Thursday, September 15, 2016

Pre-Polaris, day five: U.S. Girls, White Lung

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is on Monday, Sept. 19, 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’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list

The shortlist:

U.S. Girls – Half-Free (4AD)

U.S. Girls is Illinois-born Meghan Remy, who moved to Toronto for love many years ago; her husband, Slim Twig, plays a backing role here. She has a stunning and soulful voice, with shades of Amy Winehouse or Santigold, with a decaying vibrato worthy of Horace Andy. It’s always the best thing about any given track, whether she’s drawing from David Lynch soundtracks (I’d love to hear her do something with Toronto’s Del Bel), Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, or ’90s guitar rock.

If I believe everything I read, this album also references Phil Spector, Michael Ondaatje, John Cassavetes, Cocteau Twins, Giorgio Moroder, dub reggae and Bruce Springsteen. Which sounds like something right up my alley. Sadly, it’s not. I’ve listened to this record plenty since it first came out a year ago, figuring there must be something I’m missing. I’m still coming up short, with the exception of the excellent “Window Shades,” with its minor-key piano, sparse drum machine and conga, and disco harmonies. “New Age Thriller” has also creeped up on me.

I totally understand why people are excited about this artist; I just don’t think all the component parts are gelling on this album. But I’m looking forward to her next steps.

The chances: Fair. I’m an outlier here; other people love this record, and Remy is second only to Grimes as an enigmatic presence on this rather conservative shortlist. Her sense of mystery and the number of sonic and lyrical layers at work here could play well in the jury room.

White Lung – Paradise (Domino)

Who asked for a mash-up of Metric and Metallica? Because that’s all I hear here.

Singer/bandleader Mish Way gives great interview, and every time I read about this band I wished I liked them more than I do. But I fear her move to L.A. has done her no musical favours; Paradise sounds to me like every Sunset Strip band in the mid-’90s hoping to get swept up in the alternative sweepstakes. Punk rock with metal solos and Def Leppard harmonies and twinkly synths in the background? No thanks (says this old man).

The chances: Slim. I’d be shocked if a straight-up rock record ever won the Polaris, unless someone on the grand jury can make the case that the politically charged Mish Way is a more worthy feminist icon than the rest of the competition here.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

All this week I’ve been trying to focus on records that didn’t even make the Polaris Long List, because they obviously need some more love. The long listers I’ve been revisiting are on the more obscure side (Michelle McAdorey, Veda Hille), or, like Coeur de Pirate, indicative of a demographic I’d have liked to see on the shortlist (i.e. francophone Quebec). There are three other long-list records I love, but don’t feel the need to revisit at length here: Peaches’ Rub, Destroyer’s Poison Season, and Operators’ Blue Wave. Now, on to the last two of my favourites you might have missed this Polaris season:

Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)

My March review:

For the last 10 years, Montreal producer Ghislain Poirier has been mutating dancehall, soca and Brazilian styles into his DJ nights and original material. He’s released various EPs and singles since his 2010 album for Ninja Tune, Running High, as well as a detour back to his roots in abstract electronics under the name Boundary (Poirier originally came from the same minimalist scene as Tim Hecker).  

So for his first full-length in six years, Poirier comes out swinging, with massive tracks that build on everything he’s ever done, whether it’s straight-up reggae and soca or draping chilly electronic textures over instrumental dancehall beats. Global guests on the aptly titled Migration include New York-via-Jamaica dancehall MC Red Fox, electro-reggae Chicago-via-Panama MC Zulu, Berlin-via-North Carolina producer Machinedrum, Toronto’s Dubmatix, Montreal-via-Haiti MC Fwonte and longtime collaborator Face-T. The thread throughout is Poirier’s finely honed aesthetic: the man is a veteran, not a dabbler, and his 15 years of experience can be heard in every track. His curiosity carries him anywhere with bright sunshine and deep bass, bringing it all back to the city in Canada where you’re most likely to find a street party on any given summer night.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: I don’t know, maybe because we were all preoccupied with how supposedly Caribbean-centric the new Drake was alleged to be? More likely because young upstart Kaytranada (deservedly) took all the headlines on behalf of Montreal’s beat scene in the past year. Or maybe because Poirier retreated for a while after his Ninja Tune deal and went back to his more abstract, avant-garde side before coming back six years later, diving deeper into dancehall and reggae than ever before. Whatever the reason: you still have a few more days of summer ’16 to feel this.

Un Blonde – Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper Factory)

My June review:

Jean-Sebastien Audet spent his teenage years in Calgary with a variety of musical projects, which is probably why the latest album by this 19-year-old and recent Montreal transplant sounds so accomplished, even though it’s incredibly bare, featuring little more than acoustic guitar and layers of Audet’s gospel-tinged harmonies. (For anyone, like me, who’s been seeking out Prince demos online since that legend’s death, Un Blonde has further resonance.) One song is called “I Felt the Evening Come Through the Window,” and indeed, Audet retains the sound of falling rain outside his apartment, along with seagulls and other ambient noise. Audet isn’t just a singer-songwriter fond of sparse arrangements; on instrumental tracks like “Exercise A,” he also explores ambient textures (with what’s either a melodica, accordion or harmonium—hard to tell). Good Will Come to You features 21 songs in 46 minutes; tiny perfect sketches that speak volumes about the man’s talent.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: It came out right before the Polaris deadline, it’s by a guy who’s completely obscure outside of the Weird Canada faithful, and it’s a really freakin’ odd and fragmented record that most resembles that first Devendra Banhart album, when that freaky folkie was recording two-minute songs into his answering machine. Audet is an insanely creative guy bursting with ideas and blessed with an incredible voice; once his songwriting steps up a notch, we’ll most definitely be talking about him a whole lot more at a future Polaris.

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