibly be good, and it isn’t. But the breaking point is “Barricade.” As much as it sounds like Campbell’s audition song for a role in Les Miserables (and I’m not the first one to make that comparison), it does tug a certain heartstring for anyone who ever fell for a fiery Marxist in their university days; perhaps the main reason I’m allergic to this song now is that it’s near-impossible to put myself in that place again. But for what it’s worth, Campbell does paint a vivid portrait.

Maybe this is why--other than subjective musical reasons--he makes so many critics uncomfortable: because he reminds us not only of the teenage romantic that we once were (or perhaps never let ourselves be), but also of the cocky self-importance of that age. Campbell never stopped believing in the idealism of his youth—which makes him an all-too-obvious target for cynics (read: most critics) everywhere.

The chances: Slim, primarily because of tall poppy syndrome: of the three acts on this list with mainstream presence, Stars likely have the highest commercial profile. They’ve also openly played the “it’s nice just to be nominated” card in the press and are themselves rooting for underdogs. Most importantly, Stars are incredibly divisive, and it’s unlikely that there will be any fence-sitters who could suddenly be turned around in the jury room.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Corb Lund – Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! (Stony Plain).

The album: That this missed the final cut is the single biggest shocker of this whole process to me. Not only is Lund perhaps the finest storyteller songwriter working in Canada today—with a strong sense of melody to match his lyrical prowess—but he also has wide appeal beyond the usual country music contingent. I elaborate, as does he, here.

Why it struck out: No idea. It’s a crime. At least the Canadian Country Music Association knows one thing that Polaris jurors don’t: they just named Lund roots artist of the year.

Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Sempirini)

The album:
Pas Chic Chic are a band that could only come from Montreal, combining a deep love of 60s French pop romanticism with noisy 90s overtones and textures that are employed judiciously and never as a gimmick or unnecessary intrusion. Singer Roger Tellier-Craig was a guitarist in Fly Pan Am for ten years, who were actually my least favourite Constellation band; he also was in Godspeed briefly. But knowing that didn’t prepare me for what a gift he has for pop melodies, nor for the fact that he embraces the lead vocalist role with flair here. Co-vocalist and keyboardist Marie-Douce St. Jacques ups the fey factor with girlish vocals, but a hard-driving rhythm section (including bassist Eric Gingras of Fly Pan Am and Ghislain Poirier) packs a punch into every track.

The songs are sophisticated pop that is sometimes best told with acoustic guitars and synth-y strings, sometimes with swarms of electric guitars and white noise. High drama permeates the entire record, but never to the point of pomposity.

Other readymade reference points are brought to you by the letter S: Stereloab, Sonic Youth, Smiths, Serge Gainsbourg. Maybe some Morricone thrown in there as well, for some of the spookier passages. But all those are merely elements of the greater whole. Even if this wasn’t such an awesome album, Pas Chic Chic would have won me over for originality alone. The songwriting and the performance both match the compelling aesthetic.

Why it struck out: It’s easy to say that it’s because they’re a Francophone act with limited distribution—though that didn’t stop Malajube in 2006. They garnered enough love from Quebecois critics to land on the long list; I suspect not enough of the rest of the country sought it out in time. Or maybe they just thought it sucked.


T said...

Michael - totally agree about Corb Lund not getting into the final date if not the winner's circle.

(sorry, trying to use the appropriate Horsey type lingo)

generally - thanks for keeping the Blog up. I've gotten a ton of both info and tips from this thing you do.

Anonymous said...

Part of this is because Torquil Campbell is cockily convinced that he’s doing it all for the kids—and anyone who isn’t making pop music for lonely teenage romantics should go into another profession.

And some of us are convinced that he is correct on both points...

Matt said...

Nice to see someone championing Pas Chic Chic. The Pitchfork review pissed me off when I first read it - the "reviewer" obviously has some sort of axe to grind.

Let's hope they get more attention in English Canada (which is sorely lacking).