Friday, September 14, 2018

Polaris Music Prize, day 5: U.S. Girls, Weaves

The final day of my annual five-day Polaris preview, examining two shortlisters and two absentees a day. Yes, this alphabetical saves the best for last.

(Day 4: Partner, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, + Zaki Ibrahim and Terra Lightfoot discussed here.)

(Day 3: Hubert Lenoir, Pierre Kwenders, + Cold Specks and Dennis Ellsworth discussed here.)
(Day 2: Daniel Caesar, Jeremy Dutcher, + Cadence Weapon and Bonjay discussed here.)
(Day 1: Alvvays, Jean-Michel Blais, + Arcade Fire and Geoff Berner discussed here.)

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)

The album:

In a Poem Unlimited is the sound of an experimental artist embracing pop music without losing her edge—in other words, an absolute recipe for success that appeals on several levels. I love everything about this record: music, lyrics, band, production, politics, and obviously the woman at the centre of it all, Meg Remy.

Excerpt from my Feb. 23 review for the Waterloo Record (which appears in full here):

“Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” That’s the title of a musical interlude on the latest album by Meg Remy, a.k.a. U.S. Girls. It describes a situation unlikely to ever happen to this outspoken artist: she has a hell of a lot to say, and she wants to make sure you hear it. To make sure that happens, Remy has made her most musically accomplished album to date, evolving from what was once a very solitary, homemade affair to a large, vibrant band whose energy was captured in a professional studio. The result? One of the slickest, catchiest pop songs here, “Pearly Gates,” is about being sexually violated by St. Peter in order to gain access to heaven …
 The rest of the album is no less unflinching … Everything about In a Poem Unlimited plays to the aphorism of a “fist in a velvet glove”: the more difficult the message, the more accessible the music—much of it here references late ’70s David Bowie, or even at times an art-damaged Madonna, with plenty of nods to the ’50s and ’60s pop of Motown and Phil Spector… In connecting musical threads from the past into a modern context, Remy is also underscoring that the abuse and the malaise she describes so vividly is timeless: some of these songs may appear to be ripped from current headlines, but there’s nothing new here—other than the fact that artists like Remy are shining lights into dark corners and asking, “What are we going to do to change?”

Side note, unrelated to Polaris, because the prize should not take into consideration live performance or anything but the album itself: the current incarnation of U.S. Girls put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE, at this year’s Hillside Festival in Guelph. Don’t miss them as they continue to tour this fall, including Sept. 29 in Montreal and Nov. 7 in Toronto.

The chances:

Extremely strong. This record works on so many levels, and is so smartly done: not just the music, but the lyrics, which pull off the near-impossible feat of functioning as either background pop music or searing critique. This is not just a great party record, but it’s the kind of album you can sit around debating for hours and like it even more at the end of the discussion. Which… seems to be tailor-made for a jury-room victory. In any other year, I’d say this is a shoo-in—but again, tough year.

Weaves – Wide Open (Buzz)

The album:

My Oct. 6, 2017 review:

If the best rock record of 2017 sounds like 2003, that’s fine: as long as 2003 can be defined by Deerhoof’s Apple O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, and Arcade Fire’s debut EP. Those records, and this one, are the sound of rock’n’roll falling apart and reconstituted into something visceral that never travels in a straight line, yet with pop melodies keeping everything on course.
 Listening to the second record by this Toronto quartet is a total rush, right from the opening track “#53,” as surefire an anthem as can still be written without falling into hoary cliche. Sure, the “Born to Run” glockenspiel on the track has led to an onslaught of Springsteen comparisons already, but Weaves are not a band easily reduced to influences.
 The first thing that jumps out is singer Jasmyn Burke, whose gripping presence and commanding articulation almost overshadows the fact that she’s also just a really great singer who’s more than capable of nailing any pitch, but prefers to play with it instead. Guitarist Morgan Waters unleashes a flurry of sound with punk rock energy, but he also knows when to lay back and let the song speak for itself, like on “Walkaway” or the gentle 6/8 lilt of the title track, drenched in Daniel Lanois-esque reverb. Rhythm section Spencer Cole and Zach Bines are just as responsible for driving this record as Waters and Burke; Weaves is very much four equal parts. Tanya Tagaq shows up on the album’s most abrasive track, “Scream,” a daring move in the middle of an album that is highly likely to pull this band up from the underground.

Next time someone tries to tell you that The National or War on Drugs are the greatest rock bands working today, tell them to either go back to the nursing home or listen to Weaves instead.

The chances:

Strong. I’d say the only knock against this thrilling album—other than the strength of the competition—is that it sands off some of the edges of this band’s prior record, which was shortlisted last year (making Weaves one of the very few Polaris artists shortlisted in two subsequent years). I’ve heard some jurors gripe about this, though I think that makes it a much stronger record, a sign of maturity and growth, and it’s not like there still aren’t plenty of tasty weird bits here to chew on—because there are. So other than competing against nine other records on the shortlist, Weaves appear to be also competing against themselves. Which is ridiculous. This record is an absolute triumph, on its own terms. Every single track is a goddam delight. It was my favourite record of 2017, period. It deserves a serious shot at the big pot.

The shoulda, woulda, coulda:

Maylee Todd – Acts of Love (Do Right!)

The album:

An excerpt from my Nov. 9, 2017, review in the Waterloo Record:

Maylee Todd has always been a massive talent who made somewhat light R&B (“Aerobics in Space”) that only hinted at her greater gifts. This, her third album, is an astounding burst of creativity that marks her as a major artist.  The most immediately gripping songs here are the ones that sound like soft-pop hits descended from Donna Summer and Madonna, rich with ’80s synth bass and tightly wound rhythm guitar lines, or the type of early ’90s house music employed by Bjork on Debut. Having recorded everything herself in her bedroom, she sits beside modern R&B electro innovators like Solange and Jessy Lanza. On the more downtempo tracks, however, she pushes herself into more political and personal terrain, with the necessary sonic innovation to illustrate it further. On “From This Moment,” so smooth is her voice and the groove underneath—with its digitally pitched backing vocals, marimbas, stuttering beats, weeping strings and a lilting harp—that Todd can delve into heavy topics with incredible ease… Most affecting is her devastating vocal turn on “That’s All I’ll Do,” set only to a string octet, where Todd dives into the deeper end of her range to thrilling effect.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

Too Toronto, is my guess, and from what I can tell she spent more time in Japan than in Canada promoting it. Glad to see at least one country showing interest.

Whitehorse – Panther in the Dollhouse (Six Shooter)

The album:

An excerpt from my July 20, 2017, review in the Waterloo Record (found here):

Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland keep setting their own bar higher and higher—which would be impressive for anyone, never mind two people whose median age is 40. Whitehorse is, at its core, two master musicians schooled in folk and rock, juggling guitar, bass and live drum loops in a live setting, with swoony harmonies. This time out, they employ more electronics than just loop pedals, as well as some funkier beats, courtesy of NYC hip-hop production duo Like Minds (Q Tip, the Roots). Nothing drastic: Doucet’s monstrously rich, twangy and tremolo guitar work is still front and centre, as are McClelland’s melodic bass lines. If Whitehorse’s music is inherently slick and pretty, the subject matter is not, fractured relationships set in societal underbellies amidst predators and populist nativism.

Why it didn’t even longlist:

Polaris has always been no country for old (wo)men, with the notable exception of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 2015 win. But with a generational shift in the larger jury recently, it’s even tougher for the over-40 crowd to be noticed. Which royally sucks for Whitehorse, because here are two artists who are hitting their prime, making the best work of their career(s), either in or outside this band. If you’ve listened to the entire Polaris lists and for whatever reason don’t understand what the young whippersnappers are up to, rest easy knowing that Whitehorse are making great records and filling Massey Hall. When their stunning performance of “Die Alone” comes out on a forthcoming Arts and Crafts release, Live at Massey Hall Vol. 1, prepare your jaw for a drop.


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