Monday, September 10, 2018

Polaris Music Prize 2018, Day 1: Alvvays, Jean-Michel Blais

This year’s Polaris Music Prize is, to these ears, one of the toughest to decide. I’d be completely happy with any one of half the shortlist taking home the final prize, and it’s not like there are any clunkers on the other half, either. Further, there are incredible records released during the qualifying period that didn’t even make the 40-album long list. My annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day, starts now:

The shortlist:

Alvvays – Antisocialites (Royal Mountain)

The album:

This is a monstrous pop record, with insanely catchy melodies that are still stuck in my head more than a year after I first heard them. If there’s any knock against this record at all, it’s that it’s retro: there’s little here that doesn’t sound like some of my favourite records made 20 years ago or more. I don’t listen to a lot of music like this these days, but it’s no surprise at all that this band has made such a big international splash with indie rockers old and new.

My review for the Waterloo Record from Sept. 7, 2017:

No sophomore slump here. Everything that was merely promising or undeveloped or somewhat uneven on the 2014 debut by this Toronto band of transplanted Maritimers has been transformed into a triumph. Singer Molly Rankin used to write melodies slightly outside of her range. Here, she’s no longer a newbie straining to hit the high notes while guitars swirl around her; she’s a singer who walks the precious line between introversion and complete confidence, once again writing melodies that are instant earworms, not unlike their breakthrough single “Marry Me, Archie.” Guitarist and co-songwriter Alec O’Hanley (Two Hours Traffic) also did a lot of recording and mixing this time out, following initial sessions with L.A. producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado). In his hands, every one of this band’s strengths comes into full focus in ways it didn’t on the washed-out debut: the guitars of O’Hanley and Ranking shimmer with colourful textures, and blend beautifully with Kerri MacLellan’s Farfisa organ. Bassist Brian Murphy is a melodic player and drummer Sheridan Riley hits hard enough to ensure the band doesn’t drift away on a sea of twee. After dreadful new albums by the War on Drugs, Grizzly Bear, the National and LCD Soundsystem, Alvvays is a rare bright light for indie rock in 2017.

The chances:

Slim, for entirely political reasons. This is a nice band with a nice record that sounds like a lot of your other favourite records—and that combination has never won a prize from critics hard-wired to reward the new and innovative. None of that should detract from its excellence; it completely deserves to be on this list, and if you haven’t heard it yet, you should.

Jean-Michel Blais – Dans ma main
(Arts and Crafts)

The album:

One of only two instrumental records to ever make the Polaris shortlist; the other, by Godspeed You Black Emperor, took home the prize in 2013. (One could also argue that Tagaq’s non-verbal Animism, the 2014 winner, also belongs in this category.) It’s somewhat astounding that an album this intimate, sparse, and based on classical music could squeeze onto a Polaris shortlist, but here we are. Between Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds and others—not to mention Chilly Gonzales, who just released his third Solo Piano record—it’s a good time to be a solo pianist. There are certainly similarities with the Jeremy Dutcher record—two pseudo-classical albums on the list in the same year!—but where that high-concept record relies heavily on Dutcher’s operatic vocals, Blais’s appeal lies entirely, well, dans ses mains.

My May 25 review for the Waterloo Record:

Jean-Michel Blais is a Montreal pianist whose debut album topped classical charts with his original compositions and minimalist approach. On Dans ma mains, he expands his sonic palette to include electronic textures and occasional drum machines—a far cry from the sound of one man alone in his apartment, which is what comprised the debut. The change is more than welcome: Blais is no one-trick pony, and elements of Tim Hecker and Sigur Ros work seamlessly with his natural talent. The only time the album stumbles is when he ventures into Moby territory on tracks like “Igloo,” which are fortunate outliers on an otherwise consistently pleasing album—one that you’re likely to hear soundtracking tear-jerking moments on screen in the next couple of years, but works just fine on its own.

The chances:

Slim. Again, I’m pleasantly surprised this made the shortlist, for the reasons outlined above; a win would be downright shocking.

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Arcade Fire – Everything Now (Sonovox/Sony)

The album:

I love this record. I love everything about it. Not a dud track on it. Of this band’s five albums, I’d put it in the top three. So there.

Of course, I feel like one of the only music critics in the world who thinks this. I wrote extensively about it here, which was one of my most-read pieces on the blog in 2017 (second only to a post related to my Tragically Hip book; in third place was a takedown of the hideous new U2 record—so yes, I have standards).

One of my fellow jurors wrote that “if you voted for Arcade Fire, you’re a cop.” Which—I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Thanks for coming out.

The live show was astounding—the best I’ve ever seen them (and I’ve seen them a lot). The episode of Song Exploder that dove into “Put Your Money On Me” inspired some second thoughts in some circles. My guess is that this material will age a lot better than it’s being given credit for right now.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:

That’s obvious, for all the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that there’s no doubt a general fatigue for a band that’s won both the regular Polaris and the Polaris Heritage Prize, and has been shortlisted two times beyond that. I was frankly shocked Everything Now even made the longlist, considering the antipathy out there; there was more public love declared for fellow 2004 vets Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade, neither of whom made the longlist. I didn’t even vote for it, to be honest, because I figured it didn’t have a chance. And it made the long list without even my help. So obviously I’m not as alone as I think.

Geoff Berner – Canadiana Grotesquica (Coax)

The album:

I’ve been a huge fan of this artist for the last 15 years. Not every record hits, but his live show has moved me to tears of joy and sorrow on at least a dozen occasions. He has a deep well of songs that nail their targets to the wall; some songs on this new record have been floating around for years, even covered by his peers before the man himself got around to it (“Prairie Wind”). Canadiana Grotesquica is perhaps his strongest work yet—it’s certainly his most accessible, both musically and lyrically, which made it somewhat shocking that he was ignored yet again by the Polaris jury.

Also: In yet another year of forest fires and pipeline politics, I’ve had the chorus of one song on this album in my head almost every time I turn on the news, from “Super Subtle Folk Song”: “And while the fire’s still burning, let’s make a lot more gasoline.”

An excerpt from my review for the Waterloo Record, Oct. 12, 2017, which can be read in full here:

On his seventh album, Berner shifts away from his klezmer escapades and taps Neko Case guitarist Paul Rigby to make something approximately a country record, filled with the kinds of songs that made him a favourite cover choice for his friends the Be Good Tanyas and Corb Lund. It’s the most musically conservative album he’s made in years, but it’s by no means meant to be easy listening. It opens with “The Ghost of Terry Fox,” one of the most tragic tales in Canadian celebrity: the story of Steve Fonyo, the cancer-stricken amputee who actually completed Fox’s mission, but suffered from second-banana syndrome in the eyes of an indifferent public, racked up several criminal convictions, was stripped of his Order of Canada, and was the victim of a home invasion in Surrey, B.C. Fonyo was the subject of a 2015 Alan Zweig documentary, and a musical by Berner, from which this song originates. Berner takes a similarly biographical approach to “Gino Odjick,” a song about the Vancouver Canucks’ “Algonquin Assassin,” an on-ice enforcer and residential school survivor who, along with other prominent Indigenous Canadians, met the Pope to hear an apology from the Catholic Church. On a lighter note, Berner mocks southern Ontario country singers who articulate with a “Phoney Drawl,” and warns his peers “Don’t Play Cards For Money With Corby Lund.” “Hustle Advisory” references Leonard Cohen, Jesus, and Justin Trudeau, and features Frazey Ford on backing vocals. There’s no surer sign of Berner’s continued songwriting strength than “Super Subtle Folk Song,” one of the catchiest melodies on a record full of earworms ensures that the message sinks in. More important, for a man who has often used a blunt hammer to make his point, titling a track “Super Subtle Folk Song” may be a self-deprecating jab, but it also proves that Berner is stronger when he’s subversive.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

He’s a satirical and political Vancouver songwriter who plays accordion. Enough said.

Tomorrow: Daniel Caesar, Jeremy Dutcher, and two more shoulda-coulda-woulda.

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