Monday, September 16, 2013

Pre-Polaris, Day One: Godspeed, Zaki Ibrahim

Every year I publicly plead my case before the 10 grand jurors who will be choosing this year’s Polaris Prize winner. I’m part of the larger jury who selects the shortlist; last year I was one of the 11 who picked Feist as the recipient of the $30,000 prize for her album Metals. I wrote about that experience here. But, to paraphrase Drake, you only serve once, so now I’m back in the peanut gallery (a.k.a. the unlicensed balcony at the gala). But were I back among the deciders, this is what I’d say, writing about two albums a day, along with two more albums I would have loved to have seen on the shortlist:

The shortlisted:

Godspeed You Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)

The album:
It opens with a 20-minute track named after a Serbian war criminal, the first six minutes of which is a slowly unfolding drone crescendo before we even get to our first chord change. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Polaris 2013! What better way to begin our discussion of the confounding clusterfuck of choices vying for this year’s award. Even though there’s a lot of great music on the shortlist, no one seems particularly happy about it—and I can guarantee you that the anarchist rabble in Godspeed find it bemusing at best. (They’re not playing the gala, and they’re not participating in the split 7” series. No surprises there.)

This, the fourth Godspeed full-length but their first in a decade, is in many ways their most accomplished: they’ve all gained wide musical experience in the interim, which enhances their initial chemistry and finds them playing with greater confidence than before. The production is certainly their best yet: still captured in the audio equivalent of grainy black-and-white film, but with better use of lighting, let’s say. For the first time on a recording, when Godspeed get heavy, it’s really fucking heavy.

Here’s the weird thing: the third track (of four) is another 20-minute epic with a climax—but this time in a major key. How weird is that? Very weird, for a band who always gave the impression they thought the world was rigged and full of shit and whose guitars sounded like they were weeping, even at their most ferocious. What’s with the sudden flash of optimism, did these guys become parents or something? (Answer: yes.)

Ultimately, what this album proves is that Godspeed were always better than their contemporaries (Mogwai) or their descendants (Explosions in the Sky), and this is their victory lap.

The chances:
Slim. I go back and forth with this record, entirely depending on mood, listening volume, etc. Sometimes I think it’s a noble effort but not particularly engaging; other times I find myself carried by the waves and enjoying the layers and emotional payoffs. I was shocked to see it make the shortlist, and can’t help but wonder if fans of this band are just so happy to hear this band back or if they actually love this album on its own merits—because despite everything I just said about it, it still stands a distant second to the debut for me (which, had Polaris been around in 1998, I’m almost positive the band would have won). Also: grand jurors predisposed to the Constellation Records roster will undoubtedly be a wedge vote forced to take sides, and the Colin Stetson album is far more fascinating.

Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite (Motif/Pirates Blend)

The album:
Before I heard this album, I’d always been intrigued by Zaki Ibrahim what she had to say and what she was trying to do, but her early work, I thought at the time, was featherweight. That changed immediately as soon as I caught wind of this album, which she released in her new locale of South Africa (her father’s birthplace). I was tipped to it last fall by Del Cowie of Exclaim! and Vibes and Stuff on the Polaris discussion board; were it not for him, it would have completely flown underneath my radar, seeing how it didn’t have any domestic distribution (not even iTunes, just her own Bandcamp page) and zero Canadian publicity.

Ibrahim finally hired some Canadians to work the record after the Polaris shortlist was announced. But the story of this album’s placement on the shortlist speaks to everything Polaris should be about: finding the best music, regardless of what kind of public or publicity buzz there is behind it. Because in this case, there was none. The only reason we’re talking about it now is because jurors pleaded its case to other jurors.

“Draw the Line” sets rolling percussion and vocals that could come from South African township jive to a thoroughly modern electronic setting. “Everything” sounds like Bjork producing a Sade single. “Something in the Water” is a skittering, dark dubstep beat—in the original, Burial sense of the term—with a gospel-tinged chorus. “Heart Beat” could be a Kate Bush / Neneh Cherry collab (and the bonus Nick Holder remix is a nice touch). That’s just the first five songs. “Kids are Talking” is a stunning electro new wave ballad anchored by what seems to be an electric marimba. Most of “The Do” is scored soley by a string quartet. All the other tracks? A mix of all of the above. There is nothing on either the long list or the shortlist that approaches the breadth of Every Opposite.

Ambition alone doesn’t cut it, of course. Ibrahim’s sci-fi soul music is anchored throughout by her absolutely stunning, sexy, pitch-perfect and powerful voice, either in the most intimate moments or in ecstatic release. The songwriting is strong; the arrangements and production are even better. Some of this is definitely easier on the ears; there are some lovely coffee-shop tracks on here, if you will, though even those have deceptively complex beats underneath them. And elsewhere Ibrahim doesn’t shy away from harsher tones or toying with song structure.

This is the album I’m most proud of for making it this far. And it’s the one I’m really pulling for next Monday night, because it deserves to win. And by no means just because it’s the clear underdog. It’s also the best.

And I’m not just saying that because I kind of have a thing for gap teeth.

The chances:

I’d like to say they’re good. There’s certainly no regional bias in her favour: she grew up in B.C. and started her career in Toronto (where some of this album’s producers reside) but it’s safe to say she’s a total carte blanche for most jurors. Because of that, she won’t carry any baggage into this contest, for better or worse. Some albums here might be arguably better or more consistent, but I still think this comes out on top.

Two of the could’ve/should’ve beens:

 Jim Guthrie – Takes Time (Static Clang)

The album:
I love this album even more than I did when it came out in May; that’s a testament to the sonic layering and emotional depth Guthrie achieves here, on his first proper solo recording of pop music in a decade.

I’ll borrow from my review earlier this year:

Guthrie has re-emerge with an album that recalls the innocence, the uncertainty and the longing of 2003—a time when Toronto and Montreal’s music scenes were bubbling over with fantastic, unselfconscious art—and raises the bar with maturity, wisdom and optimism: like an old friend who suddenly shows up on your doorstep, reminds you of all your past glories together, and in so many words tells you to buck up and prepare for all the greatness ahead. “Ran out of time making time machines,” he sings: best not to dwell on the past or worry about the future, but make the best of today.

Ten years in the studio tailoring his music for other people’s demands—ad jingles, award-winning video game soundtracks—has only deepened Guthrie’s own production aesthetic. Rich California harmonies, synths bleeding into strings and horns, and surprisingly funky drumming underneath folkie indie rock songs all coalesce with a light psychedelic touch and filtered through a man who “eats, sleeps melody.”

His supporting players are fantastic: Pallett returns to arrange the stirring “Wish I Were You”; Randy Lee of the Bicycles handles most of the violin work; Jordan Howard (The Acorn, Tusks) pulls off a ripping guitar solo on “Don’t Be Torn”; the rhythm section of drummer Evan Clarke and bassist Simon Osborne are exemplary throughout. Guthrie mixes and matches influences effortlessly throughout: “The Rest is Yet to Come” matches a Bonham beat with doo-wop vocals, Edge-like textural electric guitars, R&B-style acoustic guitars, orchestral bells and strings that shift from soaring to disco stabs, all underneath Guthrie’s sing-song melody. 

Most importantly, the songs are fantastic. Just as one masterpiece ends, another takes its place. Only an album that took five years to make could hope to achieve the perfection Guthrie attains here. The denouement is a folkie acoustic cover of Nina Simone’s “Turn Me On”; it’s lovely enough, but considering the tour de force Guthrie has just dropped in our lap, it’s little more than exit music while leaving the theatre. If a Nina Simone track is your throwaway number, you know you’ve got something good going on.

Why it didn’t make it:
It did make the long list, but not the shortlist, which was a real stumper for me. But that’s probably just the circles I travel in; I know that Guthrie’s last album has a large place in the hearts of (not just most of my friends but those of) many writers who came of age during the explosion of incredible music out of this country during that time. Maybe a lot of those people aren’t still in the biz, maybe they’re more excited by newer artists, or maybe Guthrie only ever really appealed to Ontarians to begin with. Maybe it came out too late in the qualifying period (which closed June 1, 2013). Maybe autumnal melancholy from a procrastinating 40-year-old isn’t a good media angle. Beats me. All I know is that when I found out this modern classic didn’t make the shortlist, I was ready to cut the guy a $30,000 cheque myself.

Veda Hille – Peter Panties (independent)

The album:
Jukebox musicals can kiss my ass. Rock of Ages? American Idiot? Mamma Mia? Bite me. I’m still smarting from the fact that Oscar voters creamed their collective jeans over Moulin Rouge while ignoring the sheer brilliance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that same year. Rock and roll can make for brilliant musical theatre, of course, and I’d posit that Veda Hille’s Peter Panties is the only score since Hedwig that I’d voluntarily listen to on endless repeat.

As much as I’ve loved some (certainly not all) of Hille’s previous work, Peter Panties is considerably more visceral and joyous than anything she’s done, in which her cerebral approach is applied to something often downright silly. Riffing on the Peter Pan mythology and the theme of arrested development through the prism of Down syndrome, with nods to Macbeth, CSI, Bob Dylan and the Grease soundtrack, Peter Panties is a rollicking rock’n’roll cabaret cast recording (expertly captured by Vancouver wizards JC/DC) with gusto to spare. Believe it.

Why it didn’t make even the long list:
Well, let’s start with the title. And then let’s move to the fact that despite our professed open-mindedness, a woman in her 40s collaborating with a Down syndrome playwright-actor and a band of 15-year-old boys on a song cycle based on Peter Pan isn’t, on principle, going to appeal to most people. Oh, and she put it out herself with the bare minimum of publicity and zero visibility outside Vancouver. Yeah, I’d say this one was a long shot.

Tomorrow: Metric, Metz, and two more could’ve-beens.

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