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.

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