Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Polaris 2014, day three: Mac DeMarco, Owen Pallett, Hidden Cameras, Jimmy Hunt

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:

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (Captured Tracks)

The album: CanRock’s enfant terrible, who has been voted Most Likely to Embarrass at the gala, based on his wild-man rep as a live performer. His nonchalant attitude is a put-on, however: he’s clearly a great guitar player, even if his tone drives me up the wall. It took me a long time to be won over by Mr. DeMarco, but this album did it. Kind of.

My April review:

The term “salad days” goes back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where the heroine says, “My salad days,
 when I was green in judgment: cold in blood.” The 24-year-old Mac DeMarco—an Edmonton native who bounced around Vancouver and Montreal before landing in Brooklyn and becoming a buzz act—is definitely in his salad days. He is arguably green in judgment. His blood, though, is anything but cold. On this, his third full-length (second under his own name), he sounds like nothing at all could possibly raise his blood pressure: indeed, one imagines him sprawled out on a couch, guitar in hand, microphone stand carefully arranged to reach his reclined position, his rhythm section craning their necks to try and intuit changes.  

Basing this book on its cover, I had every reason to hate Mac DeMarco. Go ahead: do a Google image search. He comes off as a slacker dressed for a day at the beach in ironic retro-ugly fashion—which seems to go hand in hand with his ’80s guitar chorus pedals. At times it sounds like the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie trying to play with Pavement, or the British cloudgazing band The Clientele detuning their guitars in the middle of a song. He almost seems to intentionally be going for the weirdo vote by replicating those strange but beautiful private-press albums from the ’70s, obscurities that existed only in runs of 500 before being reissued in the 2000s with extensively researched liner notes (see: Donnie & Joe Emerson’s album Dreamin’ Wild, on Light in the Attic Records).  

If you can get past that—and it might take a while—it becomes clear that DeMarco puts a lot of effort into making music that sounds this effortless, if not, well, bad. He’s a much better guitar player than his crappy sound would suggest, and he occasionally employs unconventional harmonies (or dissonance) in otherwise dreamy (albeit slight) melodies. Every song sounds more or less the same—does that make him lazy or consistent?

Despite my initial bout of forgiveness, returning to Salad Days again is a bore. Listening to Mac DeMarco is intoxicating—as in, it makes me feel woozy and nauseous. It’s not just the guitar tone; it’s the way it balances that with the tick-ticking hi-hat and the surprisingly supple and deep bass tones (this album sounds considerably worse as an MP3: CD or vinyl, if you must).

The chances: Depends entirely on how many jurors came of age worshipping Pavement.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict (Secret City)

The album: It should be no surprise that I am a huge Owen Pallett fan. And yet: the first time I heard In Conflict, I thought: Wow, maybe this is the first time he doesn’t hit it out of the park. Maybe this is the first time he won’t make a Polaris shortlist. 

What was my problem? Was I drunk? (Alternately: was I listening to Mac DeMarco?) In Conflict is brilliant, in every respect.

My May review:

Love’s beginning. Love’s end. Infatuation. Divorce. Birth. Death. Taking control. Losing control. Surely there have been thousands of songs written for every one of these situations.  But how many songs have ever been written with a line about “the day that you find your 30s have left you childless”—especially a song that rocks as hard as Owen Pallett’s uncharacteristically Zeppelinesque “The Riverbed”? Who else would dare to set a line like “I’ll never have any children” to a sunny chorus amidst an otherwise mournful chord progression (“I Am Not Afraid”)?

Just as becoming a parent is so obviously a life-changing event—there’s no shortage of songs about that, either—realizing that you’re likely never going to be a parent is surely one of the most emotional experiences of one’s life. Yet Pallett is, to my knowledge, the only person—straight or queer—to face that head on in a song.  

The 34-year-old songwriter, violinist, Arcade Fire sideman and Academy Award-nominated film composer (in 2013, for Spike Jonze’s Her) has avoided autobiography his entire career. Instead, he wrote concept albums loosely related to Dungeons and Dragons’ schools of magic and a fantastical 14th-century world called Heartland. Having been raised on ’90s female singer-songwriters, he resented the common assumption that their so-called “confessional” writing was thereby devoid of craft.

His fourth album finds him, as always, avoiding literal lyrics; even though it is (we’re told) a personal record, it’s still couched in poetry open to interpretation. Without knowing Pallett intimately, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t suggest these are universally resonant narratives. He always gets props for his musical prowess; here, Pallett’s poetry is as evocative as his music has always been.  

That’s not the only way the 2006 Polaris Prize-winner has topped himself. Everything about In Conflict marks a maturation. For starters, his voice: Pallett has always been (unnecessarily) self-conscious about his reedy timbre and somewhat limited range, but his performance here is completely transformative. Not only is he far more commanding as a vocalist, he’s writing melodies that push him to be even better; I’m not sure he’d have been able to sing a song with the melodic reach of “The Sky Behind the Flag” five years ago—at least not as well as he nails it here.  

As someone who until recently performed with only a violin and looping pedals, Pallett retreats from the full-blown orchestration that marked 2010’s Heartland. Here, he plays just as much synth as he does violin or viola. The orchestration is employed sparingly, and therefore far more effectively, never more so than the weeping, occasionally dissonance that colours “The Passions,” or the Ligeti-esque strings on the title track, cascading over the second half of an otherwise bouncy pop song.  

Key to the album’s success are collaborators old and new. Marquee value goes to Brian Eno, whose work for game-changing artists and stadium rockers with avant-garde ambitions is well known. Pallett is less interested in any of those people; he prefers Eno’s first four solo albums, before he started making largely ambient music and taking big production gigs. Eno doesn’t produce In Conflict; Pallett hired him to sing backing vocals, and Eno added some synth and guitar textures for good measure. You know, just another guy in the band. No big deal.  

Here, the real star supporting player is drummer Rob Gordon. Ten years ago, Gordon and Matt Smith were two-thirds of Les Mouches, a band where Pallett played guitar and alternated between intimate whispers and primal screams. Clearly, their chemistry is still intact; they all share writing credits on half the album. Pallett abandoned an early version of the album to re-record with his old band live in a room, which brings out a visceral side of the violinist never before heard on his recordings. Gordon in particular is every bit a virtuoso as Pallett; his drum kit is arguably the lead instrument on “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy.” Smith’s bass adds a bottom end never before heard on a Pallett platter.  

Owen Pallett is no longer the guy who plays looped solo violin. He’s no longer the guy whose lyrics seem sprung from Yukio Mishima and Ursula K. LeGuin books. He’s certainly much more than an Arcade Fire sideman, even if that’s how he’ll have spent 90 per cent of his time in 2014. With In Conflict, Pallett invests a lifetime of experience and creates his definitive work to date. 

The chances: Not bad.

Owen Pallett won the first-ever Polaris in 2006, with his Final Fantasy album He Poos Clouds. I not-so-secretly hope that for the sake of the prize's reptuation, no artist will win it twice in its first 10-year history—even if I thought Caribou’s 2010 Swim was far superior to his 2008 prizewinning Andorra, and yes, even if I think In Conflict is the best album on this shortlist.

Heck: Britain’s Mercury Prize, on which Polaris is partially modelled, has only had one repeat winner in its 22-year history. Even then, PJ Harvey took home the prize 10 years apart (in 2001 and 2011).

The GIller Prize, to which Polaris also looked to for inspiration, has had two repeat winners in its 20-year history: Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji. Both repeated their win in fewer than 10 years. (Munro later withdrew her work for consideration for future Gillers.)

In Conflict is not only Pallett’s finest hour, it’s also his most accessible, I would argue: a good gateway for anyone who couldn’t quite find an entry point beforehand. That could give him a shot—but I wouldn’t count on it.

The could’ve been, should’ve beens:

Hidden Cameras – Age (Outside)

The album: Most people familiar with Hidden Cameras are of two minds. Either they always though them some kind of juvenile, niche novelty, or they are fans who treat them as a time capsule from a certain time and place (i.e. Torontopia, circa 2003). Too bad: Joel Gibb will always have thematic threads in his writing, but he’s no longer out to be deliberately provocative; the guy is 37 years old—he’s a grown man. Age, the album, shows that he’s not at all past his prime: he’s getting better.

Maybe I wrote this band off for several years for a variety of reasons, personal and otherwise, but mostly because neither Awoo nor Origin:Orphan did much for me. Here, Gibb is writing the kind of melodies that first drew me into his world, while the band around him and the production is exponentially better. The vintage Hidden Cameras “gay church folk music” sound is there, alongside strangely successful forays into dub reggae and Depeche Mode worship. Usually there’s at least a clunker or two on a Hidden Cameras album; this album is happily all killer, no filler.

The fact that a new Hidden Cameras album exists, five years since the last, and eons since bandleader Joel Gibb decamped from Toronto for Berlin, isn’t the most surprising thing about Age. That would be the dub reggae track “Afterparty,” which works far better than you’d ever imagine: The sparse backdrop is just as suited to Gibb’s soaring vocals as his usual reverb-drenched guitar music. Gibb also takes some long-overdue steps into slinky synth grooves, hardly shocking for anyone who expected him to eventually evolve from delightful lo-fi amateurism into electronic textures. Yet Age is anything but a series of left turns. Each musical element that made the Cameras’ initial burst of “gay church folk music” so exciting—simple, long-note folk melodies set to four chords and an insistent, joyous rhythm—is still at the core of every track; the ever-present string section is punchier, evocative, and more effective than ever. Most importantly, there isn’t a weak track on this concise album, even if Gibb dips into a pool of old live favourites, like first single “Gay Goth Scene,” featuring a demonic possession by Mary Margaret O’Hara in the solo section. You can take the boy out of Toronto….

Why it didn’t make the long list: Again, people take either this band for granted or have them pegged as something from which Gibb and company have long since moved on. “Long-running band releases decent album” doesn’t make great headlines. I’d argue this is more than decent: it’s the most rewarding, well-rounded Hidden Cameras record ever.

Jimmy Hunt – Maladie d’amour (Grosse Boite)

The album:

My December 2013 review:

For a francophone artist from Quebec, Jimmy Hunt sounds incredibly British: particularly, the lazy, hazy dreampop tradition that weaves through early Pink Floyd to Roxy Music to Talk Talk to the Stones Roses to Stereolab. Maladie d’amour is rich with languorous late-night grooves: not surprisingly when you find out Hunt wrote and recorded the skeletons of these songs while on mushrooms in a studio on a lake in La Mauricie National Park (north of Shawinigan), and fleshed out the arrangements during 12-hour nighttime sessions in Montreal a year later. Hunt’s songs are decent, but it’s the last-minute overhaul he subjected them to that elevates the material from the merely nice to the epic and occasionally transcendent. Things get really weird on “Christian Bobin,” which sounds like an Air/Daft Punk collab with Thurston Moore on guitar. Montreal is known for being a city of dreamers; this sounds like that dream. No wonder Hunt has a song called "Rever souvent." 

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: There weren’t a lot of francophone records with serious traction this year. Only three made the long list: a folk record, a hip-hop record, and this one. He might not be reaching English audiences, but he is up for two ADISQ awards next month: Alternative Album of the Year and something called Album of the Year: Critical Acclaim. Is that the franco Polaris?

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