Friday, May 17, 2019

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline (independent)

This is not an album you should hear. It’s an album you have to hear.

It is to Canada in 2019 what Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was to the U.S. in 2015. And it’s not a coincidence that the Rez Kids refer to themselves at one point as “Natives with an attitude”—there are more than a few parallels with the revolution wrought by NWA 30 years ago.

Yes, I just did that awful thing where I use U.S. artists as a benchmark against which to measure homegrown heroes. I only do so because I honestly can’t think of a Canadian hip-hop record in history that does all of the following: that so successfully addresses the political moment; that doesn’t aspire to be a part of the pop music industry; that excels artistically from top to bottom; and shines a spotlight on a marginalized community using a universal language. Correct me if I'm wrong. War Party got this started in the ’90s; Snotty Nose Rez Kids are going to take it even further than A Tribe Called Red.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids are a duo from Kitimaat, B.C., a 15-hour drive north of Vancouver, to which they've since moved. They shot out of obscurity in 2018 when their second album, The Average Savage, landed on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. Their performance at the gala was a showstopper on a stacked bill. They went from having zero expectations to suffering from high expectations. And so they shelved an album of party bangers they’d already finished in favour of making a grand statement, which became Trapline. They raised their game on every level: it’s hard to imagine them coming back stronger than they do here.

Right from the first track, “Rebirth,” their mantra is “resist, revive, indigenize.” As I wrote about The Average Savage, this is not music of reconciliation: it is music of resistance. It is inherently political. It pulls no punches.

But it’s also better than that: it’s clever, it’s funny, rich in metaphor, puns and wordplay, and intersects deep references to Indigenous cultures across the country and the history of hip-hop. One of my many favourite lines, referencing Kendrick: “Priest don’t kill my tribe!” (Runner-up: “I’m a red man with a method, man.” There are too many more to list.) And while the music is inherently of-the-moment, influenced heavily by trap (which makes the title that much more brilliant), the two MCs are a far cry from the opiated mumblemouths who dominate the genre of the day: SNRK's presence is arresting, animated, playful and gripping. They’re rapping like their lives are on the line, grabbing the listener by the collar and demanding an audience. As yet as uncompromising as the lyrics are, the music is full of hooks, and the beats are brassy and bold.

Just like Public Enemy did for me in 1990, behind the visceral thrills of this music are references that will send you down wormholes, whether it’s “Section 35 forever”—a reference to the clause of the Canadian constitution affirming treaty rights—or continuous references to “neechie,” the Ojibwe word for “friend.” It’s a handy (and friendlier) replacement for the n-word in Indigenous hip-hop parlance ("Neechie, please"), though this here urban white man is embarrassed to admit I originally assumed they were talking about a homonymous German philosopher, which would require a whole other level of lyrical analysis.

Then there are the guests. Not surprisingly, Tanya Tagaq shows up on “Rebirth.” Rising Vancouver rapper Kimmortal soars on “Lost Tribe.” Boslen is ferocious on “Creator Made an Animal.” Brevner scores on “Hooligans” and bombs on “Hunger Games.” But it’s the presence of Toronto crew the Sorority on “Son of a Matriarch” that provides the truly historic track here. The Sorority, of course, are a Torontonian all-woman crew (whose Haviah Mighty also has a new record out), and the track is predictably packed with feminist fire (“Don’t forget you was raised with your face in a tit!”). But SNRK don’t just cede the spotlight to the sisters; they join in with some of the fiercest anti-misogynist lines I’ve ever heard from male MCs. Most important: nothing about this track goes down like Michael Franti’s granola (for which I have a soft spot, FYI), nor does it sound like some clunky Consolidated track from the ’90s; it’s ferocious and invigorating.

And essential. Just like the rest of this record.

Stream: “Son of a Matriarch,” “Yuck-Sue-Yaach,” “Rebirth”

Full album here
House of Strombo interview/performance from December 2018 here

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dominique Fils-Aimé, Orville Peck, Jayda G

It's May and I'm preparing my Polaris Music Prize ballot. Juggling a lot of things reviewed in this space earlier—including La Force, which I'm confident will be No. 1 on my ballot—but here are some more recent releases. And I'll talk about the Snotty Nose Rez Kids in the next post.

Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned (En Soul)

This Haitian-Canadian Montreal singer has an audacious plan to release a trilogy exploring nothing less than “the history of African-American music,” of which this album is the second instalment. That’s a tall order, but at the very least she’s made a captivating song cycle here that showcases her spine-tingling vocals and some ace players. “There is Probably Fire” opens with gospel-tinged choral singing over minimal hand drums and clapping, before a long muted trumpet note announces a shift into an Ernest Ranglin-esque reggae groove with upright bass and jazzy piano. Each of those players are as integral to this album’s success as Fils-Aimé’s vocals, although she’s the obvious focal point. As the only credited vocalist, she’s also responsible for the layered harmonies throughout; this album’s one drawback is that she’d likely sound even better feeding off the energy of other live singers, rather than her own multitracks.

Fils-Aimé’s 2018 debut, Nameless, focused on the blues. Stay Tuned is ostensibly rooted in jazz and early R&B, with lyrics drawing from the contemporaneous civil rights movement and feminism (“You don’t treat me like the queen you keep telling me you see,” goes one line.) The next instalment will apparently delve into disco and hip-hop. But there’s a consistency between these first two records, a sound that is very much her own, a sound that pulls from modern R&B and Massive Attack descendants, albeit played on acoustic instruments. That third instalment will likely sound a lot like this one—which is to say, it will be a major work by an important new artist poised to transcend genres and generations.

Stay Tuned closes with a straight-up gospel song with the chorus, “I’ve got joy like a river in my soul.” So will the listener by the time the album’s over.

Stream: “Where There Is Smoke,” “There is Probably Fire,” “Some Body”

Orville Peck – Pony (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)

Let’s say you’re a Toronto guy with a strong lower-register who loves country crooners. You’re also queer and you love Joy Division as much as you do Johnny Cash. You know you’re unlikely to ever reach Kacey Musgraves’s level of success. You’re also unlikely to be embraced by the elders of the Canadian roots music community. At best, you’ll appeal to the same crowd as Timber Timbre, who certainly do well enough, but there’s a glass ceiling there. What do you do?
You dandy up in full rodeo regalia, develop a persona named Orville Peck and reveal very little about yourself—including your face, which you keep veiled behind a mask. The result: everyone is intrigued, no one asks about authenticity, and the music speaks for itself. (It also produces one of my favourite leads in a music story lately, from this Ben Rayner profile in the Toronto Star: “Orville Peck is not difficult to pick out in the crowd at Dundas West hipster haunt Get Well on a Tuesday night, as he’s the only chap in the room in a cowboy hat sipping a pint through a fringed leather bondage mask.”)

Start with the voice: Peck has a commanding presence, his low tenor enhancing the gravity of whatever it is he’s singing about. If we are to believe the little about himself that he’s revealed to the press, he’s a classically trained singer who did time on stage in London’s West End. It’s not hard to believe. There’s certainly some Ian Curtis in the mix, although Peck’s particular accent calls to mind a much more unlikely ’80s reference: Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo. The ’80s loom large here: not just in the overall Twin Peaks vibe (Peck would be a shoo-in for a gig at the Bang Bang Bar featured in the series’ 2017 sequel), but in that decade’s reverb-heavy approach to country music in what was then rebranded as “roots rock”: Steve Earle, BoDeans, Blue Rodeo, R.E.M.

Twangy guitars alone do not country music make; no, it’s the melancholy balladry that puts Peck in a country tradition. A song like “Kansas (Remember Me Now)” or “Roses Are Falling” aches like Patsy Cline, devoid of the drippy string sections, as if Cline were produced by Lee Hazlewood and not Owen Bradley. And titles like “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Old River” and “Big Sky” don’t hurt, either.

There’s a danger that all of this could just add up to shallow shtick, a male counterpart to Lana Del Rey (against whom I hold no prejudice, but also have no love). But Peck is no cypher. The man’s voice has passion and personality to burn—there’s a helluva lotta Elvis in this here building. He sounds completely invested in every note here, as does his backing band (comprised largely of angular Toronto postpunk band Frigs). Even his whistling is on point.

Time to ride Peck’s pony.

Stream: “Dead of Night,” “Buffalo Run,” “Big Sky”

Jayda G – Significant Changes (Ninja Tune)

"Hey, I see you on your phone, checking out Instagram... This is the dance floor, baby! This is where you supposed to get down!" That’s the spoken chorus to “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” and it’s a rallying cry that defines this entire collection of house music, filled with positive vibes, born in a West Coast Canadian music scene some describe as the “Canadian Riviera.” (That’s a new one, to these ears, anyway.)

Jayda G is a Vancouverite who now lives in (of course) Berlin, returning home only to finish her master’s degree in environmental toxicology—an area of study that surfaces via dialogue quoted in “Missy Knows What’s Up,” alongside electric bass lines that would make Chic’s Bernard Edwards proud, melodic piano lines, and pillowy Orb-like synths. For an album called Significant Changes, it’s remarkably conservative. It’s joyously old school; anything here could have been played in a DJ’s house set in 1990. Vocalist Alexa Dash elevates the tracks she’s on, but the instrumentals here are just as strong. House music isn’t normally a genre that works (for me) in an album format, but the fact that Jayda G comes close speaks to her talent—and her future.

Stream: “Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking on the DF),” “Leave Room 2 Breathe” feat. Alexa Dash, “Missy Knows What’s Up”