Thursday, September 18, 2014

Polaris 2014, day four: Shad, Tagaq, Nick Buzz, Adrian Raso

Every day this week I'll post about two Polaris Prize shortlisted acts and two equally—if not more—worthy albums from the year in question. The winner will be announced at the gala Sept. 22.

The shortlisters:

Shad – Flying Colours (Black Box)

The album: Polaris loves Shad. I love Shad. I wish I liked his records more than I do. My October 2013 review:

If anyone tries to knock Shad, they usually complain that he’s too nice. After all, who doesn’t love Shad? Born to Kenyan/Rwandan parents, raised in London, Ont., educated in Kitchener-Waterloo, and now calling Vancouver home, he’s dropped three albums full of intricate but clear wordplay, rocked stages with his winning charisma, and acted as a rap ambassador as a clean-cut, conscious alternative to audiences who didn’t think they liked hip-hop.  That last tag obviously irks him a bit, and it’s one he addresses directly on lead single “Stylin’,” while he also makes fun of people who exoticize his background. But “Stylin’ ” is sure to silence any critics, as he spits dense, brilliant and often hilarious lyrics, playing with his flow, while the backing track alternates between a fuzzy bass and John Bonham beat that recalls the Beastie Boys, while the chorus switches to a low-riding Dr. Dre beat with Saukrates on the hook.  He’s even better on the joyous African-tinged “Fam Jam,” a tribute to the immigrant experience in Canada, while throwing in lines about injustice against Aboriginals and refugees, Big Oil, and how it feels “when you’re Third World born but First World formed / sometimes you feel pride / sometimes you feel torn.”  Shad’s free-association and triple-entendres are where he’s at his best, but on “He Say She Say” he takes a turn into straight-up love-gone-wrong storytelling, a tale of a Peter Pan manchild who loses his love, with a chorus that simply repeats, “I wanted to do a verse about how they worked it out, but…” The trailoff is intentional.  Conversely, he goes all epic on “Progress,” a song ostensibly about—what exactly?—Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the death of Biggie and Tupac, Hurricane Katrina, the history of slavery, and how “America don’t need Jesus / the future is here.” Still trying to parse that one.  Shad’s Achilles heel has always been his backing tracks. The production here has stepped up considerably, though it does seem to be stuck in middle gear—following the Drakeification of hip-hop in 2013, most tracks here are mid-tempo and reflective. The difference, of course, between Shad and Drake—and Shad fans usually posit him as the anti-Drake, something he admits on “Long Jawn”—is that Shad has a helluva lot more to talk about, and far more interesting ways to say it.

The chances: Good. Many still think Shad was robbed in 2011, when his TSOL lost to Karkwa’s album—wait, what was Karwka’s album called again? That said, if a hip-hop album wins in 2014, it is almost certainly going to be Drake. Shad may have beat Drake at the Junos in 2011; don’t expect that to happen again here.

What I’m really hoping for, however, is that the 11-member jury somehow declares a tie, and that Shad and Drake must then wage a freestyle battle rap to separate the winner from the whiner. We all know who would win.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism (Six Shooter)

The album: She’s this year’s Colin Stetson candidate. My June review:

Only a poet of the highest order could attempt to successfully encapsulate the music of Tanya Tagaq. (I am not that poet.) Inuit throat singing is merely her launching pad for sound poetry, electro-acoustic exploration and the calls of the wild. Of course, it’s much more than that. And less.  Much of Tagaq’s power comes from her live performance, where the act of unearthing alternately beastly and beautiful sounds is a powerful, astounding and often disquieting experience. Hearing her disembodied voice in the comfort of your home or through headphones packs considerably less force. This is music from a mystical, mysterious place, and hearing it out of context—which is pretty much anywhere—is odd. In that sense, Tagaq has more in common with the likes of Diamanda Galas than she does with other avant-garde artists that skirt close to mainstream radar: Mike Patton, Colin Stetson, or Bjork (who gave Tagaq her first big break, on the 2001 Vespertine tour). You don’t meet Tagaq halfway: you’re either in, or you’re out.  That said, Animism opens with two tracks that mark a move to middle ground. One is a cover of the Pixies’ “Caribou,” rendered as a majestic, powerful manifestation of an urban creature longing for the wilderness—in Tagaq’s hands, the lyrical message comes through much more clearly than the original. She closes it with a series of howls, uttering the word “repent,” that put to shame anything ever barked by Black Francis. The other is “Uja,” a track that owes as much to metal as it does EDM as it does to—well, to nothing in particular.  The origins of Inuit throat singing are as a joke, a game between two women. There is an element of it that lends itself to the comic—though surely that’s not what Tagaq had in mind on the closing track, "Fracking." It’s obviously meant to be a powerful aural metaphor for the controversial process of extracting natural gas from shale rock—and yet it sounds like a parody of performance art, devoid of any subtlety or poetry. It’s meant to be ugly; it is, in fact, ugly. It sounds like a death moan of Mother Earth; that’s the point. Another track, unambiguously titled "Fight," likewise aims for a visceral punch and falls flaccid instead.  Animism works best when Tagaq plays off her collaborators: violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, drummer Jean Martin and DJ Michael Red. The delicate and ominous “Rabbit” is Tagaq at her most beguiling, a bird-call melody set against chanting, droning violin, a low brass section and ambient sound. On “Soar,” her improbable harmonies with opera singer Anna Pardo Canedo are revelatory. Nowhere is she more successful than “Damp Animal Spirits,” driven by her rhythmic impulses, playing off Zubot and Martin, and exploding into erotic and ecstatic realms by the end of its seven-minute stretch.  Tagaq is an intense and creative artist. What she does with what could be a novelty or a limited palette—much like, say Colin Stetson’s circular breathing and saxophone arpeggios—is astounding. Even when her experimentation doesn't fully click, her bravery and courage are unassailable. 

 The chances: Strong. Artistic bravery and individuality go a long way with Polaris juries. Tagaq has both in spades. Not only is Animism unlike anything else ever considered by a Polaris jury—except maybe Colin Stetson records—she’s also made the kind of album best absorbed in full, in one sitting—not unlike, say, the Godspeed album of 2013. That one did rather well, no?

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Nick Buzz – A Quiet Evening at Home (Six Shooter)

If Bjork, Brian Eno, John Zorn and Christian McBride formed a band, you can guarantee it would have a higher profile than Nick Buzz, the Canadian equivalent of such a supergroup. The vocalist: Martin Tielli, former Rheostatic, idiosyncratic, operatic, fractured folk singer with incredible command and range. The keyboardist: Jon Goldsmith, former sideman to Bruce Cockburn and Jane Siberry, in-demand film composer. The instrumental impressionist: Hugh Marsh, former Cockburn sideman who’s also worked extensively with Mary Margaret O’Hara and Peter Murphy, as well as leading his own instrumental projects. The bassist: Rob Piltch, who counts k.d. lang, Holly Cole and O’Hara on his resumé, among dozens of others. Together, this rarely assembled band is best known, if it is known at all, for a mid-’90s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that still gets played on CBC; Nick Buzz sounds like the kind of jazz-influenced art rock we all wish Mitchell would make, instead of everything else she’s been up to for the past 35 years.

My January review:

Martin Tielli and Nick Buzz released their long-awaited second album (17 years after their first) on 2013’s Labour Day weekend, a hectic time of year, both in life and for new releases. That’s going to be my excuse for only coming to fully appreciate the genius of A Quiet Evening at Home now, four months later. Nick Buzz is music best experienced during hibernation: it’s complex, operatic, layered and cinematic.  Tielli, who helped redefine Canadian rock with the Rheostatics, is the voice and lyricist of Nick Buzz; anyone who’s ever loved his music needs to hear this, which is the most fascinating work he’s done since his 2001 solo debut.  But his bandmates are absolutely integral; this is a project where long-suffering sidemen all deserve equal billing: violinist Hugh Marsh, Jonathan Goldsmith and Rob Piltch, all of whom played with Bruce Cockburn or Mary Margaret O’Hara or both. Here, they combine decades of experience in improvisation, soundtracks, folk and art music to craft cabaret music from an avant-garde radio play.  Tielli’s songs are fully formed enough to be played unaccompanied (“The Happy Matador” could be a Spanish folk song), but Nick Buzz pull everything apart, inserting arpeggiating synths, textural violins, distorted kalimbas, classical piano and ambient textures to create something much larger and immersive. There are no obvious nods to time or place, to obvious influence or innovation: “Stop living in the past / forget about tomorrow,” sings Tielli.   If the music is otherworldly, Tielli’s lyrics convey narrators out of time, out of step and coping with loss. He’s bewildered, bemused and occasionally fantastical: “The Hens Lay Everyday” is set to a crunching electronic beat and Beach Boy harmonies, with lyrics about a musical virus that consumes everyone who hears it: “And those who can’t dance will be able to dance / and those who can will die.”  If there is any comparison to be made here, it is to Scott Walker, the enigmatic American expat crooner who started out in the late ’60s trying to channel Jacques Brel (there’s a fantastic Brel cover on this Nick Buzz album) and became progressively more abstract and strange with age. Tielli has covered Walker before; he’s nowhere near as abrasive and obtuse as Walker is now, but they are definitely similar travellers.  This group is old, weird, out of the loop, and Canadian—it’s hard to envision a marketing strategy. Like any run-of-the-mill, slow-burning, richly rewarding art rock masterpiece, it’s easy for this Nick Buzz album to disappear quickly into the ether. Don’t let it happen.

 Why it didn’t even make the long list: That’s not hard. I’ll admit that I almost passed this album over—despite the fact that the Rheostatics are one of my favourite bands ever, Martin Tielli one of my favourite singers; the other three have also played on many of my favourite albums. So if even I found it hard to set aside time to soak this up, I can’t imagine other jurors did. From what I can tell from a Google search, I’m one of only three people—anywhere—to even bother reviewing it.

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia – Devil’s Tale (Asphalt Tango)

My review from February:

I’ll admit: it’s been a while since I’ve lived in Guelph. When I was there, I knew Adrian Raso only as the guitar teacher at Guelph Music, whose fiery fingers were mostly put to work on wailing heavy metal leads (which he still does, with his rock band the Big Idea). Not my bag. What I didn’t know was that his career had blossomed to the point where he’s collaborated with Prince percussionist Sheila E. and members of the Stray Cats and Extreme. More important, I had no idea he had an acoustic side of him that revered Django Reinhardt’s style of gypsy jazz.

It’s that pursuit that led to this collaboration with arguably the best Balkan brass band in the world, the 12-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia, who hail from a remote region of Romania. They specialize in a blistering, relentless tempos and virtuosic display. It’s hard to imagine them taking a back seat to anyone, never mind a Guelph guitar teacher. It’s just as hard to imagine Raso carving out a space for himself amidst Fanfare Ciocarlia, who have played together for decades.

And yet: both camps meet here as complementary equals. Neither is here to upstage the other. Even though Raso’s fingerwork can match the brass players 16th note for 16th note, more importance is placed here on the actual songs and group dynamic. We know these people are all incredible; they don’t feel they have to prove it in every phrase. On the track “Spiritissimo,” Raso even makes room for another guitar hero, Rodrigo Sanchez, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, with whom he shares a similar love of metal shredding and flamenco.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Of course the fact that it’s an instrumental jazz record that gets filed in the world music section marks one strike against it. The other is that there was, to my knowledge, zero promotion of this in Raso’s native Canada. I only found out about it I emailed him directly, twice, hoping to interview him about the project; I never heard back. Maybe he wants it to remain a secret.

Day one: Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat and runners-up AroarA and Austra, is here.
Day two: Drake, Jessy Lanza and runners-up Kevin Drew and Freedom Writers is here.
Day three: Mac DeMarco, Owen Pallett and runners-up Hidden Cameras and Jimmy Hunt is here.

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