Friday, September 15, 2017

Pre-Polaris 2017, Day Five: Leif Vollebekk, Weaves

The 12th Polaris Music Prize gala is being held on Sept. 18, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of 10 shortlisted artists will get $50,000. All other nominees receive $3,000.

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

On day one I discussed A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood, and should've beens Phillipe B and Japandroids. Day two was Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, and should’ve beens by Loscil and Tami Neilson. Day three was Feist and Lisa LeBlanc, with should’ve beens by Le Couleur and Jessie Reyez. Day four was Lido Pimienta, Tanya Tagaq, with should’ve beens by Sagot and Sam Patch.


Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude (Secret City)

The album: (reviewed Sept. 14, 2017)

I put off writing about this record until now, because I could never stay awake listening to it. And I'm the guy who voted for Loscil.

How did this unassuming folk record sneak in beside the kings and queens of Canada’s critically acclaimed creative community? Excellent question. Vollebekk’s songs are sparse, melodically similar, and sound like a guy making up words as he sits in the passenger seat driving through North America. (Song titles: “Vancouver Time,” “Big Sky Country,” “Michigan,” “Telluride.”) It sounds effortless—and not in a good way. There is nothing here to distinguish him from hundreds of sad-sack songwriters. Why anyone would pick this out of a pile that includes Amelia Curran, Rose Cousins, Jordan Klaasen, Jesse McCormack, or--well, sweet Jesus, this is Canada we’re talking about here: go to any random folk festival, throw a hackysack into the crowd, and you’re bound to hit one of dozens of songwriters superior to Vollebekk. Is this some kind of Ray Lamontagne thing? Maybe, coz I don’t get that guy either. At all.

Discussing each track here with CBC Music, Vollebekk said of one, “I think I was hungover when I wrote this song. I'd been dragged to a club in Montreal. The next morning I was bleary-eyed and started playing these chords and singing whatever came and this song kind of came out. It seems to be about nothing specific but it kind of connects what it needs to, where it needs to.” All of Twin Solitude seems like it was composed in a similar fashion.

Vollebekk’s main talent is as a producer: he knows how to situate his songs in a groove and find sympathetic players to play as little as possible, with only the simplest string orchestrations and subtle touches on piano and pedal steel. The problem is that this skeletal approach works best for songs that require no distraction. These songs, on the other hand, require as much distraction as necessary. Personally, I find it distracting that he hired Michael Feuerstack to play pedal steel on one track--because that just reminds me that I’d much rather be listening to a Michael Feuerstack record.

The chances: I’d say non-existent. The man obviously has his fans, but I cannot envision anyone not already predisposed to sad sacks suddenly falling in love with this record.

Weaves - s/t (Buzz)

The album: This album is a beautifully hot mess. Toronto’s Weaves is a guitar-bass-drums band who turn the formula inside out in the way precious few bands have done since the no-wave era of the early ’80s—the most popular exception being Deerhoof (to these ears, the most exciting rock band of the 2000s). None of these songs go where you think they will, and the energy is driven by the thrilling presence of singer Jasmyn Burke. While there’s lots to chew on here, few songs coalesce as well as opening track “Tick.” Elsewhere, you’re listening to an exciting, if uneven, debut album by a fiercely talented young band. But as the lead single from the upcoming follow-up reveals, this band is about to get even better.

The chances: Slim. For all their obtuseness, Weaves are a lot of fun--something that, Kaytranada notwithstanding, Polaris rarely rewards. But I’m guessing they’ll make it far in the jury-room elimination rounds--and that they may very well be back on the shortlist next year.

The could’ve beens, should’ve beens:

Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution (Arts and Crafts)

The album: (reviewed April 6, 2017)

Here’s something I never in a million years thought I’d witness: a six-year-old child doing a funky dance to a Timber Timbre song. Yet that’s what happened in my house one of the first times I played “Grifting,” from the group’s sixth album. Normally purveyors of bleak, backwoods blues with twangy guitars and ’70s synths, Timber Timbre pulled out a clavinet to make an unusually groovy beat for the track in question, which isn’t as fish-out-of-water as a longtime fan might suspect.

Sexy, slinky grooves have slowly been permeating Timber Timbre’s music as the band’s sound became more expansive, most notably on 2014’s Hot Dreams. Other than “Grifting,” though, there are no surprises here, other than the fact that this group manages to milk endless possibilities out of a predictable format, one in which bandleader Taylor Kirk’s undead-Elvis voice is drenched in reverb singing lyrics like, “Now I come before you moving through this tomb of vapour-y perfume and fog-filled rooms,” one in which Simon Trottier and Mathieu Charbonneau extract all kinds of unsettling sounds from their instruments, one in which Tindersticks meet Tangerine Dream and groove to dub reggae and early Peter Gabriel records.

It would be lazy to dismiss a band this experimental as formulaic. Timber Timbre have a formula, to be sure, but one that keeps evolving and getting more freaky as they go: witness the Vocoders and completely wiggy, Fripp-esque guitar solo in “Moment.” And yet they’re simultaneously sweeter and more accessible: the album closes with “Floating Cathedral,” one of the loveliest songs in their catalog—surprising us right until the end.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: This was shocking to me, seeing how their last two records shortlisted. Then again, it’s my own damn fault: I didn’t vote for it, because, as always, there were a lot of great records to consider and for whatever reason at the time I’d decided I couldn’t squeeze this on to my list of five. Even if I think this band keeps getting better. If even a fan like myself takes this band for granted, and if others might not see the evolution, then it can be easy for them to slip through the cracks. But if you’ve ever been drawn to this band, don’t let the Polaris snub allow you to forget about this. And go see them this November: it sounds even better live.

The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem (Universal)

The album: (reviewed June 16, 2016)
“Just give me the news,” goes the opening line of the lead single from The Tragically Hip’s final album. We’ve all heard the horrible news by now. The news is that singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. The news is that this is the final Tragically Hip album. The news is that this summer’s tour will likely be the last. Nobody wanted that news.

That news, however, came to the band shortly after this album was written and recorded in the fall of 2015. Man Machine Poem, produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin, is not something Downie or the band knew would be a final statement, and should not be treated as such. Most important, long-dormant Hip fans who now have a sudden urge to see their teenage heroes one last time need to realize—dear God, if they haven’t by now—that this is not the same band who made “New Orleans is Sinking.” News flash: The Hip has not been that band for a very, very long time. If your impression of these Canadian heroes ossified in the early 1990s, then by all means cling to those first three albums during your mourning period. This is a completely different band.

The Hip’s discography of the last 20 years is full of hits and plenty of misses, as surely even the most diehard fan will tell you. Drew and Hamelin are not slaves to history: they turn the band loose, encouraging the Hip to dive into dream states, to paint with colours that more closely match Downie’s lyrical abstractions.  

“Nothing works, and nothing worse / I’ve tried nothing, and I’m out of ideas,” sings Downie on “Great Soul,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to 1994’s “Grace, Too.” But really, he’s just baiting us, because this is band that suddenly seems bursting with new ideas—nothing remotely revolutionary in the world of rock music, of course, but the culmination of the direction they’ve been headed since 1994’s Day For Night. Back then, they consciously pulled the plug on stadium rock and started taking lessons from such disparate teachers as Daniel Lanois and Eric’s Trip. Likewise, here the Hip dwell in dark sonic corners, rarely rocking out, delving into texture and nuance. This is the band they’ve been trying to be; Drew and Hamelin got them there.

The album opens with a tape-manipulated, pitch-shifting vocal; the rest of the incredibly sparse song sounds like nothing else the band has ever recorded. On the gorgeous and sparse “In Sarnia,” Downie sounds anguished, almost inconsolable, his lyrics collapsing out of the meter, often unintelligible; it sounds like a man giving everything he has in a jittery, nervous performance at odds with the languid groove. It’s a harrowing and gutsy performance no matter the context, especially now.

When the band does play it relatively straight, like on first single “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind,” they sound triumphant, not timid, like they’re ready to go another 20 years. Even a mid-tempo song called “Tired as Fuck”—which, when coming from a rock band in their 50s, practically invites mockery—has a strut and swagger to it, while Downie sings, “I want to stop so much I almost don’t want to stop.”

Kevin Drew says this album is about “memory, transformation and truth.” That’s all any of us could ask for in a document that turned out to be a final will and testament. “I want you to enchant my days, honour it daily,” sings Downie. That’s worked both ways now, for 27 years, for 13 albums, for the infinite times this band’s work has soundtracked and illuminated our lives.

Later thoughts: I’m writing a book about it. You’ll have to wait. In the meantime, here’s a brief excerpt that gives you a peak at what I’m up to.

Why it didn’t make it: It was surprising enough that it made the long list, because precious few artists capture Polaris attention this deep into their career. There is no question that the news of 2016 drew more attention to a new Tragically Hip record than would otherwise exist, but that it also happened to be one of the better Tragically Hip records was a pleasant coincidence. As for why that momentum didn’t catapult this record onto the shortlist, the obvious reason is that it was eclipsed by Downie’s solo record, which is on many levels, more in tune with the Polaris wavelength. Either way, I know that Polaris founder Steve Jordan--who, in his earlier life, happened to have been the first DJ to play the Tragically Hip on top 40 radio, on Kingston’s CKLC back in 1987--couldn’t be happier that Man Machine Poem landed on the long list.

Side note: Go see Long Time Running, the new Tragically Hip documentary by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick dePencier, in theatres if you can this weekend; it’s playing only until Monday. It’s the film the band deserves and has never had until now. It’s beautifully shot (naturally) and sounds great at full volume, so don’t wait until it airs on CTV in November if you don’t have to. Most important, it crams a lot of narrative and many (of my favourite) songs into a concise 90-minute film, in ways I doubted was possible. And don’t worry: like the tour itself, it’s not remotely maudlin or tear-jerky. It’s a celebration.

Pre-Polaris 2017, Day Four: Tagaq, Lido Pimienta

The 12th Polaris Music Prize gala is being held on Sept. 18, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of 10 shortlisted artists will get $50,000. 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 shortlist—or, in some cases, even the long list.

On day one I discussed A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood, and should've beens Phillipe B and Japandroids. Day two was Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, and should’ve beens by Loscil and Tami Neilson. Day three was Feist and Lisa LeBlanc, with should’ve beens by Le Couleur and Jessie Reyez.


Lida Pimienta - La Papessa (independent)

The album: La Papessa is the annual rebuke to those who think Polaris is far too predictable: Pimienta is entirely independent, releasing her own record without a publicist and only recently signing to a boutique management company. An Afro-Colombian Canadian, she sings entirely in Spanish. Her take on percussive electronic music is hazy and psychedelic, with nods to cumbia or reggaeton but blissfully faithful to no orthodoxy. Her vocals are at times seemingly untethered to the bass lines, stretching her songs melodically in ways that few artists peripherally connected to pop music dare to do (see: post-Vespertine Bjork). Pimienta is a fascinating vocalist, though clearly not to all tastes. I’ve read accusations that she’s wildly off-pitch in her upper register, which is patently false (listen to her birdcalls on “La Capacidad”). I suspect her melodies incorporate notes outside traditional scales that can create perceptions of clashing harmonies; she may well even be working with quarter-tones, but what do I know? That, combined with a sonic approach that sounds like little else I’m aware of (Arca remixing early Grimes tracks? Totó La Momposina working with Forest Swords?), make La Papessa equally appealing and alienating. Which, no matter how you feel about it, makes it great art.  

The chances: Fair. As someone who reviews approximately 250 albums a year, I can tell you that many music critics love it when something tangentially tethered to a form they recognize sounds surprising and different from the 100 other random new releases that come across their desk that week. (That’s why four dudes playing guitar-bass-drums are easier to dismiss.) It inspires better writing and critical thought. It also inspires discussion, which is why I think this record might be the subject of much debate in this year’s jury room. Take a look at past Polaris winners, and this album could very well fit into a pattern. That said, this shortlist still pits Pimienta against her friends and collaborators A Tribe Called Red, whose tide lifts many boats.

Tagaq - Retribution (Six Shooter)

The album: (reviewed Oct. 20, 2016)

Tanya Tagaq does not fuck around. The earth is dying, we are killing it, and goddammit, this is what it sounds like.

That much can be inferred by the beauty and the horror evoked by the sounds created by Tagaq and her band, violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin. But mostly, of course, Tagaq, whose singing voice is can be sweet and fragile—and whose throat singing can be terrifying at times.
Despite the power of her music, the musician doesn’t entirely trust the listener enough to get her message. Her press release states frankly: “This album is about rape. Rape of women, rape of the land, rape of children, despoiling of traditional lands without consent.” In the likely event you don’t routinely read artist statements, there’s a cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” that closes the album, just in case you weren’t sure what it is you’ve just heard. (“I’m not the only one,” she coos, no doubt as a nod to the MMIW issue she’s been illuminating for years now, but even more powerful post-Ghomeshi/Cosby/Trump.)
She also has introduced spoken word segments into her music, again underscoring the urgency of her environmentalist message. It’s not subtle, and it’s not necessary: her music speaks volumes on its own. Some guests are welcomed into the fold: most effective are Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyülyüsh, a natural cross-cultural collaboration, and Toronto’s Element Choir, whose orchestrated shrieks and howls have often accompanied Tagaq’s Toronto shows, including performances at the Polaris gala and at Massey Hall. Shad shows up as well.
Sadly, still no sign of a dream jam with Diamanda Galas. Next time.

Later thoughts: Tagaq and her duo, violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin, are incredible live artists. Every show is improvised. No show disappoints. Recordings are a trickier affair. They definitely nailed it on the Polaris Prize-winning Animism, a searing, visceral scorcher where only a couple of tracks failed to connect. Though Retribution broadens the palette, I didn’t find it improved what was already there, with the exception of the track with Shad. Comparing an artist like Tagaq to people who work in conservative song structures is ridiculous, of course, but so is comparing works within an experimental artist’s discography. For any fan, some records will click, and some won’t. This is all a half-assed attempt to say that I can’t articulate why I don’t think Retribution is as successful as Animism. Such are the pitfalls of subjectivity, especially with music that colours so far outside any lines.
The chances: Minuscule. As with Feist, it’s highly unlikely a past winner will repeat at Polaris. And again, a win for A Tribe Called Red would also be a win for Pimienta and Tagaq, who guest on that record. But you can fully expect Tagaq to conduct herself like lightning at the gala.

The could’ve beens, should’ve beens:

Sagot – Bleu Jane (Simone)
The album: (reviewed April 20, 2017)
Montreal’s Julien Sagot out-spooks Del Bel, Timber Timbre and any other moody Anglos this season on his third album, in which he sounds like a Satanic Serge Gainsbourg. Sagot’s wonderfully strange world is usually a solo affair, though this time he brings some friends into his louche lair, including Patrick Watson’s rhythm section. Bleu Jane is more bass-heavy and features more dense production than his previous two records, though that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more commercially appealing to audiences in either official language. Not that it has to, of course: Sagot’s mystery is integral to his intrigue, and it makes him one of the fascinating artists in this country.

Recent thoughts: I haven’t seen the new Twin Peaks yet, but from what I hear Sagot does not play the Bang Bang Bar. This is a major oversight.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Baisé si je sais.

Sam Patch – Yeah You, and I (Dep)
The album: (reviewed Feb. 16, 2017)

Tim Kingsbury is the last member of Arcade Fire, other than the two founders, to put out a solo record. “I never meant to bury it / But I was set in my ways … Is it too late to start again?” he asks on the opening track, “Oversight.” The answer is clear: of course not.
His colleagues Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry and Jeremy Gara have all explored more experimental and abstract music in their solo projects; Will Butler put out a loose and raw rock’n’roll record (and an even looser and more raw live album immediately afterwards). All of them except Neufeld are part of a cover band on the side, Phi Slamma Jamma, in which Kingsbury and Will Butler clearly have a blast playing songs by the Everly Brothers, Jonathan Richman, Neil Young, Devo, CCR, Prince and others. It’s that band’s set lists that, in retrospect, inform Sam Patch: catchy pop songs over standard rock’n’roll chords.
But Sam Patch often takes a more esoteric bent, with sci-fi synths slowly modulating over pulsing 4/4 rhythms on acoustic and bass guitar, while drummer Jeremy Gara syncopates underneath: it all answers the never-posed question about what a collaboration between Tom Petty and Stereolab might sound like. Kingsbury’s choice of synth sounds is gloriously kaleidoscopic, and he scores points with this reviewer for repurposing the sound of Rough Trade’s “Crimes of Passion” here on “Listening.” Basia Bulat plays bass and provides backing vocals, facilitating Kingsbury’s taste for rich harmonies. John McEntire and Doug McCombs of Tortoise assist on two tracks.

Kingsbury is not one of those mumbling sidemen who finally musters enough courage to step to centre stage: he was fronting his own band (featuring Richard Reed Parry) back in 2002 when he was first spotted by Win Butler, and here he proves to be an engaging vocalist, particularly on the sombre closing track, “Up All Night.”
Comparisons with his day job are inevitable, and so it boils down to this: Sam Patch has every bit the melodic and textural strength of Arcade Fire, without ever sounding claustrophobic and minus the tense dramatics (with the exception of the fuzzed-out rocker “Listening,” which provides the sole hint of menace here; meanwhile, “Never Meant No Harm” nods to the Caribbean rhythms of Reflektor). Kingsbury has always been the most underrated, invisible member of Arcade Fire; that perception ends right now. And with eight songs clocking in at 35 minutes, Sam Patch leaves us wanting more—much more.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: From what I can tell, few critics even reviewed it--and that was even before everyone got pissed off at the marketing campaign for the new Arcade Fire that arrived four months later. Like Kingsbury himself, the record is unassuming and not flashy in any way, and so was unlikely to stand out in a crowded field. But any fan of Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat, or Kingsbury’s old friend Jim Guthrie is well advised to track it down.

Tomorrow: Leif Vollebekk, Weaves