Monday, September 24, 2012

Pre-Polaris: Grimes

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Grimes – Visions

First impressions (published Feb. 23, 2012):

Who would dare earnestly embrace Mariah Carey and Animal Collective? Meet the deliriously confounding 23-year-old Montreal musician Clare Boucher, aka Grimes.

On her third album, Boucher’s girlish and acrobatic voice is delivered rich with reverb, layered with towers of her own harmonies and electronically pitched into the stratosphere. No matter how strange she makes herself sound, she is almost always singing bubblegum melodies. Her sonic backdrop owes as much to Robyn as it does to Aphex Twin or to The Weeknd—or, given the ’80s sheen of Visions, she conjures sonic images of the Cocteau Twins singing Debbie Gibson songs with Men Without Hats as the backing band.

Like Braids—her fellow weird Western Canadian transplants, Montreal neighbours and Arbutus label mates—her love of sound supersedes all else. So even if Visions boasts big beats here designed for dance floors, even if she’s writing sing-song melodies, the ecstasy of Grimes’s music comes from the opaque luxuriousness of the sonic landscape, a world as stimulating, disorienting and brightly lit as Tokyo at night, a trip through a psychedelic children’s cartoon, an abstract collision of sounds that perhaps only an ADD-addled, self-taught musician could stumble upon and decide to assemble together.

It’s entirely possible that Boucher may be a lucky musical naïf—a listen to her nebulous, earlier recordings would suggest this—but Visions displays a bold sophistication and originality, not to mention confidence and drive (she recorded this in a three-week stint, locked in her bedroom with blacked-out windows). As good as it is, Visions also suggests a dozen different directions she could go from here. An intensely creative and restless spirit, Boucher may find herself in Bjork’s company sooner than later.


--Of all the albums on the list, this is the only one I enjoy more with each listen (and I liked it to begin with). Whereas everything else falls into a fairly easy and predictable formula, one never knows with Grimes exactly when the beat is going to drop, when the drums are going to lurch in a different direction, how high exactly her voice is going to go, even what her voice is going to sound like from one song to the next.

--Though she has a few synth sounds she favours, every song has a different enough palette that nothing here sounds like a crutch.

--Grimes manages that ideal balance between avant-garde abstraction and pure pop melodies; some songs here are downright bubblegum (“Oblivion”).

--On a 13-track album, only one track (“Eight”) falls flat entirely, due to Boucher pitch-shifting her voice both into the stratosphere and into a low, Vocoder monotone; lo and behold, it's under two minutes long, so it's easily forgivable.

---Many debts are owed here, though to nothing much older than Boucher herself, born in 1988. From the '80s: Prince (there's an almost-obvious beat crib from “When Doves Cry” on “Colour of Moonlight,” and many harmonies throughout Visions would only ever appear on Prince albums), Debbie Gibson (for the chipper sing-song elements), Kate Bush (all-around adventurousness) and the Cocteau Twins (for indecipherable, atmospheric abstraction). From the '90s: some new jack R&B (there's a delicious "mmmmmm" in “Vowels = Space and Time”), some post-rave chillout ala Aphex Twin, the gravity-defying vocals of Mariah Carey and a healthy dose of Bjork's first four game-changing albums. (Boucher says she worshipped Marilyn Manson as a kid; that's not at all evident here.) From the '00s: the artsy precociousness of the Williamsburg scene (Animal Collective, Coco Rosie, the Juan Maclean, etc.), genre-collapsing pop stars like Robyn and Beyonce, and self-sampling solitary showmen like Owen Pallett and TuneYards. If someone consciously set out to imitate all these artists, they would fail miserably. If someone conjures those allusions entirely effortlessly, that's the mark of a true original.


--Boucher already has a high voice: why does she feel the need to pitch-shift it into helium territory? It's distracting and occasionally downright annoying. There's a fine line between girlish and infantile.

--If you don't like the sound of her voice, there is no way you'll ever be able to sit through this record. Ostensibly that shouldn't be held against her, but even the most open-minded listener knows of a quirky voice or two who drives you up the bend within a few syllables, no matter the merits of their music (for me: Drake, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and any of the whiny emo-metal my teenage stepkiddo listens to).

--Lyrics are all but incomprehensible; maybe that's a good thing, as the few snippets that emerge through the atmospheric layering are nothing worth writing down. Do they matter? Are they the point of this album? Should I think of this the same way I would consider a foreign-language album?

--This is one of the rare albums that sounds better on MP3 (which is how I first heard it) than on a CD; the bass tones in particular are less appealing in higher definition. 

--Despite everything Boucher achieves on this album (almost in spite of herself, it seems), there is a sense that the whole thing is entirely ephemeral and weightless; there's zero sense of gravity or meaning here, just pure pleasure, one continuous hit of ecstasy or morphine. Maybe that's all pop music has to be; maybe that's all it can be in the 21st century--music like this couldn't exist any time before now.

Things I shouldn't be considering:

No woman has yet to win Polaris; the only woman even in a winner's band is bassist Sandy Miranda of Fucked Up, one of six people in that band. [UPDATE: How on Earth could I get that wrong? Of course, there are two women in the core lineup of Arcade Fire. Consider me completely embarrassed for missing that, considering my history with the band.] Grimes is a one-woman show, making this 100 per cent estrogen-powered. Though she became Grimes in Montreal, Boucher grew up in Vancouver; that would make her technically the first winner west of Hamilton (Caribou is from adjacent Dundas, Ont.). Visions is a 10,000 per cent improvement over anything else she's done; she deserves points for serious growth alone. On the con side, this is the ugliest album cover ever for a shortlisted album; it's beyond hideous, and inside, it's not much better. And every time I see a picture of Boucher in some ridiculous get-up combining the worst crimes of '80s new wave, rave culture and Japanese anime--or worse, sit through one of her excruciatingly embarrassing videos--I honestly have trouble fathoming her winning the prize.


G Valentino said...

"No woman has yet to win Polaris; the only woman even in a winner's band is bassist Sandy Miranda of Fucked Up"

Not a pick a nit, but there are three women in Arcade Fire.

mmmbarclay said...

Sweet Jesus, that's embarrassing. Thank you. Now corrected.