Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pre-Polaris, day four: Tegan and Sara, A Tribe Called Red, Lee Harvey Osmond, Corb Lund

The fourth installment of our pre-Polaris Prize countdown; parts one and two and three ran earlier. Two shortlisted albums and two albums that should’ve made it.

The shortlisted:

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob (Universal)

The album:
This is one of only two shortlisted acts in Polaris history I’ve ever heard in a grocery store (the other was Ron Sexsmith). Small wonder why: Tegan and Sara embrace the big gestures necessary to move the masses, and never more so than on this blatant bid for pop supremacy.

It works. They started their career when they were still teenagers, and though they’re now 33, they still tap into that time of giddy hormones and high drama, which is an even better match for the techno pop for which they’ve traded in their earnest power pop.

But just because the clothes fit, do they look good? I’d love it if this album rose to the level of Robyn or Lady Gaga, which it obviously aspires to, but at best they deliver four decent songs (“Drove Me Wild,” “Closer,” “I’m Not Your Hero” and “How Come You Don’t Want Me”). Heartthrob is a pleasant pop record; by no means is it a great one. At least their last album, the similarly shortlisted So Tough, managed to give me an appreciation for them I’d never had before.

The chances:
Again, this is the hardest Polaris year to decipher: it’s about comparing apples to oranges to chick peas to steak tartare. How could you possibly assess the merits of Tegan and Sara versus those of A Tribe Called Red? Only Metric bears any remote stylistic resemblance to Tegan and Sara, and my gut tells me this is not the year for either artist.

A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Pirates Blend)

The album:
From my review in May 2013:

Idle No More isn’t just a political movement. Thanks to this Ottawa DJ crew, it’s a musical one, too. Though Native hip-hop has had its own healthy scene for at least the last 15 years, merging Aboriginal rhythms and voices to a pulsing techno beat hasn’t been done as successfully, if at all—and it’s certainly never reached the kind of audience that this DJ crew is doing. A Tribe Called Red has transformed their popular Ottawa club gig into a national, nay international, phenomenon.

Part of the appeal, of course, is hearing what may be one of the last “exotic” cultures to be plundered in the name of globalized dance culture, but if that was the beginning and end of this crew’s appeal, their story would be over by now. Instead, their second album (or first, if you don’t count their free-download debut recording, which was long-listed for the Polaris Prize) is brimming with beats designed to excite and send crowds into a frenzy; the one track without Aboriginal vocals, “Sweet Milk Pop,” is squiggly, sweaty and built for Berlin or Brazil more than Brantford. But it is the vocals that make this more than just another solid dance record and a vital cultural document of a time and place in North American Aboriginal culture. They are joyous, furious and inspired, full of the raw sound of community, trapped inside synthetic machines and yet rising above them to find strength and power.

The chances:
Strong. A Tribe Called Red have a lot of momentum, both musically and politically. Naysayers will say they’re working some kind of “gimmick” in the same way that Stetson is—electro beats with Native voices!—but that’s an insult to their inherent talent: these tracks would be just as compelling even if the Native voices weren’t on top. They’ve come a long way since their long-listed debut mixtape; Nation II Nation is as strong as anything by Caribou or Holy Fuck or any other critically lauded electronic act you care to name.

On top of that, there is the unspoken but inherent political message here. Granted, it’s vague, or at least as vague as Idle No More, but ultimately it’s about using modern technology to give voice and visibility to an invisible, ancient culture—and inviting all parties to the dance. It’s impossible to listen to Nation II Nation and not think about that, which gives it a weight most dance records simply don’t have.

What Polaris jurors are not supposed to think about, of course, is what it will “mean” if Artist X wins. Because the prize has yet to pass its first decade, there is still lots of chatter about what has and hasn’t been reflected in the winners’ circle. There’s certainly never been an Aboriginal winner before, and because Caribou’s Andorra is arguably more of a pop record than an EDM one, this would be the first techno winner as well. (And the first Ottawa winner, for what that’s worth.) If jurors are even thinking about these things subconsciously, this could definitely come out on top.

What would A Tribe Called Red win mean? Nothing really, of course: Polaris is a parlour game. But because we’ll be told that this is the biggest thing to happen to Aboriginal music in Canada since Kashtin, it will therefore be true.

The could’ve/should’ve beens:

Lee Harvey Osmond – The Folk Sinner (Latent)

The album:
From my January 2013 review:

Tom Wilson, of Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, has been a mainstay in Canadian music for more than 20 years—a career, he often jokes, that has earned him “tens of dollars” over that time. And yet ever since he reinvented himself as Lee Harvey Osmond in 2009, it sounds like he’s just hitting his stride now. This is where he teams up with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, and together they set Wilson’s haunting baritone and bluesy songs to spare and spooky goth-folk arrangements centred around chugging, droning guitars and a healthy dose of rockabilly reverb.

Guest stars lend a hand: Hawksley Workman’s lovely falsetto on “Break Your Body,” a duet with Oh Susanna on “Big Chief,” the haunting harmonica of Paul Reddick, and the unmistakable harmony presence of Margo Timmins. As producer, Michael Timmins is careful never to crowd a song: all extraneous elements—and plenty of excellent electric guitars, courtesy of Colin Cripps, Colin Linden and Timmins—hover around the atmosphere, leaving the focus on the spare rhythms and Wilson’s commanding, though subtle, presence.

It’s Canadiana cottage-country weirdness at its finest, as well as a fine album by two guys who’ve wanted to be wise, old ragged veterans ever since they were 25 years old. Now that they are, they have even more to offer than they did in their supposed prime.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
Polaris: No country for old men.

Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (New West)

The album:
Speaking of country and old men, Corb Lund is now as much of the Albertan cultural fabric as Ian Tyson (with whom he’s touring this fall, by the way). He’s a staple at the Stampede, and there’s even a Corb Lund tribute band in Calgary. Cabin Fever is his eighth album, and perhaps his best.

My review from August 2012:

It’s not an accident that storyteller Corb Lund opens his new album with a post-peak-oil apocalyptical scenario where “when the oil stops, everything stops,” with talk of “a rip in the social fabric” and rural retreat as the only salvation from a world about to go to hell.

On the surface, the rest of Cabin Fever is a collection of largely light-hearted songs about how “everything is much better with cows around,” and how “you ain’t a cowboy if you ain’t been bucked off.” But the characters here are all dealing, in their own way, with societal collapse, with escape and resilience, with history catching up with them. Even “Bible on the Dash,” a duet with Hayes Carll—about travelling musicians deceiving border patrols by claiming to “play Christian music, sir!”—is set in a theocratic country where religious allegiance is used as a barometer to suss out suspicion.

It is Lund’s gift that he has always successfully shattered stereotypes of simplistic country music, or of well-read urbanites being out of touch with rural reality. His short stories set to music have always straddled both worlds—Lund was raised in rural Alberta and spent 22 years in the liberal enclave of Edmonton—which is why he can write a song like “September” so successfully, in which the narrator laments losing his love to the glamour and charm of New York City, knowing that even the splendour of his back quarter in the Rocky Mountains can’t compete with the Big Apple. There’s no us vs. them, red-state/blue-state B.S. here, just pathos and empathy and regret—and respect.

If Lund gives you plenty to read into his music, he’s also brilliant at simple surface pleasures. Every song here is a country music classic, full of twang, swing, rowdy rock’n’roll and heartbreaking balladry. Lund’s pulled this off twice before: on 2003’s Five Dollar Bill, and 2007’s Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, with plenty of other worthy material scattered across his other albums; Cabin Fever is undoubtedly Lund at the top of his game. He may be a poet laureate of the Canadian Prairies, but he’s simply one of the best songwriters working today, anywhere, in any genre.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
Several reasons. Any guy with eight albums to his name who hasn’t significantly changed his M.O. is at a disadvantage when picking albums that captured the zeitgeist in the last 12 months—although, as I argue above, Lund is nothing if not topical. But I’ll concede that yes, musically, nothing’s changed. Nor should it: Lund is a master at what he does, and he’s got a crack band.

Regionalism, such a strength of Lund’s lyrics, plays against him in this arena. People I know from Alberta take Lund for granted; he’s so ubiquitous on the radio that they find it hard to get excited by him anymore (think: The Tragically Hip and Ontario). And people not from Alberta don’t seem to have much time for a country artist with such a mainstream sound—though I’d love it if mainstream country music actually sounded like Corb Lund. Why Ontarians get all hot and bothered about the likes of Daniel Romano, I’ll never understand.

Finally, the country/folk vote was seriously split this year, between Lund, Lee Harvey Osmond, Evening Hymns, Les Souers Boulay, Old Man Luedecke, Lindi Ortega, Daniel Romano, Al Tuck and Whitehorse. Only the latter came out on top.

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