Friday, September 18, 2015

Pre-Polaris, day five: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Viet Cong

The 10th Polaris Music Prize gala is next Monday, Sept. 21, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000 and a gig with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2016. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ve been looking at two of the shortlisted albums, assessing their chances, and celebrating two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list.

Day one is here; day two is here; day three is here; day four is here.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (True North)

The album:

This is the one. There are many peripheral reasons to want this award to go to Buffy Sainte-Marie. She’s a 74-year-old legend who’s often left out of the canon comprised of her peers: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen et al. She’s made a vital, political album in the era of #IdleNoMore and daily reminders of the urgency of Aboriginal issues. She gives great interview. Her live show is amazing. Tanya Tagaq announces this year’s winner—that would be a great moment to witness were it to be Buffy.

But we’re not talking about that, are we? We’re talking about the kickass album she put out in 2015, one of the best in her 50-year career. She’s been on the comeback trail lately, with an overdue and worthy collection of her “lost” mid-’70s albums, 2010’s The Pathfinder, and 2008’s Running For the Drum. But she’s never sounded as good as this, thanks to the sonic consistency of Michael Phillip Wojewoda’s mixing job (he’s also one of three producers here, including her long-time collaborator Chris Birkett.) She revisits and rewrites some earlier songs, writes some powerful new ones, and throws in a couple of covers. It's eclectic, it's soul-stirring and powerful music.

I could go on, but I said much of it in this May review.

I also had the immense pleasure of interviewing her for this article in Aux; the full, exuberant transcript is here.  

After OD’ing on this album after its release, I put it down until a few weeks ago—and by the time I hit the rousing closer, “Carry It On,” it literally made me weep with joy all over again. Buffy is the boss. Let’s do this.

The chances: Excellent.

Viet Cong – s/t (Flemish Eye)

The album:

Hoo-eee, here we go.

First: the music. I’d heard their debut EP and kind of liked it as a retro-’80s darkwave artifact. I heard the full-length and it bored me to tears: dour, dreary and punishing, though the drummer’s pretty good and I like some of the production. The closing track is called “Death.” Well before its 10 minutes are over, I’d prefer the real thing to hearing this song ever again.

But we need to talk about what everyone who has never heard their music is talking about: why on Earth is there a band of white Calgarians called Viet Cong?

Before we go any further, please read this excellent article by April Aliermo in Exclaim. It’s essential reading.

VALUABLE UPDATE: The name will change, the band announced on Sept. 20.

When I first heard this name, knowing that some of these guys used to have a band called Women, I thought it was a silly punk move, trying to be somewhat shocking by adopting the name of America’s enemy in the Vietnam War. Smug Canadians love to rail against the sins of American imperialism, therefore the enemy of America must be countercultural and cool, right? (See: Che Guevara.) There’s also a Montreal band called USA Out of Vietnam (no word on if these two have ever played a double bill).

It’s kind of like calling your band al-Qaeda. Or the Taliban. Except that outside of Hollywood caricatures, most white North Americans really have no idea who the Viet Cong were, what they did, or why all those Vietnamese Boat People of the late 1970s risked their lives to leave Vietnam in the first place. Suddenly during the Syrian refugee crisis, those Boat People are the source of great Canadian pride, a reason to pat ourselves on the back for our altruism 35 years ago.

Yes, white people in general—like all people, really—are ethnocentric and ahistorical, so no, I’m sure these rubes had no idea what they were walking into when they chose this name. Are they racist? Not sure, but they’re definitely ignorant. All racists are ignorant. But are all ignoramuses racist? Discuss.

Secondary question: regardless of your ethnicity, do you know why it would be a colossally bad idea to name your band Khmer Rouge? What about Tonton Macoute? Tutsi Cockroaches? The Lord’s Resistance Army? John Birch Society? Idi Amin? Any of those names ring any bells? Chances are most people—most young rock fans in particular—without an acute sense of history would have no idea why any of those potential band names might be offensive. That doesn’t excuse any musician who would choose those names, but you can understand why everyone around them might turn a blind eye.

The band’s defenders bring up Joy Division and Gang of Four—beloved and influential bands we all take for granted. Most rock fans actually have no idea what horrors those names refer to (if you don’t, please look it up). We were all fine with those bands, weren’t we? That doesn’t matter. Lots of old jokes aren’t funny anymore. Original London punks wore swastikas. There was a Toronto punk band called Battered Wives. There is still a football team called the Washington Redskins. None of that shit is cool. It’s juvenile bullshit. So is Marilyn Manson and his backing band named after serial killers. So is Dr. Dre’s misogyny. So are Eminem’s endless lyrical fantasies about killing the mother of his child. So is Tyler the Creator and LOLs about rape culture. Offence is everywhere.

So yes, as a white Canadian, I didn’t give the name much thought. I regret that. Like any limp-dick, adversity-averse Canadian man, I hoped the band would fade away into the margins from whence they came.

This album didn’t end up on the shortlist by accident. There was heated discussion among Polaris jurors. Both sides were, I believe, heard out. I tuned out, mostly because I didn’t like the album to begin with, and it didn’t seem like anyone’s mind was being changed. But to suggest, as the Exclaim! article does (and, ahem, a certain other article that made the rounds this week), that this issue was on no one’s mind would be inaccurate. The fact, then, that the album ended up on the shortlist does speak volumes about privilege—mine and fellow jurors. That worries me.

Part of the Polaris process is trying to ensure that we’re talking about the actual music: not whether or not someone “deserves” the award, not the marketing budget (or lack thereof) behind Artist X, not how much of a dick someone might be, not whether or not their lyrics are supposed to be autobiographical, not the album art. But just as I think it’s wrong to look the other way and say “it’s all good” when talking about Action Bronson or whoever, it’s ridiculous to suggest that—in 2015—we can ignore this band’s name and listen only to the music.

Having said all that: I’m kind of glad this is happening. The fact that they’re on the shortlist and playing at the gala has brought the issue to the forefront, whereas before they were a band you could easily ignore. Now we’re all forced to talk about this.

The chances: 

Before this week, I’d have said they had a mild shot. Now they’re totally toxic. [Update, Sept. 20: Despite their recent contrition, I still think this is the case.] Have fun at the gala, boys! I’m dying to eavesdrop on your conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Two of the should’ve, could’ve beens:

Siskiyou – Nervous (Constellation)

The album:

This would have slipped under my radar had my esteemed colleague Carla Gillis not championed it. She was very convincing. One listen and I was hooked.

Sure sounds nervous. Anxious, even. Worried. And yet determined to plough through whatever weird situation we all find ourselves in, surrounded by spooky soundscapes on this, the third album by Vancouver’s Siskiyou. Fronted by former Great Lake Swimmers drummer Colin Huebert (and featuring that band’s string player, Erik Arnesen), Siskiyou maintains a tension throughout Nervous, regardless of tempo or arrangement, major key or minor. Opening track “Deserter” begins with a haunting children’s choir, leading into a bass line borrowed from The Cure’s “Fascination Street” before Huebert’s hushed vocals begin the verses. The tune gets more animated as it proceeds, with the choir singing off-beat shots, Colin Stetson’s baritone sax taking the solo, and ending with a ghostly coda with just Huebert and electric guitar. Nervous was written after Huebert, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, was also diagnosed with a severe inner-ear condition. He took a songwriting workshop residency in the Yukon and crafted this material during a silent retreat. When he came back to Vancouver he rehearsed the material at low volume—even though this is not a quiet record; that explains the tension. The result sounds like an artist throwing everything they have into one final project, just in case it’s their last. He employed Stetson, Owen Pallett, Destroyer trumpeter JP Carter, and renowned producer/engineer Leon Taheny (Owen Pallett, Austra, Bruce Peninsula) to flesh out his grand sonic vision.  It makes for a great creation story—but the music itself is even better.

Why it didn’t make the short list:

I’m ecstatic it got on the long list. It’s an unsettling listen at times, and unless “Heroes” is your favourite Bowie song and you enjoy the voice of a man who sounds like he’s on the verge of wigging right out and you like your spooky, art-damaged, backwoods folk-rock mixed in with some big rock guitars, this might not be your bag.

Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter)

The album:

Wow, that would make a great Viet Cong album title, wouldn’t it?

Who’s burning bridges here? Not Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, whose second full-length as Whitehorse is as welcoming and accessible and brilliant a mainstream rock record could imaginably be in 2015. Start with the obvious: both are undeniably gifted musicians, handling all guitars, keyboards and percussion, as well as impeccable harmonies. On top of that, Doucet also holds a trump card: he is one of the best guitarists working anywhere in the world today. Anyone who’s seen their stripped-down live show, utilizing live looping and layers, knows all this.  On top of that, since ditching their solo careers and rebranding themselves they’ve also stepped up their songwriting game. This time out, producer Gus Van Go reportedly rejected their demos and told them to “go home and write ‘real’ songs,” Doucet told Exclaim!. Weird: this record is no better or worse than their near-flawless 2012 debut, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. If it’s to Van Go’s credit that he made them live up to their own standards, so be it.  Whitehorse already had a perfect package, so there are no complaints if they returned with more of the same: McCartneyesque melodies, Duane Eddy guitars, Emmylou-and-Gram harmonies, rockabilly shuffles, Blue Rodeo rockers, Pixie-ish oddball twists (the track “Evangelina” owes a debt to “Where Is My Mind”) and—well, you know, lessons learned from the last 50 years of classic rock albums. Expect Whitehorse’s discography to join that legacy sooner than later. (Feb. 19)

Why it didn’t make the short list:

Again, a mystery, especially considering the last one made the short list. Where did the mainstream votes go this time out? All to Buffy? To the New Pornographers? To (gulp) Tobias Jesso? Were they split between Whitehorse and Bahamas and Frazey Ford and Lee Harvey Osmond and Patrick Watson and The Weather Station?

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