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?

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