Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pre-Polaris 2017 Day One: A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood

Hey! Long time no blog. I’m writing a book with no time to lose. Details here. Early excerpt here. But I felt I had to return for the annual Polaris posts.

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

A Tribe Called Red – We Are the Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend)

The album: (review from Sept. 22, 2016)

This Tribe just got a whole lot bigger. 

Yes, this three-man DJ trio from Ottawa is poised to accelerate their ascent from local club nights to critical acclaim to Coachella with this, their third album, two years in the making. 

But while in the past they built their sound primarily from samples of powwow groups licensed from the Tribal Spirit label, this time out they reached out directly to acts like Northern Voice and Black Bear, both based in the Manawan region of central Quebec. That’s not surprising. 

This time out they also welcomed to the Tribe kindred spirits Tanya Tagaq and Leonard Sumner, as well as Kenyan-Canadian Shad, and Colombian-Canadian Lido Pimienta. They’ve gone international, inviting African-American poet Saul William, Tuscarora North Carolinian singer Jennifer Kreisberg, and Maxida Märak, a Finnish singer of the Sami people. We Are the Halluci Nation takes its title from John Trudell, the legendary activist and poet of the American Indian Movement; the recordings he contributed to this project were among the last he ever made before he died of cancer last December.

It’s easy to uncharitably suggest that all A Tribe Called Red does is merely marry powwow singing to EDM, a chocolate-and-peanut-butter mash-up that continues to pay rich dividends here. There are certainly moments that succumb to EDM clichés, but Tribe has always had a broader musical vision in play—as one would expect from a group whose every intention is to shatter stereotypes. The trio doesn’t just lazily cut and paste: the rhythms underneath emulate the powwow drums while simultaneously turning them on their head for the digital age. The percussive playfulness with Tagaq is delightful; the tracks with Pimienta echo the electro-cumbia sound of modern South America. Lead single “R.E.D.,” which features Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def), Iraqi-Canadian MC Narcy and Black Bear, rides a slow, grinding, heavy riff that could be a Black Sabbath cover. 

Music aside, Halluci Nation articulates resistance in ways rarely heard in hip-hop and practically never in EDM (“As First Nations people, everything we do is political,” pointed out the liner notes on 2013’s Nation II Nation). And the album doesn’t even include their 2015 “Thanksgiving special” single “Burn Your Village to the Ground.”

It’s not an understatement to say that A Tribe Called Red is redefining public consciousness of Canada’s First Nations people. One listen to this record will make the reasons why incredibly obvious.

Later thoughts:
As much as I love what this album is, I wish I loved this album more. It’s likely my age, but the more EDM moments drag this album down a bit for me. A solo record by former member DJ Shub, released a few months later, reminded me of what’s missing on this record: a real sense of swing and funk, as heard on the Nation II Nation single “Sisters.” I’m still more interested in hearing how much further they push their sound, but neither pondering the past or imagining the future should take away from how strong this album is on its own.

The chances:
Excellent. Consider this a coronation. The fact that it features fellow shortlisters Lido Pimienta and Tagaq, as well as former shortlister and host Shad, makes this prime Polaris bait. This would actually be the most Polaris win ever. It’s all but inevitable.

Badbadnotgood – IV (Arts and Crafts)

The album: (reviewed July 7, 2016)

From Led Zeppelin IV to Black Mountain IV—hell, even Foreigner 4—and now the fourth album from Toronto hip-hop/jazz band Badbadnotgood, putting the number four in a title suggests you’re saving your best ideas for the music, not the marketing, and the fourth album is the ideal time to crystallize the myriad directions the band had taken up until now. 

For Badbadnotgood—who, after starting out with jazz covers of hip-hop tracks came into their own on a full-length collaboration with Ghostface Killah and their 2014 album III—this finds them stepping up their game once again, moving away from hip-hop slightly (collaborations with Kaytranada and Mick Jenkins notwithstanding) and toward the funk of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the cinematic esoterica of space-age bachelor pad music a la Esquivel or Broadcast. They also dip into sultry soul music, with pop songs sung by Charlotte Day Wilson and a particularly surprising turn by Future Islands’ Sam Herring, on which he channels the late Bobby Womack. 

Part of IV’s success is the natural evolution of these young players, but also the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whitty, whose guest spots on III were a highlight. Nonetheless, they enlist avant jazz star Colin Stetson to lend a beefy, baritone bottom end to “Confessions Pt. II,” where he trades leads with Whitty while the band vamps on what could be a ’70s action film soundtrack underneath.

Exciting as it is, even better is anticipating where this band will venture next. Because it sounds like the sky’s the limit.

Later thoughts:
Still love it. Voted for it. Finally saw them live, and was blown away. And goddammit, that Sam Herring song is one of my favourite songs of the last year.

The chances:
Next to A Tribe Called Red? Zip. The game here is to try and figure out which three of the 10 shortlisted records the jury will end up voting on after two elimination rounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of them, as the only thing remotely resembling a hip-hop record here (note: it’s not a hip-hop record). Previous winner Kaytranada shows up here, as does two-time shortlister Colin Stetson and likely future shortlister Charlotte Day Wilson.

The could’ve been, should’ve beens

Phillipe B – La grande nuit vidéo (Bonsound)

The album:
This year had more franco artists on the long list than ever; none made the shortlist. This one probably should have. Phillipe B owes equal debts to Nick Drake and French chanson; these spare songs for either acoustic guitar or piano are embellished by gorgeous and haunting string arrangements, evocative and cinematic textures that elevate the songwriter’s subtle strokes.

Why it didn’t make it:  
This was a revelation to me on this year’s long list, and it’s a grower; its release two weeks before the Polaris cutoff might have hurt its chances. There’s another sad-sack Montrealer who made the shortlist instead of Philippe B, but I can’t fathom how anyone could pick the Leif Vollebekk record over this one. Oh wait—it’s in French.

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Arts and Crafts)

The album: (reviewed January 22; my Maclean’s piece here)

“If they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell.” So went the chorus to “The House That Heaven Built,” one of many anthems on 2012’s Celebration Rock that vaulted Japandroids from poorly kept secret of the Vancouver underground into beloved rock’n’roll saviours. And yet they did slow down: guitarist Brian King moved to Toronto; drummer Dave Prowse stayed in Vancouver; they took two years writing and recording this, their third album and first in 4½ years.

Japandroids are a guitar-drums duo, but there’s nothing simple about them. Wild Heart is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, performance and production. Whereas before they could be accused of simply extending a lineage that runs from Bruce Springsteen to the Constantines, here they really come their own. These are much more than just drunken Saturday night odes to youth, romance, rock’n’roll and the open road (not necessarily in that order) that used to be Japandroids’ stock and trade. That still exists here: “North South East West” is exactly the kind of fist-pumping catharsis one expects from this band; expect this one to be a key part of the soundtrack of 2017. But they’re both in their mid-thirties now, and so their signature intensity is being applied to varying tempos and textures, including instrumentation that will be difficult to duplicate onstage as a duo. Wild Heart is very much an album as opposed to a live document. 

Slowing down, in more ways than one, has made Japandroids an even better band. Great rock bands are getting fewer and fewer. This one is fighting the good fight.

Why it didn’t make it:
Polaris is traditionally allergic to Western Canada, but I don’t think that was the problem for these former shortlisters. Fans of the first two records felt the band was pushing themselves beyond their reach here, citing the 7.5-minute mid-tempo “Arc of Bar” as exhibit A. To each their own: I thought that track and others made this more interesting than the non-stop fist-pumping that this band obviously excels at. Hell, I’d give them the Polaris for “North South East West” alone. But that’s me. Others knocked the lyrics, and if you didn’t get past the title track I’d kind of understand why: “I used to be good and now I’m bad.” The last verse of the song uncomfortably evokes an old anti-abortion film that Christian youth of yore will no doubt remember, in a downright clunky couplet: “It was bedlam in my bed that night / And like a silent scream / My body broke out in a sweat / From seeing you in dreams.” (For those fortunate not to know, the 1984 film was called The Silent Scream.) Anyway, Polaris or no Polaris, this band is laughing all the way to Massey Hall, where they’re headlining on October 24.

Tomorrow: Leonard Cohen and Gord Downie

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