Friday, September 26, 2008

Polaris: Two Hours Traffic, Weakerthans

Final pre-Polaris post today. The prize winner will be announced on Monday night.

The nominees:

Two Hours Traffic – Little Jabs (Bumstead).

The album: Little Jabs is a decent pop rock record with tasteful arrangements, but while there’s little to criticize, there’s precious little to celebrate either. Pleasant, but entirely innocuous. Admittedly, my musical taste these days means I’m less impressed these days with anything featuring four boys playing two guitars, bass and drums, unless the songwriting is truly outstanding or something else separates them from the crowd (hello, Weakerthans). “Oooh-hoo, you got a fiery soul,” goes one song. If only these boys did. No blood was spilled during the recording of this album.

The chances: Surprisingly strong, with bonus points for coming from Canada’s smallest province. Even though the judges aren’t supposed to think about such matters as underdogs, precedents and geography, this is a) obscure in its profile, and b) totally mainstream in its orientation. Picking this band would silence some of the anti-Polaris charges that the jury is a bunch of latte-sipping, sushi-eating Prius drivers who only listen to musicians with classical training (Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson, in case you’ve forgotten). Two Hours Traffic are the red meat choice, but giving them the prize would be like ordering a hamburger at a three-star restaurant. Maybe a Holy Fuck/ Two Hours Traffic showdown in the jury room will presage our federal election results.

Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti).

The album: The Weakerthans are one of the Great Canadian Rock Bands of the last decade, in part because they don’t bother to put out an album unless they can stand behind every note. If that takes three or four years, so be it. We don’t rush our novelists; we shouldn’t rush a songwriter like John K. Samson--and he’s never written more like a novelist than he has here, creating poetic portraiture and consciously writing outside of his own experiences.

In “Civil Twilight,” the main character and his daily routine—as well as his dashed romantic hopes and dreams—are all illustrated in depth and deep visual detail, in a way that doesn’t at all feel like it’s being shoehorned into a three-minute pop song. I don’t care if it sounds like at least five other Weakerthans songs, with its textbook dynamics, arrangements and similar melodic motifs. Taken on its own, “Civil Twilight” a distillation of everything this band does so well and is doing even better now, at this stage in its career.

Fans still hold up 2000’s Left and Leaving as the Weakerthans’ masterpiece, and though that holds a dear place in my heart, it’s now more nostalgic for me than anything, a faded photograph of a man I once was. Maybe it’s once again reflective of where I am in life, but Reunion Tour is a much better—and yes, mature—album.

The changes to their signature sound are subtle (harmonies, new textures) yet extremely effective. The one black sheep of the bunch is “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” which I heard one critic decry as “banjo-driven free jazz goalie poetry”—yet it works, and shows the Weakerthans are more than capable of straying from the CanRock formulas they sometimes seem stuck in. Returning producer Ian Blurton knows how to coax the best out of this band, and Reunion Tour is the kind of record that makes me fall in love with rock’n’roll guitars all over again, without resorting to lunkhead retro riffing.

There are too many key lyrics to quote and analyze here—like all of “Civil Twilight,” for example—but I’ll stick with this one for entirely personal reasons, from “Relative Surplus Value”: “The pause feels like an extra year of high school.” That’s the one I keep coming back to--as someone who actually did do an extra year of high school, and with my own reunions of various sorts on my mind this year.

I had the immense pleasure of diving deep into Reunion Tour with Samson several months before the album’s release, in what was my favourite interview of 2007. It is here.

The chances: Fair to good. Being the oldest act on this list, it’s very easy to take the Weakerthans for granted. Though there is a lot of love for this band, reaction to this album in the press was mixed; many didn’t hear any evolution and decried it as more of the same. When it comes to the politics of the prize—which will hopefuly be kept out of the jury room—it will also be hard to ignore the fact that the band just won $25,000 by snapping the XM Verge Artist of the Year award a mere five days before Polaris night. If that wasn’t enough, John K. Samson keeps winning those CBC Canada Reads competitions. But in terms of an album that’s artistically sound on every level and that will easily stand the test of time, this could well be the choice. I’m reconsidering what I said earlier about Caribou; this would likely be my vote.

Two more should’ve beens from my ballots:

Ghislain Poirier – No Ground Under (Ninja Tune)

The album: This wasn’t on my initial ballot, but when some of my picks didn’t even make the long list (Forest City Lovers, D’Urbervilles, David Buchbinder) I went back and gave this another listen. I was a huge fan of Poirier’s 2005 album Breakupdown; it took me a little longer to embrace this one fully.

No Ground Under boasts huge beats, catchy hooks, and a healthy balance of the abstract and the club bangers, with some calypso mixed in with the Baltimore bass. And unlike most dancefloor doctors, he's not afraid to drop some politics in the mix (nothing terribly deep, mind you, but it's refreshing). MCs include Toronto's Abdominal, Quebec's Omnikrom and some exciting new finds (Chicago's Zulu, on album highlight “Go Ballistic”), but, as on Breakupdown, the instrumentals more than hold their own and provide a nice counterpoint to the more pop-oriented tracks.

And that's just the music. Politically speaking, this is the type of artist I'd love to see celebrated by the Polaris Prize: Poirier employs MCs from both linguistic solitudes; he has a global outlook in both his influences and his collaborators; he's had a slow, strong evolution as an artist; he pushes the boundaries of his genre; he's a cross-pollinating community-builder (what’s that?) in his hometown.

Why it struck out: It’s too Montreal. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti). Lo and behold, one of my should’ve beens actually was.

Good luck to the jury members:
Mike Bell - Calgary Herald (Calgary)
Denise Benson - Eye Weekly (Toronto)
Evelyn Côté - Ici (Montréal)
Lana Gay - CBC Radio 3 (Vancouver)
Kevin Kelley - Newfoundland Herald (St. John's)
Joshua Ostroff - AOL Canada (Toronto)
James Stewart Reaney - London Free Press (London)
Li Robbins - CBC Radio/Globe And Mail (Toronto)
Hannah Simone - MuchMusic (Toronto)
Darryl Sterdan - Winnipeg Sun (Winnipeg)
Frank Yang - Chromewaves (Toronto)

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