Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Post-Polaris sober second thought

Two days after the Polaris gala, Helen Spitzer and I are sober, well-slept and somewhat more coherent than yesterday. Today, we get down to weightier issues than just our musical crushes.

HS: Yesterday we didn’t really get to talking about what this win says about the prize itself. In the last year there was sustained hand-wringing about the shortlist being so “safe,” and then outside of our community of critics and musicians and music lovers, a public perception that Polaris is the “indie prize.”

MB: This was the first year since the inaugural prize that the choice of winner doubles as a political statement. Hopefully that’s not at all part of the discussions in the jury room, which is where you were that first year. But Final Fantasy was a brilliant way to introduce the awards: a relatively obscure, boundary-breaking artist on a micro-indie label topping a diverse shortlist of mainstream and oddball nominees.

HS: Jury deliberations are under a publication ban, but I can say this: there was a groundswell of support for Final Fantasy in the jury room Year One, and his champions came from the unlikeliest places. It’s easy to forget, when you read weeklies or blogs and get used to a particular critic’s beat, that hardcore music lovers (I’m not referring to the genre here) have catholic tastes, and those tastes will typically be far wider-ranging than what they’re paid to write about. And agreed that politics doesn’t belong in the jury room: Jury headmistress Liisa Ladouceur takes great pains to remind people of that.

MB: But we were outside it this year, so I feel free to comment on what this year’s winner means politically. First off, to all the people who think Polaris is some kind of safe, milquetoast award: shut the fuck up. Say what you will about the first three winners, but I don’t think any of them are “safe” or remotely mainstream. The names Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson and Caribou are guaranteed to draw blank expressions at your next family reunion, or in a random straw poll at the shopping mall.

But for the self-righteous contrarians of our ilk, they couldn’t have asked for a better winner than Fucked Up. And not just because of the juvenile reason that the band’s name still raises eyebrows, but because even a show like CBC’s Q won’t play more than 30 seconds of their music; if I’m not mistaken, CBC Radio 3 has only one of their songs on its playlist. Needless to say, they’re nowhere near commercial radio. This is a band that the CanCon mafia—you know, the patronizing kind that insist art has to play to some imaginary archetypical listener in small-town Saskatchewan (which underestimates small-town dwellers everywhere)—is absolutely terrified of. And so on that level, Fucked Up’s win will gain the respect of Polaris’s crankiest critics.

HS: An aside: last night I was with a small-town Saskatchewan geek who has the adventurous tastes we’ve been describing and probably should be at the CBC. And they’d never hire her. (Or they might, and promptly beat her into submission). Your rant brings a tender smile to my face, Mr. Barclay, because we are tasked with the impossible: to justify to our people that there are all kinds of machinations and late-night sweating over ballots to produce a list eventually branded as “safe”— and simultaneously convince the broader public that anything they haven’t heard on the radio before isn’t automatically indie rock.

MB: Which brings us to the other side. Fucked Up’s win will not help the broader ghettoization of Polaris as an indie rock prize. Indie rock fans may be all in a flutter about what a breakthrough this is for hardcore punk, but the other 95% of the population will see Fucked Up as just another subset of indie rock. Fucked Up’s win—apart from the so-called “controversial” nature of it in a five-minute news cycle—will be largely akin to that obscure MC on Big Dada Records that just won the Mercury Prize in the UK, whose name I already don’t remember. So after the congratulatory back-patting is over about what a bold choice Fucked Up was, I fear that the win will largely be forgotten by the larger populace.

HS: Quick! We must revel in the moment before it subsides! In all seriousness, what you say is so very true (great heaving sigh) and it would normally make me wonder why I bother. But I’m an eternal optimist: I know that Polaris will endure because it was born at the right moment, and it was born of the right stuff.

Think about it: Steve Jordan launched this thing at the very moment that everyone was proclaiming the Death of the Album. And not only has it proven—after four short years—that this is not the case, it has actually captured the imagination of the music-buying public in Canada and become something they care and argue passionately about. I think the fact that there was so much criticism about Polaris—from both directions that we’ve described—bodes very well for the prize. And this passion seeped into the whole event. Musician (and friend) Julie Penneranother optimist—was watching this thing on her computer Monday and she said it was very evident that we (the dirty Polaris underground) were taking over the MuchMusic/MTV party, and not the other way round.

MB: Perhaps. I don’t know what your evidence is, and I’m not clear at all how to gauge whether the Prize has “captured the imagination of the music-buying public in Canada.” I suspect it hasn’t—and I don’t think that’s the ultimate goal anyway.

HS: Right, I meant to say independent music-buying public.

MB: So while cynics start rolling their eyes at the phrase “it’s about the art and nothing else,” this is what I believe Polaris’s goal actually is. I do want to clarify something I said earlier about telling cynics to shut the fuck up. I was being only partially facetious, because I do want those people in this conversation. I want them involved and to champion their corners of the world. As a curious music fan, I want to know what excites them and why.

If we all pull up our stakes and go home—or, in the case of the Junos, create such a huge tent of sub-categories that it becomes entirely meaningless—then there will be no shared conversation. There are 1,001 reasons why narrowcasting of every stripe poisons the creative mind. And my stupid, naïve belief is that something like Polaris creates conversations around Canadian music culture that were in bad need of a central focus point five years ago.

HS: Your stupid, naïve beliefs are why we love you. This week actually affirms my resolve to argue more passionately in the coming year. And also to poke/provoke into action some incredibly astute but heretofore silent members of the jury who really should be piping up more on the Polaris listserv, which all jurors belong to.

Speaking of curious music fans, I’ve said this before elsewhere but I think that Del Cowie (longtime Canadian hip-hop writer) best exemplifies what jurors should aspire to: his ballot had Bell Orchestre, an instrumental “classical-rock” band AND D-Sisive AND Junior Boys AND K-os (who is as rock as he is hip hop) AND K’naan. Motherfucker went and spent the year really, really listening to everything that the other jurors uploaded.

David Dacks is another; our tastes don’t cross over much except in the realm of world music and weirdo jazz, and he goes way deeper than either of us, or anyone else we know. And yet he can talk to us about the Timber Timbre record we’re shitting ourselves over.

MB: And those two guys keep coming back to Polaris, even though they’re lucky if one “token” act from their ballots—or even their areas of interest—make the shortlist. The listserv has been very good in provoking year-long discussion, and the fact that all jurors have download access to albums championed by another juror means that obscure records with no promotional budget have a better shot at reaching critics across the country.

But it’s also prone to some sniping and endless brain farts, which I think turns a lot of people off and tunes them out of any potentially productive conversation. But whatever—that’s of no concern to any non-juror reading this, I suppose. You and I are just the navel-gazing liberal media elite sitting in our kitchen geeking out to the new album by The Clean.

HS: The intro of The Clean song playing right now is totally Payola$. I’m putting “Eyes of a Stranger” on next.

MB: Back to this year’s winner again, though. While I don’t at all support the music on Chemistry of Common Life—I wish I found it as dangerous, liberating and progressive as everyone keeps telling me it is, instead of muddy and monotonous—I do love what Fucked Up have done with their moment in the spotlight so far. This band has always been about creating and celebrating community, not just in Toronto but far and wide, and they’re the type of tide that lifts many boats. Projects like their marathon shows or their star-studded Christmas charity projects are awesome. They’ve used their media moment to highlight awareness of missing Aboriginal women in Canada, not a particularly glamorous subject that people want to be pondering in a media scrum at an awards ceremony.

At every turn, they’ve acted like ambassadors, representing their community, their political beliefs, and when they travel abroad, a side of their nation’s culture that most people here don’t even see. (See their great morning-after interview on Q here.) They’re not angry bun-throwers crashing some cultural cocktail party. They’re interested in raising the level of discourse as much as the rest of us. All of this makes me want to love this band, but I’m not going to lie about disliking their album any less than I did last week.

HS: Because they’re punk rock! They used their moment in the sun to show the rest of the country what punk is outside of the mall. You’ve mentioned raising the level of discourse and it makes me think of two things. One is that the lifers in this business have much to teach the quick-to-the-keyboard newbies (I’m delighted, for example, that one of our Canadian music crit heroes Mary Dickie was on the jury this year. And Nicholas Jennings).

The second thing I’m thinking a lot about is the state of music criticism. Never has there been a time when so many people aspire to such an ignoble profession, and never have there been so few paying gigs. Who was telling me that there is one full-time newspaper music journo left? (This about the larger newspaper/culture-writing problem: there’s only full-time book critic in this country, Geoff Pevere). When I looked around that room Monday night I couldn’t help thinking how few writers have paying jobs writing about music anymore.

MB: The irony of this is that you’re writing on a blog right now. Why pay someone when they’re going to do it anyway for free, and an aggregator can just make a link? Call Rupert Murdoch and kvetch. But speaking of links, I would like to shout-out Frank Yang of Chromewaves (and grand jury member last year) who I thought had the best morning-after coverage—and amazing pictures. I also love Connie Tsang's much-reproduced one of Pink Eyes and Grant Lawrence making out while Sarah Taylor appears to be either scandalized or serenading them.

HS: There’s a “video killed the radio star” style pop song to be written on the subject of blogs killing dead-trees. And I disagree with you about the "doin'-it-for-free" part: it's just one symptom of a larger sickness. The blame for the death of print lies squarely at the feet of newspaper owners culling the very things people look to them for (investigative reporting, foreign correspondence, seasoned columnists) in favour of running old news and celebrity coverage. Maybe the Payola$ could write this song I have in mind. Didn’t I hear you in heavy discussion with another critic about the perilous existence of the Vancouver dailies?

MB: The Payola$ are back together, by the way. Myself and Stuart Derdeyn of the Vancouver Province, who was on the grand jury, launched an ill-advised conversation in a scotch-filled room at four in the morning (three hours before his flight home) about how if CanWest folded tomorrow (which has been likely for the last six months) there would be no daily paper in Vancouver anymore, coz they own both the Province and the Sun.

But then as now, that’s a whole other conversation. And speaking of other conversations about Canada, democratic processes, and the future of media, I’m sure I’ll see many of our readers at the Maclean’s-sponsored debate tonight between Ed Broadbent, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells. Right? Right? We’re going, and not because anyone at my day job put a gun to my head.

HS: I am atwitter with excitement at the prospect of talking Canadian democracy (voter indifference! mindless partisanship!) and I use that world in the old-school sense. It’s at 7PM! Tonight! At St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street—a mere whisper away from C’est What! Come talk Canadian rock and roll and democracy afterwards.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Post-Polaris hangover, 2009 Edition

Continuing our interrupted not-very-traditional annual post-Polaris kvetching, I turn this post over to the lovely lady Helen Spitzer as we discuss the gala of the night before, which brought many of Canada's finest musicians and professional music fans together. Over to you, Miss Spitz:

’Tis the morning after Polaris Music Prize gala chez Barclay/Spitzer. I should note that we got home well after the morning paper had arrived, and neither of us have a voice to speak with. An impossibly optimistic idea of set-times meant that the gala went on longer than anticipated, which led to the after-party starting very close to last-call, which necessitated an after-after party in a hotel room crammed with rock critics and Patrick Watson and well, you understand my drift. [MB: The after-after-after party consisted of us downing 4L of water each before going to bed.] I'll avoid any less than savoury 30Rock jokes and get to the rock talk.

HS: Don’t you think we’re in remarkably better shape than the last time we did this? For example, this year I am able to eat your incredible breakfast!

MB: No barfy-barf? Jon Bartlett will be so disappointed. Although I almost lost it last night in Steve Jordan’s hotel room with the smell of those open scotch bottles floating around Patrick Watson, Ken Beattie, Brendan Murphy and Ben Rayner.

HS: What's with the babytalk! For the record, I only saw you drink one scotch.

MB: One sip, actually. I poured the rest into Beattie's glass.

HS: I should inform the listeners at home that Mr. Barclay has just put on one of those new-fangled “vinyls” and we are now considering our fate in “being barred from the Temple.” (Thank you Destroyer for giving old rock critics a reason to live.) This was my first twitter of the day yesterday and I was sad that no one got it. But I am pleased that Fucked Up weren’t barred from the Masonic Temple last night, where the Polaris gala was held; I found out only this morning about their security troubles.

MB: Really? Because they mentioned that in their acceptance speech about being frisked every five minutes.

HS: I thought it was hardcore hyperbole.

MB: Patrick Watson and Malajube were almost barred for starting a food fight. It was quite hilarious, as my Quebecois colleague sitting beside me sighed and the TV cameras stayed glued on co-host Grant Lawrence, who was more than prepared to start his sportscasting career with some colourful play-by-play.

HS: I am looking forward to Grant’s sportscasting career. The flying cups et al looked absolutely incredible from above. It was as if the made-for-television barricades fell away at that particular moment. The perimeter was breached and the room erupted in joy. Juvenilia aside (is that even the right word?) it was just exquisite, visually. The shambly rock and roll equivalent of a Busby Berkeley dance sequence.

MB: I was sad that there was only a threat of a thrown chair, with no follow-through.

HS: Oh, Grant’s face at that moment. His deadpan is underappreciated. We should start at the beginning, though. Since there is no getting around the fact we are a hundred years old, how did it feel to have Polaris in the Venue Formerly Known as The Concert Hall?

MB: If I was 100 years old, I’d remember it when it was the Rockpile. [For the record, I don't.] I had so many great memories in that room, from my teenage Toronto: Midnight Oil, Fishbone, Beastie Boys, Pogues, Billy Bragg with Michelle Shocked and Michael Franti (I think you were there as well), and later some great Exclaim parties (including one with Joel Plaskett’s Thrush Hermit). I hadn’t set foot in there since CTV took it over. I don’t know if it’s to the venue’s credit or the evolution of the prize, but the room felt really comfortable—in spite of the studio-like environs—and the crowd was far less staid and shackled by Canadian restraint (see: food fight). Even though lots of people seemed ho-hum about the short list when it was announced, there was real joy and excitement in the room—perhaps in part because the contest seemed wide open, and everybody there thought someone different would win. Myself, I had Fucked Up in the “slim chance” category—shows you what I know.

HS: I think it was Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg, an incredible double bill “back in the day” - and at another time, Billy Bragg and the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprosy (Franti’s band). Two gigs. I also recall going to early Exclaim! parties there – long before I wrote for them or even was their papergirl. And also my last Tragically Hip show before a 17-year intermission. I loved the room! When I got there, people on the second floor were visibly agitated by being told where to stand and where to walk. I do feel for the steadicam operators by the way. Eventually the staff and security just gave in to the general anarchy. It was the rock and roll spirit.

MB: Which brings us to Fucked Up. Your thoughts?

HS: Loved it! Their show was hugely entertaining. I’m glad we had a moment last night where there was that huge transformative power that music has, where the people on stage went apeshit and everyone in the audience was swept along with them. The only other time I felt that unified giddiness and joy and abandon was with K’naan, though it was quite another vibe. K’naan -> international superstar-in-waiting, by the way. I thought my heart might burst. Really felt it in the ol’ ribcage for both of those performances.

MB: What made Fucked Up’s performance for me was actually the guests. Kat and Justin from Lullabye Arkestra shrieked their essential parts on the chorus of “Son the Father” (the only track the band had time to play—no matter, as it’s their best song and they certainly made the most of it), and Owen Pallett started the song with distorted violin loops. I loved all five minutes of their performance, but I also felt like that’s all I needed to see. I feel the same way about the record as well. As an album I don’t feel it deserves the prize, but you can’t knock the band’s attitude and hard work and how much they mean to a lot of people, and how important this win is for a community long ignored by any institutions in this country. On a different note, I was relieved that Pink Eyes didn’t go totally starkers.

HS: I couldn’t make out who was onstage from where I was upstairs, but I heard this incredible sound and then I looked down and recognized Owen by the way his hair was swinging and he was just—forgive the expression—giv’n ’er (spelling?), and it just broke open any confusion I’d had previously about how to understand Fucked Up’s music. That’s one of the great things about the band, something that the believers point out and can’t be apprehended from the album alone: they reach out and they bring in locals wherever they go and it’s how they built their audience, one audience at a time. But I think I’d have to actually go back and listen to that album again; I just don’t think I had the tools to approach that music before seeing them last night. I know enough people out there whose critical opinions I respect who love it. And this happened for me with Kathleen Edwards last year: It took a whole year for me to get what was so powerful about that album—I got it on an aesthetic level—but it took a year to get hold of my soul.

MB: People had that same reaction to K’naan; I talked to a couple of people who knew very little about him before (insert conspiracy theory about hip-hop’s invisible role in Canadian culture) but who were totally taken with his performance. And I thought he didn’t even perform his best songs. I have to say that I was also impressed that his blue scarf matched not only his shoes, but the electric guitar in his band. I got a chance to compliment him on this. “Thanks, man, I’m really glad you noticed that.”

HS: I like that guy a lot. I remember the first year (when I was on the final jury; K’naan’s first album was nominated) he just had such incredible poise at the meet & greet with the jury before. He was so Ready. Like really, truly ready to be a star and not in a presumptuous or pompous way: just that he takes this shit seriously. This is what he’s going to do, and he’s just very patiently waiting for Canada to wake up and notice.

MB: Okay, my morning’s about to run out and I have to drag myself to work. Surprises? For me it was how smooth the show ran—I had great fear after witnessing some of the four-and-a-half-hour rehearsal in the afternoon—and there were some truly amazing performances. Patrick Watson wandering through the crowd with his traveling Christmas tree of megaphones (and Jian Ghomeshi on percussion) stole the show, I thought; if anyone was still baffled by his win two years ago, they couldn’t deny that this is an incredibly creative and interesting band. I was also impressed by Elliott Brood; in part because Amanda Putz’s eloquent introduction will make me reconsider them, and in part because they were really alive to the spirit in the room.

HS: My other heavy moment, besides Joel Plaskett walking onstage with his dad, was watching Malajube. They are so damn good! I was standing I think next to Carl Wilson and we were both marveling and he said something to the effect that if those songs were in English they’d be the biggest band in Canada. Not that I want them to start singing in English, not at all. I just want them to be bigger (as soon as I’m upright, I’m doing my part and going to the record store to buy Malajube on vinyl). Oh, and I also loved that the punchlines to all of Evelyn Cote’s jokes were delivered in French. That is one classy lady.

MB: She is a class act; I was lucky to sit beside her at the presenters’ table. I also finally met Rob Bowman (who introduced Patrick Watson); he’s a real mensch and a great raconteur. I thought Malajube were okay. I loved Plaskett’s open-tuned guitar solo; I think the K’naan table did too, because they all perked up when that happened. How was the night in fashion for you?

HS: I will not mince words; I’m very gratified that my exhortations to the boys to "wear ties, goddammit" had a visible effect. Did you see Colin Medley! He’s really quite handsome.

MB: You sound surprised!

HS: Not at all, I’m just over indie kid fashion. I’m a grown woman, after all. Rebecca Webster was rocking an off-the-shoulder situation and was bringing the hot with a double-T. Jill Barber was surprisingly gritty-glam rock and roll, good sequins. But, be still my heart – I wanted to take Caitlin Veitch and Sofi Papamarko and put one in each pocket and go home. They really are the two hottest women in Toronto. Honestly, everyone looked so good this year it’s hard to single them out. My work is done.

MB: K’naan was definitely the most dapper. Tony Dekker, sharp dressed man. Worst dressed? That’s easy: Pink Eyes. Dude, we all knew you were going to strip down to your underwear. Why not invest in some lingerie for the occasion?

HS: Do men wear lingerie?

MB: Prince would. Every awards ceremony needs a bit of Purple Rain.

HS: I am enjoying that fact that I’m talking about the hot ladies and you’re all about the dapper gents. Oh! Actually, do you know who looked fabulous—Josh Ostroff and his new hat! He said he bought it, fearing retribution from yours truly. But the urbane Andy Capp situation really works for new papa Ostroff. But back to the music. Metric: woof.

MB: As a surprised, recent convert to Metric, I thought they were fine. It was definitely a low-key beginning to the evening. Best speech of the evening: Patrick Watson, K’naan, Pink Eyes, all of whom articulated the occasion wonderfully in their own way. And Chad Van Gaalen's acceptance was brilliantly loopy.

HS: Speaking of nice articulation, splendid job on the Chad VanGaalen intro there, Barclay. I know I’m not an objective third party by any means, but you really raised the bar. Good on ya.

MB: Thanks, babe. I enjoyed Chad following up my heartfelt introduction by declaring, “Okay, I’m just going to call bullshit on that.” I also think veteran host Grant Lawrence and newbie VJ Sarah Taylor were a surprisingly successful oil-and-water combo; Grant always performs better with a foil. I loved his crack: “I look old enough to be your dad and small enough to be your baby.” Her heels were kind of out of control.

HS: She met Grant beforehand, right? That was unnecessary.

MB: But, as we’re sitting here typing to Bob Wiseman sing “We Got Time” and the line about the boss asking, “why you so late?” I’m realizing that I really have to haul ass to work. I’m also realizing how much this album meant to me 20 years ago, and I’m glad it got some attention with the recent Blocks re-release. Is there some kind of retroactive Polaris hall of fame award?

HS: We should let the listeners know that the 1989 Polaris-winning album In Her Dream by Bob Wiseman is now available, with bonus tracks, from finer record stores everywhere! And Barclay is now standing, hat in hand, by the door asking “where are my shoes?”

(more, possibly, to come)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Polaris 09: Joel Plaskett, Chad Van Gaalen

Final day of pre-Polaris pondering, after days one, two, three, four (cue the Feist).

The more time I've spent with the shortlist this past week, the more I think that the harshest critics of the prize have little to complain about. Yes, I would like to see more artists beyond the CBC Radio 3 playlist on the list. Yes, there are concerns about repeat nominees squeezing out more deserving artists.

But you want to talk about diversity? K’naan, Fucked Up and Great Lake Swimmers are up for the same award, and all things considered, have an equal shot at it. Unlike every other trend in media, this prize is not about confining artists to genre ghettoes.

Predictable? I was shocked to see Elliott Brood, Hey Rosetta and Malajube on the list.

Too mainstream? By my estimation, only four of these artists even have major label distribution; only one of those is signed directly to a major.

Too many repeat offenders? Yes, but should artists who grow and improve over the course of their career be somehow punished for that?

I've been as excited about the state of Canadian music in the last two years as I ever have been—and most of my favourites aren't even particularly popular, which means that there's a wealth of artists doing incredibly well and/or creating inspiring work. And though Polaris may not capture all of that, it—and the healthy discussion around it—gives us plenty of reasons to celebrate.

And so with that, here are the final two nominees and the final two could've beens.

Joel Plaskett – Three (Maple)

The album: Joel Plaskett definitely deserves credit for releasing three discs of nine (3x3) songs each, many containing three repeated words in the title, most of them clocking in at the three-minute mark, to mark his 33rd birthday. And of course, it’s also available as a triple vinyl set that you can play at 33 1/3 RPM.

But do the songs here supersede the concept? Barely.

On his worst days, Plaskett is a better songwriter than most of the competition in this country; even a goof-off like the Bontempi boogie of “Wishful Thinking” works somehow. And many of his production choices are inspired, especially the use of two female backing vocalists as foils. He also explicitly embraces his Maritime roots here in ways he never has before; with the amount of CBC airplay he gets, the tin whistles were bound to emerge eventually.

With a project of this scope, however, his flaws are in plain view: repeated motifs, tossed-off lyrics, and couplets that are more crime than rhyme. (“You be April Stevens/ I’ll be April Wine/ You be Israel/ I’ll be Palestine”—is that even supposed to mean anything, or is it actually the most heinous mixed-beyond-belief metaphor in the history of pop music?)

69 Love Songs it ain’t.

The chances: Moderate. Plaskett is beloved (outside of Quebec, anyway, where he mystifies critics). He might get marks for audacity and a life achievement award. But any juror who listens to all three discs intently will surely be hard pressed to reward Three as a consistently strong effort.

Older interview here, regarding his last Polaris-nominated album.

Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye)

The album: Full marks. Even its flaws are fascinating.

The chances: Excellent.

The could've beens:

Timber Timbre – s/t (Out of This Spark)

The album: Okay, I’ll confess that I’m a bit blurbed out at this point in the process (see above), so this is what I wrote in January when this was released:

Timber Timbre’s Taylor Kirk seeks out the spookiest side of blues music by recording in remote barns and filming Blair Witch-style videos. For his second album, he steps several steps closer to the sunshine and into a proper recording studio. Although by bringing everything into a clearer focus, Kirk has only become even creepier. The organs, autoharps, plunky quarter-note pianos and minimal percussion only enhance the hushed yet tense electric guitars.

One isn't sure whether or not to take comfort in his swoony vocals, which are drenched in reverb and could easily soundtrack a David Lynch film—specifically Blue Velvet, where one can picture Dean Stockwell singing along. Lonely violins and occasional angelic backing vocals make this a perfect accompaniment to the "late night basement séance" he sings of.

Addendum: As I discovered this summer, there is no better soundtrack when you’re driving through a blinding rainstorm late at night on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Why it struck out: Contrary to what everyone west of Windsor may think, the love of Toronto critics alone cannot catapult an artist onto the Polaris shortlist. And this didn’t start to gain serious traction in the rest of the country until Arts and Crafts picked it up for distribution.

Older interview here.

The Tragically Hip – We Are the Same (Universal)

The album: Nearly 25 years into a career, no one expects a game-changer.

When you rocket to fame the way The Tragically Hip did 20 years ago, it’s easy to get cocky, and even lazy. They began as a tightly wound garage band that went straight for the jugular every time. As they started to relax, they began to see the beauty in just letting things happen without such force. By 1994, Day for Night’s most compelling moments were in the ominous tension where an static groove threatened to explode (“Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster,” “So Hard Done By”).

However, after that (and even on half of Day for Night) it became clear that they needed someone, or something, to kick their ass. Phantom Power (1999) promised to be a comeback; instead, it now appears as a last burst of creativity that had to tide us over for the next 10 years.

Producer Bob Rock showed up for 2007’s World Container, but the fruits of their relationship didn’t truly blossom until now. We Are the Same sounds like the work of an entirely new band, one that is focused and creatively fertile. The pop songs are peppy and concise (“Coffee Girl”), the rock songs are anthemic (“Love is a First”), the acoustic numbers are gorgeous (“Morning Moon”) and the ambitious epic sounds seamless (“The Depression Suite”).

All the mid-tempo songs in between show a band that’s quite comfortable sounding its age. Keyboards and strings are everywhere; an opera singer even shows up at one point. The band’s two weakest musical links, guitarist Rob Baker and drummer Johnny Fay, are yanked out of their ruts and give powerhouse performances. Gord Downie is on top of his game, not just lyrically (to be expected), but melodically and vocally as well.

And live? The show I saw this spring was the most inspiring—and inspired—I’d seen them in 15 years.

This isn’t just an old fair-weather fan talking: I know of two people very close to me who didn’t have the time of day for this band beforehand, but have fallen head over heels for this album: fully, completely.

Why it struck out: The Tragically Hip are viewed as a dinosaur act now; few critics bother giving them a fair listen anymore. Maybe the lame album title had something to do with it. Maybe a 25-year-old mainstream rock band is yesterday’s news. As the Polaris Prize ages, it will be curious to see if there’s any kind of Logan’s Run rule in effect: will the Weakerthans, Chad Van Gaalen, the New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene still be seriously considered by Polaris juries 20 years from now?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Polaris 09: Metric, Patrick Watson

Day four of pre-Polaris pondering, following days one, two and three.

Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang)

The album:
Metric are every indie snob’s favourite whipping post, and Fantasies’ nomination was one of the most contentious topics of this year’s pre-Polaris discussion.
But don’t hate them because they’re popular, or because you—and everyone else—have trouble navigating their indier-than-thou talk versus their careerism. Instead, give Fantasies a fair shake—you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

I won’t mince words: I used to hate Metric, for musical reasons alone. I’d heard all the albums. I’d seen them live several times. I’d walk into situations where their music was playing, and not knowing what it was would ask, “What is this shit?” I recognized that Emily Haines was a compelling band leader, but couldn’t help but notice that most critics talked more about that than Metric’s actual music. It seemed to be all posture, no pop.

One listen to Fantasies caused a complete 180. From the opening track and lead-off single “Help I’m Alive,” it’s obvious that Metric has matured in leaps and bounds. Nothing feels forced, everything can breathe, and yet they’re not taking anything for granted: it still sounds like they’re going for the gold.

Every track—even a relentless rocker like “Gold Guns Girls”—has canyons of space for the melodies to soar over top. And what melodies they are! Who knows what Haines and James Shaw were up to during the three years they spent working on these songs, but it sounds like they spent most of it woodshedding until they were left with 10 untouchable tracks that make their peers Feist and Stars sound like atonal flounderers.

Sure, part of me would rather see the Polaris go to an underdog. But this band has worked their ass off through thick and thin and have made what is hands-down the best record of their career, and the best Canadian pop album of 2009 that wasn’t made by Handsome Furs.

A small part of me can’t believe I just said all that.

The chances: Strong. If this album could win me over, anything can happen. Unless the jury wants to punish success—and hey, this is Canada.

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (Secret City)

The album: There was some consternation when the nominees were announced about the number of repeat nominees from previous years. But here we have not only a previous nominee, but a previous Polaris winner, and one that I would argue has made a better album than the one they won for. Should that be held against them?

I’ve always thought the four guys who comprise Patrick Watson (the band, not the eponymous leader) were immensely talented, but on Closer to Paradise they seemed to be aiming to make bombastic pop music when they should really be scoring art films.

On Wooden Arms, they lean more toward the latter. Watson himself doesn’t feel he has to show off his astounding vocal instrument every time he opens his mouth; it’s simply another tool, along with those deflating balloons that Simon Angell somehow uses to coax bizarre sounds from his guitar.
With the exception of “Beijing” and “Big Bird in a Small Cage” (the latter is an unfortunate title that’s hard to mention without visualizing Sesame Street), the songwriting takes a back seat to mood and texture here. Which is not a problem with a band as in love with abstractions as this one is, but it means that much of Wooden Arms sounds merely inconsequential.

Even when listening alone in a room with no other distractions, it somehow becomes background music.

The chances: Who knows? No one expected them to win last time, either, did they?! This is first time a nominee will have the albatross of a previous win circling around the jury room. And a bird in the house means…

The could’ve-beens:

Snailhouse – Lies on the Prize (Unfamiliar)

The album: I remember seeing Mike Feuerstack play Snailhouse shows around the time he released his 2005 album The Silence Show. Every time he’d play a killer song, I’d heckle—hoping to help him sell some new CDs—“Is that on the new album?” And every time, he’d have to chuckle and say that no, in fact that’s an even newer one.

All those “newer ones” make Lies on the Prize the best album he’s ever been associated with—that includes four others as Snailhouse, and six with the Wooden Stars (and one of the latter was a collaboration with Julie Doiron; this trumps even that indie classic).

There was also no better singer/songwriter record released in Canada during the Polaris qualification period, which is why this landed at number one on my ballot.

Recorded with the able help of Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, there’s nothing particularly special about this album, other than the sheer strength of the songwriting and solid performances from Feuerstack’s enviable circle of regular collaborators. That doesn’t make for a flashy sales job, admittedly, nor does a previous review of mine that praised Feuerstack’s “mature voice where pessimism and harsh realism never surrender entirely to cynicism.”

But if you don’t believe me, ask all of Feuerstack’s (somewhat) famous fans and collaborators: Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, Constantines, Islands, The Acorn, Bruce Peninsula, Julie Doiron, Gordon Downie, Angela Desveaux.

Why it struck out: Mike Feuerstack is the nicest guy in the world. Mike Feuerstack is the humblest guy in the world. Mike Feuerstack has been around forever and put out plenty of records. Mike Feuerstack is a guy who is only hitting his stride in his late 30s. Ergo, Mike Feuerstack’s Snailhouse is not a media buzz band.

Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project
(Arts and Crafts)

The album: By recording his neighbours’ ruminations on happiness and setting it to music—literally, transposing the cadence of their speech into musical notes—Charles Spearin was inspired to create The Happiness Project, which turned out to be much more than a good NPR story: it’s an intriguing, imaginative and powerful piece of music.
It’s playful and poetic, it’s upbeat and jazzy and esoterically calming all at once. It’s sensual in the true sense of the word, and I know from first hand experience that it can brighten the darkest winter days when it seems like springtime will never come.

“Happiness is love,” says Mrs. Morris, in the opening track named after her. Both live and on record, The Happiness Project is love.

Why it struck out:
It could be Broken Social Scene fatigue, even though this is drastically different than the Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning albums released in the last 18 months. More likely, however, it could have been a split vote between this and Bell Orchestre among the art rock crowd (admittedly, this happened on my ballot—and then neither made the shortlist).

Tomorrow: Joel Plaskett, Chad Van Gaalen

Friday, September 18, 2009

Polaris 09: K'naan, Malajube

Day three of pre-Polaris pondering, following days one and two.

Weekend planning note for Torontonians: K'naan is playing the Phoenix tonight, Sept. 18; Chad Van Gaalen is at Church of the Redeemer tomorrow, Saturday Sept. 19.

The nominees:

K’naan – Troubadour (Sony)

The album: K’naan’s Polaris-nominated debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, was promising, but mostly relied on the novelty of this Somali-Canadian’s life experience and perspective informing his take on North American hip-hop. On Troubadour, however, there is no novelty: this is hardcore funk, hard-hitting hip-hop, and mainstream pop that seamlessly draws from his African influences in ways that no one else has ever managed to pull off. The production is top-notch, and the first four tracks (“T.I.A.,” “ABCs,” “Dreamer,” “I Come Prepared”) are staggering classics.

K’naan doesn’t believe in mincing words; he takes his craft seriously, and there’s nary a lazy line on the entire record. There are certainly cheesy moments—“Waving Flag,” “Fatima”—but even there, K’naan’s distinctive personality shines through. Never mind the small world that is Canada: K’naan is a worldwide original.

The chances: Strong—as long as the jury dismisses the tracks featuring Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, totally pointless cameos that make Troubadour’s two weakest tracks even worse. But such is the strength of everything else, that even those missteps are easy to overlook.

Malajube – Labyrinthes (Dare to Care)

The album: It’s an apt title for a work that contorts Francopop into a unique vision. Malajube’s grungy side is gone, but the genre-jumping of the debut remains, solidified into a prog-rock powerhouse of a band. Best examples: the bombastic, cinematic “Cristobald” (complete with demonic choir); the bizzaro bossa nova of “Dragon de Glace”; the breezy pop of “Porte Disparu”; the grand opening of “Ursuline,” which bears a slight resemblance to Sunset Rubdown, their Mile End neighbours.

Labyrinthes is more likely to hold up than the acclaimed, Polaris-nominated Trompe l’Oeil, which already sounds dated. But this still sounds like a band that is just a few short steps short of making their truly definitive statement. (I know, I said the same thing about Hey Rosetta yesterday, but Malajube are far less predictable—and therefore more promising.)

The chances: Miniscule. I don’t think I read a single Anglo jury member enthuse about this album—in print or anywhere else, with the lone exception of Lorraine Carpenter’s nice cover story for Exclaim—so this has as much of a chance of winning as Gilles Duceppe does of becoming prime minister.

The could’ve-beens:

Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop)

The album: So much to love. Dan Boeckner’s ragged rock’n’roll voice, always in control even at its most raw. Alexei Perry’s synths and drum machines alternating between primitive and pristine. Boeckner’s huge rock’n’roll riffs driving the electro beats. Continually catchy melodies that could just as easily work as folk songs, Springsteen rockers or disco anthems.

And, if that all wasn’t enough, the production is astounding: the guitars here balance rockabilly reverb with howling feedback, and the electronics are brilliantly arranged as the backbone of these rock songs, not just gimmicky retro signifiers.

“All we want, baby, is everything,” sings Boeckner—and that’s exactly what he and Perry deliver here. It’s hard to imagine 2009 sounding better than this.

Why it struck out: No idea. I swore this would be a shoo-in. So did many other observers.

Older interview here.

Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Universal)

The album: For the most part, I’ve all but given up on hip-hop, both mainstream and underground: lazy-ass lyrics and homogeneity being the main reasons. Which is why it’s so surprising to hear an artist like Kardinal pushing himself to do his best work this far into his career, and landing a Top 40 hit in the process (the ubiquitous 2008 summer single “Dangerous,” featuring Akon on the hook).

It was buoyed by a pop song (and featured several others, including Rihanna singing “The Tide is High” for the chorus of “Numba 1”), but Not 4 Sale is at its best when it merges dark electro grooves with Caribbean rhythms, a formula Kardinal pushes to the limit here. His lyrical dexterity is in full effect: he’s cocky, he’s clever, he’s coy, he’s conscious, and he’s “the product of a lot of questionable conduct” with countless one-liners that leap out from the consistently strong production.

There are only three duds here—one, no surprise, features T-Pain—but has there ever been a classic hip-hop album without a bit of fat?

Most importantly: the louder you play this album, the better it sounds.

Why it struck out: Having Akon help you land a huge hit single loses you cred with critics. I’d be shocked if most critics listened to the rest of this album—it didn’t even make the shortlist. Hip-hop heads didn’t seem to care for it, and despite its musical diversity, it didn’t seem to register with the reluctant in ways that K’naan or K-OS did. But no matter—now that he’s proved he has some commercial clout (on radio, at least, if not through sales), this should allow Kardinal to pursue whatever path he chooses. Why not a Fucked Up collab?

Tomorrow: Metric, Patrick Watson

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Polaris 09: Great Lake Swimmers, Hey Rosetta

Day two of pre-Polaris pondering. Day one is here.

The Polaris gala will be held Monday night, September 21.

The nominees:

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk)

The album:
Tony Dekker’s 2002 debut album was a bold and brooding masterpiece that can still turn on a tap of tears for me from the opening notes. Since then, his mood has become gradually sunnier, his songwriting more complex, and Lost Channels is the first Great Lake Swimmers album that finds him writing concise folk-pop songs. But while this is by far the most conventional GLS album, it’s also the best one since that debut, and an entirely different animal.

Since the release of 2007’s Ongiara, Dekker has been touring with a bass player (Darcy Yates) and a female vocalist (either Julie Fader or Serena Ryder), which expands the sonic spectrum from both ends, adding both more groove and ethereal textures. Dekker’s lyrics aren’t as consistently compelling this time out, but frankly, it hardly matters what he’s talking about with a voice like his.

The chances:
Moderate to good. This was a breakthrough album for them, both critically and commercially, and one that didn’t lose them any of their original supporters. Though undeniably their poppiest album, it was in no way a capitulation. Detractors argue that this is little more than a “nice” album tailor-made for the CBC; some (including a well-known CBC personality speaking off the record) have gone so far as to call them “the most boring band in Canada.” In many ways, Great Lake Swimmers are the most “Canadian” band on this list: quietly and incrementally achieving excellence, devoid of any flash or sizzle. Should that be rewarded or punished? This wouldn’t be the sexiest win, but it wouldn’t be undeserved, either.

Older Ongiara-era interview here.

Hey Rosetta – Into Your Lungs (Sonic)

The album:
In some ways, Hey Rosetta are the underdogs on this year’s list: as a relatively new act, a new nominee, and representing a province whose musicians usually have great difficulties getting noticed west of Edmundston. They’re clearly a talented bunch with no shortage of ambition, and they know how to use their in-house string section properly, instead of grafting it on to their mini-epics for decorative purposes only. Producer Hawksley Workman frames everything in clear focus, if not a little too well-lit for these tastes.

Hey Rosetta are promising, but they’re also exhausting; I’ve usually had enough by the time I get to track five. It’s not because they don’t know how to use dynamics (they do), and it’s not because the arrangements are particularly dense (this is all easily reproducible live). Maybe because it sounds a bit like the Arcade Fire being bossed around by Hawksley Workman (the vocal similarities to Rosetta’s Tim Baker are hard to avoid), a combination that wouldn’t work out well for either party outside the realm of speculative metaphor.

I expect great things from Hey Rosetta in the future; this is not that great thing.

The chances:
Moderate. They might scrape by on the Patrick Watson factor, whereby a promising band gets the nod well before they’re capable of making their masterpiece.

The could've-beens:

Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows
(Arts and Crafts)

The album: There is no dead weight in this band. Every single member—all of whom have ongoing outside concerns—is a vital part in crafting this magical sound, which is equally informed by 20th century composition, jazz, electronic sound art and cinematic soundscapes. And yet it never sounds eggheady or wonky; the most remarkable accomplishment of Bell Orchestre is how visceral they make all this sound. As Seen Through Windows finds them more melodically developed than before, as rhythmically creative as ever, and, with the help of engineer John McEntire, exploring magical, mysteriously unidentifiable textures—without any synths, according to the band. This is one of the most inventive bands working in Canada today.

Why it struck out:
This had a lot of love, even from people who don’t know anything about the Arcade Fire (which employs two members) or Arts and Crafts (their new label). (See the Polaris blog for some insight on jurors’ ballots.) I suspect it missed the list by an inch. Ultimately, of course, instrumental art rock doesn’t seem to capture the imagination of the majority of the Canadian rock press. It’s a shame, because Bell Orchestre’s presence would go a long way to dispelling those nasty diversity issues surrounding this year’s short list.

Interview here.

Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain is a Mouth (Bruce Trail)

The album:
This is a stunning debut, albeit one from a band that I fell in love with at first sight two years ago. They took their sweet time working on this, and it paid off: engineer Leon Taheny is sensitive to every subtlety in their sound. He captures the exuberance of the live show, with all its choral singing and avalanche of percussion (“Crabapples,” “Satisfied”), as well as capturing more intimate and abstract moments, like Micha Bower’s “Drinking All Day” and “Weave Myself a Dress.”

The influence of traditional blues and folk is downplayed, but in its place is the clear development of Bruce Peninsula’s own unique aesthetic. The only time it goes off the rails is the mid-album epic “Shutters,” which tries to pull the band in every direction at once. Where the band goes from here is anyone’s guess, but this is an impeccably paced encapsulation of a time and place.

Why it struck out:
Although they did their share of touring—no small feat with a group this size—they’re still a new band on the national stage, so most of their hardcore supporters (i.e. people lucky enough to see the live show more than once) were within Toronto city limits. It was also self-released, which meant limited publicity available to jolt journos to spend quality time with a new, obscure band.

Interview here.

Tomorrow: K'naan, Malajube.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Polaris 09: Elliot Brood, Fucked Up

This year’s Polaris Prize is perhaps the most wide-open race in the short history of the award. It’s proven difficult to predict in the past, of course, but this year I would argue that it could really go in any direction—there are really only three albums on the shortlist that would be a totally shocking winner. The composition of the jury is part of the mystery—the organizers usually pick the most open-minded people they can find, but of the six jury members that I either know personally or read regularly, I can’t honestly say where their biases might lie in this particular contest.

So for what it’s worth, this my annual five-part charge to the jury, along with an alternate shortlist of 10 more Canadian albums that I would have loved to have seen sharing space with the artists who will be taking the stage on Monday night. (For the first time in the gala’s history, all 10 nominees will be performing.)

The nominees:

Elliot Brood – Mountain Meadows (Six Shooter)

The album: Well, I might as well start off on a contrarian note: I don’t get this at all. I like music with banjos and mandolins; even more so, I like music that does something more with them than use them in traditional settings. I love a good two-step or driving shuffle. I love raspy voices. And yet Mountain Meadows is like nails on a chalkboard for me, and not just Mark Sasso’s voice, which can give me Rod Stewart nightmares.

And it’s not because nothing ever seems to happen in Elliot Brood songs, but because it always sounds like something might—and never does. Every song is a tease with no payoff—and no melody, for that matter either, and the aesthetic isn’t compelling enough to stand on its own. If their objective is a trancelike state, then they should embrace that fully, and forge a new and bizarre Canadian bluegrass take on Afrobeat or something; instead, it sounds like they just forgot to write songs.

While I understand why people might like this band—I’ve seen them live several times, and people do lose their shit (and, I’d argue, their critical faculties, but that’s just me)—I have absolutely no idea why someone would love them. So… humbug, says I.

The chances: Slim, as this seems to be one of the headscratchers for most Polaris observers, proving that this is a polarizing album.

Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)

The album: When the shortlist nominees were announced at Toronto’s Drake Hotel in July, Fucked Up got the biggest cheer from the assembled criterati. And to be sure, there is much genuine love for these hardcore heroes. But their presence at Polaris is also a breakthrough: they are far and away the most aggressive act yet to crack the list, and they give the fist-pumping contingent something to counterbalance the Great Lake Swimmers of the world. For a variety of obvious reasons, Fucked Up are also the only Polaris act unlikely to be assimilated into the mainstream or CBC Radio playlists.

While that is a small victory of sorts, it’s also part of a larger narrative that seems to say: “pretty good, for a hardcore band.” Fucked Up are not only ideal fodder for critics who shelved their Black Flag records a long time ago, but they’ve also made new fans for their epic song lengths and use of synths, strings, flutes and bongos, as well as guest singers to counterbalance the growling rage of frontman Pink Eyes. It’s a kind of genre-crossing that critics eat up, because transgression is always more interesting than an artist who sticks to expected parameters. It makes for a better story (angering purists! polarizing the band itself!) and, sometimes, better music.

But is The Chemistry of Common Life any good? If you didn’t know anything about Fucked Up, would the music transcend the tale?

Based on the opening track, “Son the Father,” the answer would be yes. The track begins with a lone flute passage that’s soon joined by harmonious guitar feedback; 90 seconds into it, Pink Eyes unleashes a classic rock’n’roll scream, the guitars build and crash with embellishment from some Stooges-style wah-pedal, and Lullabye Arkestra’s Kat Taylor and Justin Small help scream a triumphant chorus that asks the eternal question: “It’s hard enough being born in the first place/ why would I ever want to be born again?”

If “Son the Father” was a stand-alone single, it would justify the avalanche of praise that this incredibly hard-working band has accumulated over the past year.

Sadly, from there Chemistry falls into the counterintuitive trap of aggressive music that aims for the jugular yet emerges bloodless, if not downright innocuous. Pink Eyes is monotonous, not monstrous; the guitars chug along faithfully, devoid of riffs, solos, or rhythmic intensity; only the drummer shows any signs of life. Carl Wilson makes a case for the lyrical content, but this here grandpa can’t make out a single word.

What does it mean that the album on this list that is supposedly the most incendiary is actually a total bore?

Full disclosure: I’ve never liked hardcore, despite being surrounded by it my entire adult life and having its gospel constantly preached at me. I’ve always considered it an adolescent phase that musicians go through before they do something infinitely more interesting.

The chances: Slim. Though they had sufficient critical traction to crack the short list, I doubt that Chemistry will hold up as an album and not a political genre statement.

The could’ve-beens:

Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)

The album: William S. Burroughs can be heard drawling about the “immeasurably old and ravenously young”—a perfect fit for Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman. At 42, Whiteman is a seasoned veteran who seems to be still in the early stages of his ongoing creative quest. Eats Darkness encapsulates his infinite musical curiosities—African guitars, Latin rhythms, rock’n’roll fury, soul-inflected pop, poetry, sound collage, hip-hop, dub … shall we go on?—with a precision and brevity that brings it all into a clear focus. Previous albums have been sprawling; this one is dense and delivers. It’s also the least belaboured AoH album, which works to its benefit; the creative combustion that erupts between Whiteman, Julian Brown, Dean Stone and Martin Kinack should be exploited more than once every two years, and preferably in short, sharp bursts like this one.

Why it struck out: The obvious reason is that, with a mid-May release date, it came out too close to the June 1, 2009 deadline for Polaris qualification. The larger reason is that AoH has never been particularly popular, with most of the press concerned mainly with Whiteman’s Broken Social Scene connection. Whatever—Whiteman gets more wonderful the weirder he gets, and free from any commercial or critical considerations, he can continue doing whatever the hell he wants to.

Interview here.

The Awkward Stage – Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (Mint)

The album: Shane Nelken wrote the best pop album of 2008—and by pop, I don’t mean popular, unfortunately. But Slimming Mirrors Flattering Lights catapulted Nelken from a sideman and promising songwriter into the leagues of Aimee Mann, Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, Lucinda Williams—hell, even Burt Fucking Bacharach. Yes, it’s that good.

As I’ve argued before, Nelken is a pop music classicist who knows the value of major seventh chords and countermelodies written for trumpet, as well as bridges written in waltz time in the middle of a raging glam rock tune—and he makes it all sound perfectly natural, not like some know-it-all jackass with a composition degree. And when he sits down with just an acoustic guitar—as he does on the devastating modern-day-Mad-Men mid-life-crisis song “We Dreamt of Houses”—he makes Ron Sexsmith sound like a chump.

I realize that whenever I write about The Awkward Stage, I sound oppositional: if people love Artist X so much, why not this brilliant record? And Nelken himself had a bit of small-man syndrome in his earlier songs, much like Joe Jackson’s first few albums, and here he sings about having “been an angry baby all of my life.” That was much more in evidence on his debut album, where even the title—Heaven is For Easy Girls—suggested a lifetime of unrequited sexual longing and hints of misogyny.

True to his band’s name, Nelken doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, whether it’s poignant portrayals of broken lives in “Skeletal Blonde” or “Only Good Days Caught on Camera,” or the squirmy Lolita-baiting “Hey Modern School Girl,” which is a darker take on 50 years of “Chantilly Lace”: “Hey modern school girl, you are one to wear it on your sleeve/ you may be innocent, but your innocence is cruel and naïve.”

No matter how dark his themes might get, however, Nelken finds a way to set them to sunny West Coast melodies. And while he used to tend toward the twee—and still does occasionally, as on “True Love on Three With Feeling”—Slimming Mirrors is considerably more muscular at moments (“Anime Eyes,” “Hey Modern School Girl”), and its moods are more diverse overall, resulting in a thoroughly satisfying whole.

Older interview here.

Why it struck out: Other than the fact that Vancouver has been a musical wasteland for new acts in recent years (go ahead—try and argue otherwise, which makes Japandroids’ breakthough all the more remarkable), it’s a total mystery why this album made seemingly zero impression on anyone other than me. Don’t rock critics froth at the mouth over intensely melodic pop with lyrics that are equally smart, sad and funny?

Tomorrow: Great Lake Swimmers, Hey Rosetta

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Nicholas Jennings

Canadians are not good at mythmaking, and it can be argued that we suffer from an abnormally high cultural amnesia. It’s always been hard enough for Canadian culture to jostle for position next to American and British imports, and now we have greater access to even more art from around the world.

So who wants to watch a movie about Harmonium, the Dishrags, Handsome Ned and Dalbello?

Veteran music journalist Nicholas Jennings steps up to the plate with two new TV documentaries about decades in Canadian music that link tales of mainstream legends and underground icons; the second part of his look at the ’70s, The Beat Goes On, airs tonight on CBC; his look at the ’80s, Rise Up, airs in two parts on September 10 and 17. Both films will repeat on Newsworld.

These films are sequels to his first collaboration with director Gary McGroarty, Shakin’ All Over, which itself was a companion to Jennings’ 1997 book Before the Gold Rush. Their style is egalitarian: every artist gets approximately five minutes of screen time, which is a bit scattershot, but crucial to covering maximum ground in the time allotted. It’s to their credit that the films feel both comprehensive and yet leaving the viewer insatiable for more—even the most colonized cultural naysayer will be caught off guard by the wealth of material to work with. They unearth a treasure trove of footage that many fans would have no idea even existed, along with clips of Juno performances and a wealth of new interviews.

I’ve long admired Jennings’ work; I grew up reading him in Maclean’s, we both wrote for Eye Weekly, and Before the Gold Rush was an inspiration for Have Not Been the Same. Yet this was our first conversation, spanning four decades of Canadian musical history in less than hour. Needless to say, it’s entirely geeky.

Nicholas Jennings
September 2, 2009
Locale: phone interview from his Toronto home

Unlike Shakin’ All Over, this was not preceded by a book. Is that due to the success of Shakin’ All Over?

Yes. It took CBC by surprise. It got very positive reviews in mainstream and alternative media. It got very good ratings—almost unheard of for a music documentary. Because we’re independent producers, we didn’t have the benefit of any in-house CBC publicity. Between the two airings of the film—on the main network and on Newsworld—it got close to a million viewers. The CBC couldn’t believe it; those are rare numbers these days. When we asked if they would like a sequel, they leapt at it. We shot both the ’70s and ’80s films simultaneously. Before I could even think about companion books, we were off and running and deep into production.

There’s an obvious thesis to each of these films. How would you define the thesis of Before the Gold Rush?

It was about the birth of Canadian songwriting. Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” was the point when songwriting took root and blossomed in Canada. That song was cited by so many musicians as being a watershed—and not just in Canada, because they were international stars—and that song is often referred to as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. Canadian musicians thought it was a new approach, a new yardstick to measure how we measure our own music, that you can write about this country and you don’t just have to cover traditional folk songs. In all my research for the book, I found that contemporaries of Ian and Sylvia took great inspiration from their success and that song in particular. I used that as the starting point, and then followed the trajectory from there.

The Beat Goes On is about the birth of the industry in the ’70s, and Rise Up is about video’s influence in the ’80s.

Yes, and the birth of the star system. Through music television, we had these recognizable pop stars. It’s timely that Rise Up is airing on CBC so close to the anniversary of MuchMusic.

Ssshhhh—you mean there’s an anniversary?

(laughs) Exactly, is there? One wouldn’t know! You would think it would be marked and celebrated.

It’s very conscious: in interviews with MuchMusic executives I’ve seen in the past week, they’re avoiding the entire topic.

Because they have to. If they were to celebrate what they were, it would underscore what they’ve become, which is a pale form of themselves. It was a huge launching pad at one point for Canadian music—and now you’d be hard pressed to see any music on it.

They would say that people don’t watch music videos on television anymore, that people can see any video they want any time on the Internet. Why would they wait through five videos to see one they want to see? But I would argue that although the media context has certainly changed, if MuchMusic actually made exciting television, people would be excited about it.

The best music show on Canadian television right now—which admittedly skews to my personal taste—is Elvis Costello’s Spectacle; that to me is what MuchMusic could be doing. Intelligent interviews with live performance, or retrospectives—which they used to do—on artists. It could be stepping up to find a way—like the rest of us have to do—to stay relevant with the Internet.

Speaking of new ages, you are two generations older than me, and right now we are both talking about a target audience that is two generations younger than me.

I do have the benefit of having two sons: one is 19 and one is 23.

I have a stepdaughter who is 14.

Okay, so you have the benefit, as I do, of seeing the media and the world a little bit through their eyes. I know that their viewing habits are a lot different than mine were. But I know that they and their friends are huge music fans, of all different genres and eras.

My stepdaughter listens to the radio, finds new bands she likes, and then watches stuff online. So oddly enough, she’s gone back to the radio and skipped video television altogether.

Music television in the ’80s played the role that FM radio had in the ’70s but had lost the plot. MuchMusic could be staying relevant if it was trying to stay ahead of the rapidly changing environment.

But every marketing guru will tell you that it’s all niche audiences these days: find your niche and target only that niche. MuchMusic in the ’80s was a common ground, a meeting place. It was Voivod and the Rankin Family and Michie Mee. As a teenager watching it, even if you didn’t like some of those artists, you would at least be aware of them and have a reaction to it—and maybe come around to those genres of music eventually. They would all be a part of the common parlance.

I think that’s so much healthier, to be exposed to a wide array of subject matter and be better positioned to make critical choices. I do think that MuchMusic lost a visionary when John Martin passed away.

You dedicate Rise Up to him.

Yes. He came to Canada from England where he had been involved in music television. When he joined CITY-TV, he convinced Moses Znaimer that music was something they weren’t covering, and he got The New Music on the air in 1978. That was five or six years before MuchMusic launched. That really paved the way for MuchMusic.

Martin had left Much before his death, didn’t he?

Yes, and he went into television production himself. He did a couple of documentaries, one on Lenny Breau and another on either Hank Snow or Wilf Carter, I can’t recall. Maybe MuchMusic was losing its course before he left, but it really went off the rails after he left.

Speaking of common grounds, it’s extremely telling in your films that Matt Minglewood and the Pointed Sticks get the same amount of airtime as Rush or Corey Hart.

We may be castigated for that.

But there’s no other way to do this, really. If you want to see a Rush documentary, go see it.

It’s the same format as Shakin’ All Over, where the Ugly Ducklings got the same treatment as Neil Young. Hopefully these documentaries will give audiences the full sweep, and if any of these artists tickle anyone’s fancy, they can go off and look into them deeper. Which is how music is best discovered anyway: you stumble onto a sound or an artist and you start exploring that work and it leads you down other roads. We tried to cover as many people as possible. There will always be those who say, “Yeah, but you left out so-and-so…”

I’m very familiar with that sentiment.

I’m sure you are. To which I say is, if you want an encyclopaedia, go out and get one.

That was my response.

This isn’t about being completist; it’s about being representative and as inclusive as possible, giving a full picture of the range of music this country has produced.

I’m really torn on one technique in the film, which is using quotes from modern artists as a chorus of validation and affirmation. Perhaps it’s my own taste: if it’s an artist I love talking about the first band they ever saw, then that’s great. But there are a lot of people in the film who I don’t feel have reached an artistic pedigree of their own, so I’m less interested in their opinion. Or, often, I think they’re not saying anything of value at all, other than “Yes, great band.”

It’s true. We tried as much as we could to get the younger artists to be expansive and to tell us a story. Someone would say, “I wouldn’t have picked up a guitar if it wasn’t for so-and-so.” And we’d say, “Tell us more!” And sometimes they couldn’t deliver. In other cases, where we used a short “I love that song” or whatever it was because we needed one more note from anyone to set up a song or artist. And sometimes it wasn’t the best note, just a simple one. Just to get a chorus of voices wherever possible helped to establish that. I agree with you that all the artists may not be to everyone’s taste, and some people will find them irritating.

I wanted to throw my glass at the screen a couple of times.

Sure. Gary and I wanted to make links and show connections. This isn’t museum stuff behind a glass case. This is art and culture, something that is constantly evolving and influential now as then. We wanted to show that a lot of great Canadian music is still viable across eras and genres.

It’s also a testament to the broad cultural meeting ground that there was during those decades, to hear Maestro talk about Burton Cummings. It’s one thing for him to sample “These Eyes,” which is so iconic and unavoidable, but it’s something else to hear him go to bat for “Stand Tall.”

And he also stands tall for Gowan’s “A Criminal Mind.”

This is the guy who sampled Haywire, so it shouldn’t be that surprising.

What I like about that is that it shows how broad Maestro’s listening was growing up. And you also have Brendan Canning talking about how he can recite all the words to “Let Your Backbone Slide.” What blew my mind was Mitsou talking about how proud she was of Rush; I didn’t think that would even be in her universe. Those kinds of connections are the ones we wanted to make.

Watching a lot of this footage—which I not only hadn’t seen before, but which I often didn’t even assume existed—there is a lot of Juno performances, including wonderfully weird things like Dalbello with Platinum Blonde, or Rough Trade with a drag queen on stage.

If these docs steer people down alleys they’ve never been down before, maybe it will steer other documentary filmmakers to expand on parts of this. We found all sorts of amazing stuff: a Teenage Head performance from a Montreal cable company, and my favourite is the Mainline bump’n’grind revue and burlesque at the Victory Theatre that TVO recorded. The Pointed Sticks performance is from a now out-of-print cult movie that Dennis Hopper made in Vancouver. We had to go the extra mile sometimes to get the masters and license them. But Gary and I were convinced that the success of these two shows would be from following the same approach as Shakin’ All Over: a mix of mainstream hits and cult classics, or lesser-known but equally important songs, and to surprise people with footage they hadn’t seen or had forgotten.

I’m curious about the Quebecois component in the ’70s, which is primarily prog rock artists.

Which is what Quebec was producing in those days, other than disco.

They still do. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big those acts were across Canada. Do you think their success had more to do with prog rock itself? This was not pop music, with a focus on the lyrics. People drawn to prog rock are listening more for instrumental dexterity or complexity.

It had a lot to do with the taste of the times, but also FM radio. Harmonium was being played on FM radio from coast to coast, and they were able to tour. They had a following in Vancouver—and how unusual is that today, for a francophone band to play concert halls on the West Coast? Same with Cano, from northern Ontario. Beau Dommage was very successful, but they didn’t have the ability to tour outside of Quebec. Their success was largely because they were embraced so heavily by Montreal.

Only in the last three years has any francophone music registered in English Canada at all, starting with Malajube—and that’s a very modest success at best. And in the last six months there has been Coeur de Pirate. But that’s a 30-year gap.

I don’t want to sound schoolteacher-ish, but Gary and I wanted to remind people what had come before, and how a francophone group could find a following among English audiences. It’s important for music fans, but also sociologists and young musicians.

Even more shocking—could something like Kashtin happen today? Or would it actually be more likely, with increasing acceptance of non-English-speaking music?

Gary and I have every intention of making sequels to these two. You covered the ’90s so well in Have Not Been the Same, so you know this, but the ’90s was a period when so-called world music had quite a presence in Canada. You had artists coming up from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds who were getting a lot of mainstream attention.

Really? I don’t see that at all. Not on a mainstream level. On a live music level, those acts were starting to fill clubs and were big on the festival circuit, but I can’t think of any recordings that made an impact or any acts that graduated from clubs.

But they were definitely breaking out from their communities. I followed a lot of African music in the ’90s, and the Afronubians from Toronto were booked on several cross-Canada tours where they were playing cities, small towns, festivals in the Yukon—all over the place. Personally, I find that really fascinating that this new aspect of Canadian music evolved in the ’90s. It wasn’t just about the new alternative bands or the big divas that dominated the pop charts. It was also about artists like Lhasa or Punjabi by Nature—weird and wonderful stuff that you weren’t hearing previously in Canadian music.

The ’90s was definitely when Canadian music diversified, whereas in the ’80s even hip-hop was just a niche. There is a significant focus in both films on Jamaican music…

I wish there was more.

Why do you think other cultures didn’t have as much of an influence on the Canadian mainstream during that time? Or did they?

The Jamaican influence is significant. In one instance, Leroy Sibbles played a role in Bruce Cockburn’s biggest hit. That had a lot to do with how reggae music in Toronto in the late ’70s and through the ’80s—it was an uptown phenomenon, focused on the Jamaican community in Malton and in the Oakwood/Eglinton area. Then thanks to clubs like the Bamboo and the Horseshoe and people like The Garys started featuring bands that previously were only playing out by the airport or in Jamaican clubs on Eglinton. That’s a huge shift. It meant that an artist like Leroy Sibbles was playing regularly at a popular club like the Bamboo, where Bruce Cockburn stumbles in one night, loves this music, meets Sibbles and gets him to sing on one of his records, and then Leroy lends him his rhythm section which leads to “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” Another story we didn’t get to touch on was how a reggae artist like Mojah met Handsome Ned on Queen Street and together they started making this kind of cowboy reggae music that had to be heard to be believed. All that cross-cultural merging of sounds and influences is fascinating.

The thesis of The Beat Goes On focuses on CanCon and how it developed the industry. Almost 40 years later, CanCon is still a contentious issue, and there’s often talk about either upping it or revising it. There’s still a dismissive attitude toward the “Beaver Bin” full of Canadian CDs tossed aside. I remember when I started listening to the radio around 1982, 1983, that after 10 p.m. that 1050 CHUM would play tonnes of Canadian music—Rough Trade, Blue Peter, Martha and the Muffins—that I loved. I don’t know if that still happens today, but what does happen is the ad nauseum repetition of popular Canadian artists on the playlist: Nickleback is the new Guess Who, and I’m sure CanCon is part of the reason for not necessarily their success, but certainly their ubiquity. And there are still ongoing questions about CanCon’s efficacy in breaking new artists.

This all stems from the age-old and dreaded inferiority complex that Canadians had—or have. I’d hoped it had gone.

Never underestimate it.

The effect of that inferiority complex at radio meant that there was a prejudice against Canadian music: if it’s from here, it can’t be any good. Thus the Beaver Bin. Radio had failed at supporting Canadian music; there’s a good reason why the CanCon law came into effect. Radio wasn’t playing indigenous music. It simply wasn’t. The programmers can cry all they want about regulation—and they did…

And they do.

But why was that quota imposed? Because musicians and record company people went to Ottawa and complained that they weren’t getting a fair hearing on radio. I have transcripts of the CRTC hearings, and it’s phenomenal to read them and hear both sides. You hear the radio broadcasters arguing that it’s unrealistic, that there isn’t enough good quality music from Canada to warrant the quota, that this is socialism. All sorts of outrageous things. On the other side, artists like Skip Prokop of Lighthouse speaking passionately about Canadian musicians deserving to make a living in their own country. The back story was that there was a whole generation of artists who had to leave Canada to have a career.

But let me be Bryan Adams for a minute, and argue that many of the subsequent CanCon-supported artists didn’t leave Canada at all, and were trapped by domestic success. And the people who remain huge Canadian legends today—Neil, Joni, Leonard, Gord, The Band, The Guess Who—were established before CanCon was ever enacted. They didn’t need CanCon to become the legends they are. Fast forward 40 years, and Feist or Arcade Fire or other international successes owe nothing to CanCon, because once again they broke internationally first and Canadian radio was left playing catch-up.

I would say that CanCon has built the industry that produced them. CanCon didn’t succeed just in getting artists on radio: it got recording studios built, it gave rise to record labels, it created an infrastructure and a business environment that hadn’t existed before. For the first time, in the ’70s you had people who could step into management or agent roles that were so essential to build careers. It’s so easy to say, after someone is an established star, to say: “I don’t need CanCon; radio will play my music anyway.” But there are so many artists in this country who have benefitted from CanCon. The whole industry would not have been able to support the artists that have come up in the decades since.

I don’t disagree with you, but I would say that many CanCon champions dig their own grave by citing examples like Arcade Fire or Feist as CanCon success stories, seemingly only by virtue of citizenship, not any kind of embrace from radio.

What has to be remembered is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In the late ’90s and certainly in this decade, the rules have changed. Artists careers are established and built in very different ways than they were in the ’70s and ’80s.

It’s very interesting to read Stuart Berman’s Broken Social Scene book, especially the first couple of chapters, and recognizing the very same “urge for going” that exists in the early chapters of Before the Gold Rush. People felt like the Canadian industry had collapsed in the late ’90s, nothing of any good was going to supported, major labels were bled of any relevance, and when you have nothing to lose then everything gets exciting again. And even looking at the ’90s mainstream, I see it now as largely desolate, with the exception of a handful of artists.

I think I agree with you. It’s all about the independent scene in the ’90s. The old infrastructure that came up as a result of CanCon, ceased to be as significant and instrumental in artists’ careers as it had been. But getting back to your question—do we still need CanCon?—I don’t see it hurting. It’s not as if radio will say they have trouble filling the quota anymore. (laughs) Canada is not the only country in the world that felt the need to put in a cultural quota like this. It’s common in Europe, in Australia—it came about for a good reason. Given Canada’s position—geographically, politically and culturally—CanCon serves a very useful, supportive role for Canadian music.

And it’s unfortunate that it’s necessary.

It would be nice if it wasn’t. But it is. There are people who say it should be 50 percent, and I’ll let others argue the merits and demerits of that.

I don’t agree with that idea at all.

Thirty percent seems a comfortable amount of music to fill.

I got great insight into cultural insecurity when I read Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biographies. He tells the story of Memphis radio stations refusing to play early Elvis records because they figured if he was a local artist, he couldn’t be very good.

There you go! Canada has that problem in spades. Ronnie Hawkins famously said that Canadians have to work 10 times as hard as anyone else, because we’re one-tenth of the American population. All of that is still true. As healthy as I believe Canadian music is in 2009, having that support is justified.

These films bring a lot of great stuff to light: stuff that’s almost forgotten, has been forgotten, and maybe in some cases should be forgotten but still deserves a historical place.

Nostalgia is one thing. I don’t deny that these shows have nostalgic value, and people tell me that these films send them rushing back to their record collections. Not to sound too grandiose, but it serves to remind people that this little country—and it is a little country, comparatively—has produced an astonishing amount of music over successive decades. That’s something worth remembering or rediscovering—or discovering. It wasn’t just a handful of Top 10 superstars; it was a wide-ranging and diverse pantheon from every corner of the country.