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.

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