Thursday, September 19, 2019

Haviah Mighty's historic win

“My history is not viewed on a pedestal”
—Haviah Mighty, “Thirteen”

In the previous 13 years of the Polaris Music Prize, a rap record has never taken the top prize. It almost happened at least three times before, to the best of my knowledge. (I’m not allowed to tell you when.) In the year 2019, Haviah Mighty brought one home. Her record is called 13th Floor. It’s about subjects people prefer to avoid, about historical omissions. It broke a 13-year curse.

The first time I saw Haviah Mighty perform, at the Hillside Festival earlier this summer, she was so compelling on so many fronts—as a rapper, a singer, a wordsmith, a performer—I thought I was watching the second coming of Lauryn Hill. So it wasn’t at all surprising that 20 years after Hill made history with the first rap record to ever win Album of the Year at the Grammys, that Haviah Mighty would break the glass ceiling at Polaris.

“I work / All the fucking time,” proclaimed fellow shortlister Marie Davidson on stage earlier that evening. But watching Haviah Mighty take the stage, it was clear who was going to work their ass off that night to give the performance of a lifetime, a five-song medley of tracks from 13th Floor. The Fanshawe College grad roamed the stage like it was the Scotiabank Arena. She had choreography, dancers, and a guest turn from her sister, Omega. Another sister played jazzy piano in the band—apparently the first time Mighty had ever performed her music with live musicians before. Opening her medley with “Thirteen,” which packs the punch of a Malcolm X speech in the space of a few verses, she echoed Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry” at his legendary 2016 Grammy performance. (This being Polaris, she didn’t have access to costumes, black light, dozens of dancers, or a large bonfire as a backdrop. But she didn't need them.) This was a performance by a woman who was not going to be ignored, as she rapped: “I’m darker than my friends … I gotta do four times more to get two times less.” Work it, she did.

My money for the prize was actually on Snotty Nose Rez Kids, an Indigenous rap duo from Kitimaat, B.C., who would also have been the first Western Canadian winners (hopefully that’s rectified sooner than later—have you heard that new Begonia record?). Haviah Mighty was my second bet. I thought a rap record would win either way. But it’s incredibly important that the first rap Polaris went to a black woman from the Greater Toronto Area. After all—as Maestro and Chuck D and countless other will tell you—the story of Canadian hip-hop begins with Michie Mee, from Toronto’s West End, who cut her first single 32 years ago.

Much respect to Shad, who was shortlisted this year and is also the host of HBO/Netflix show Hip-Hop Evolution (season three just launched). He has a record four appearances on a Polaris shortlist—all more than well deserved, but it also speaks to the shallow pool from which Polaris often draws its shortlists.

Kaytranada won the Polaris in 2016, for a mostly instrumental album heavily informed by hip-hop. That was a huge breakthrough. But until the Rez Kids, there were only three other rap artists to shortlist more than once: Drake (3x), K’naan (2x) and Cadence Weapon (2x). That’s four artists whose work comprises most of Polaris’s rap history. The only other rap acts to ever shortlist were bilingual Acadian crew Radio Radio—which was a head-scratcher for most hip-hop fans—and, uh, Ghostface Killah, for his collaboration with BadBadNotGood.

On top of that, the only other black women to ever be shortlisted are Cold Specks (2012) and Zaki Ibrahim (2013). With Dominique Fils-Aimé also on this year’s shortlist, it was the first year two black women were on a Polaris stage. (It should be noted that Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne, like Fils-Aimé and Kaytranada, is Haitian-Canadian; her band has won once and been shortlisted two other times.)

All that adds up to Haviah Mighty’s win being a big breath of fresh air.

Her win is being widely recognized for the breakthrough it is, but usually only as a throwaway line in a news item. She won! Kendrick might have a Pulitzer, but has never won the Grammy for Album of the Year; neither has Beyoncé; that Grammy hasn't gone to a rap act since Outkast—a whopping 15 years ago. 

The Polaris Prize itself is still a curiosity for much of Canadian media, despite the fact that its jury is populated with music critics. Editors don’t place much stock in the prize, hence Polaris articles don't get green-lit. Other than media sponsor CBC Music, this year’s pre-Polaris coverage elsewhere amounted to crickets. Perhaps not that surprising: other than Jessie Reyez and maybe Shad, there were no names that would register for anyone but diehard music fans. I’ve long lamented that the Polaris doesn’t get the same amount of coverage as the literary Giller Prize—another juried prize where the shortlisted titles are often unknown to larger audiences—which speaks to the marginalization of serious music coverage in this country.

At the gala I was talking to a peer slightly older than I am, who started out in Toronto campus radio in 1985; as a huge champion of homegrown hip-hop from almost day one, he was visibly moved by Mighty’s win. But he’s no longer a writer. So when someone like Haviah Mighty takes home the prize, and makes history doing so, what does it say about Canadian media that no one bothered to put the win in context? The best we could do was this piece by Brad Wheeler in the Globe and Mail, which at least went slightly deeper than a line or two. Am I missing anything?

Who called Michie Mee for a quote? Who called Zaki Ibrahim? Nana McLean? Lillian Allen? Sate, the daughter of Salome Bey? How about Ron Nelson—can we assume anyone in a position of power even knows who Ron Nelson is? (Shout out to Del Cowie, who’s currently writing a long-overdue history of Toronto hip-hop for ECW Press.) Furthermore, did anyone even notice in 2016 when The Weeknd became the first non-white artist ever to win Album of the Year at the Junos?

I’ve always known I live in a country with terrible cultural amnesia, a country where art made by marginalized communities has been historically ignored. I’ve been complicit, tacitly and otherwise. I’m excited a new generation of artists is changing the game. But is Canadian media even close to catching up? Or does everyone think just a few tweets and a pat on the back will suffice? Is that the future of cultural history in this country?

While I have your attention, Haviah Mighty is rejoining her group The Sorority for dates in B.C. and Ontario with Snotty Nose Rez Kids this November. That will be one for the history books. See you there. 

“Man, we have so much work to do.” —Haviah Mighty, “Thirteen”


Friday, September 13, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 5: Shad, Snotty Nose Rez Kids

Here it is! The final of a five-day look at this year’s Polaris Prize shortlisters, culminating in my personal pick to win. Bonus: two more should’ve-beens. Day one is here; day two is here; day three is here; day four is here.

The shortlisters:

Shad – A Short Story About A War (Secret City)

The album:


From my October review:
Two years ago, Shad collaborated with avant-garde Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq on a track from her album Retribution. On it, the rapper proved his stylistic versatility on music that didn’t resemble his own, or most other hip-hop, for that matter. Not that Shad had ever fit into much of a mould to begin with, but on his first proper record in five years, Shad goes for a total reinvention. First single “The Fool Pt 1 (Get It Got It Good)” draws from the early ’90s hip-hop that most influenced his early work, but after that he moves all over the map, from bright pop to dark electronics, with lyrics largely focused on conflict and violence in its many manifestations, and maintaining his rep as one of the richest, most poetic MCs working today. He gets musical assist from Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta, 2oolman of A Tribe Called Red (also heard behind the boards on the Haviah Mighty record), and B.C. rock band Yukon Blonde, with some lyrical assist from Toronto underground heroes Ian Kamau and Eternia on the municipal lament “Another Year.”

Only the Yukon Blonde track, “All I Need,” sounds like a potential radio hit, but it’s obvious that elsewhere his music is simply going wherever his lyrical fancy takes him. The only other rapper that springs to mind, who shares this level of lyrical density and musical agnosticism, to say nothing of overall talent? Kendrick Lamar.

The chances: Fair. This is a dense album that rewards repeat listening, and it stands out from the other hip-hop records on this list, both musically and lyrically. Shad himself attracts a lot of good will, and after three previous shortlist appearances, it’s possible the tide could possibly turn in his favour. That said, this is an easier album to respect than it is to love. And on top of that… (see below)

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline (independent)

The album: Here we go. This is the one.

Excerpts from my May review:

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

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. 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.

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 is also shortlisted), 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. It’s ferocious and invigorating.

And essential. Just like the rest of this record.

I also love this record because I'm a Canadian history nerd who grew up on rap duos and trios (Tribe, Beasties, Cypress Hill), and the interplay between these two MCs is a glorious throwback even though the beats are thoroughly modern. Oh, and this video is amazing: 

The chances: This can and should win. Lyrically and musically, it’s outstanding. Artistically, it achieves its goal and stands apart from other records in the same genre; indeed, it stands apart from other records in any genre. It’s a high-water mark all around. If it wins, it will be the fourth Indigenous winner in the last six years (fifth, if you count Lido Pimienta’s maternal roots with the Wayuu people of Colombia). It will also mark the first Western Canadian winner, and—remarkably—the very first straight-up rap record to win Polaris.

It won’t win because of any of those external factors. It will win because it’s just simply a great, groundbreaking, historic record that’s also a helluva lotta fun.

The could’ve/should’ve/would’ve beens:

Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape (Secret City)

The album:

From my October review:

Alexandra Stréliski is a Montreal pianist and composer whose second album, Inscape, contains several songs that appear in the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, directed by fellow Québécois Jean-Marc Vallée; she’s also worked with him on Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition, and Big Little Lies. For all the talk about the new wave of Quebec directors running away to Hollywood, the ongoing collaboration between Vallée and Stréliski is heartening. It’s also led to streaming numbers in the multi-millions.

As to be expected, Stréliski’s composition and gentle and meditative, designed to be both evocative and transparent. There is a mournful melancholy throughout, a darkness underneath the beauty; few, if any, of these songs will be soundtracking sentimental rom-coms. In a crowded field of pianists, this record stands out.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I won’t expect an instrumental album of solo piano to shortlist, but that didn’t stop Jean-Michel Blais last year. Maybe it’s too much to expect that to happen two years in a row? I thought Stréliski would have had even more traction, because of this album’s immense popularity in her home province. Her success is one of the best-kept secrets in English Canada; Polaris would’ve helped break that a bit, but she seems to be doing pretty well without it. 

Tobi – Still (Same Plate)

The album: This Nigerian-Canadian R&B artist hit it out of the park on his debut album. Why? For starters, he’s as good a singer as Daniel Caesar, and he’s a far better writer. Check out “City Blues,” where he croons like Luther Vandross and raps like Nas over a jazzy boom-bap, delivering an ode to his mama and displaying a kind of vulnerability that Drake could only dream of, not to mention insight into the vapidity of celebrity culture: “Monetize my pain / commodify my fame.” The rest of the album is just as strong; as a complete work, it easily stands alongside—and arguably betters—shortlisted records by Haviah Mighty and Jesse Reyez, with a dash of Dominique Fils-Aimé (speaking of whom, I’d love to hear her do a duet with Tobi). It's a record that should definitely be part of the Polaris discussion in 2019, a longlister that shouldn’t be left behind. If he follows it up with something as good or better, he’ll be taking home the prize sooner than later. To learn more, there’s a good interview in Billboard here.

Why it didn’t shortlist: It’s a debut album and independent release and it came out in May, mere weeks before the Polaris deadline, so it had limited time to gain enough traction to make the final stretch. (Bonjay suffered the same fate last year, and they made one of the greatest records of 2018.) Mind you, the exact same could be said of Haviah Mighty, but she was already a known entity from The Sorority. All this is to say that don’t be surprised to see Tobi’s name on year-end lists come December. This record is way too good to get buried. 

The winner of the 2019 Polaris Music Prize will be revealed at the gala on Monday, Sept. 16, which will be broadcast online by CBC Music.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 4: Pup, Jessie Reyez

Day four of five examining this year's Polaris Music Prize shortlist, and some should've-beens. Day one (Marie Davidson, Elisapie) is here; day two (Fet.Nat, Dominique Fils-Aimé) is here; day three (Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty) is here.

The shortlisters: 

Pup – Morbid Stuff (Little Dipper)

The album:
 It’s my own ignorance that I can’t tell the difference between this and Sum 41. Musically, anyway: it’s clear that Pup wade into much deeper, darker lyrical territory, grappling with myriad mental health issues—could you tell from the title? Or maybe from the ferocious sounding “Full Blown Meltdown,” which is as heavy as it should be. As far as pop-punk with unison gang vocals go, this record is likely as good as it gets. My hang-ups with this album are entirely subjective and likely related to my age; it says a lot that my favourite thing about it is the accordion coda at the end of “Scorpion Hill.” Bonus points for having one song in 6/8 with a chorus in 5/8 (“Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley”). Looking forward to hearing where these guys are in 10 years.

The chances: Nil. I do not think an all-boy, straightforward punk guitar quartet will ever win Polaris, no matter how good they may be. And no, please, for the love of your Christian god, please do not write an unreadable, interminable Quillette "think" piece about it. 

Jessie Reyez – Being Human In Public (Universal)

The album: This seven-song EP is a follow-up to her sensational 2017 EP Kiddo, which announced this major new talent to the world. She slayed on The Tonight Show and had a star turn with Daniel Caesar at the Junos duetting on “Figures.” Expectations were sky-high, and yet Being Human in Public sounds like Reyez slamming on the brakes and taking time to collect herself. She’s as fiery as ever on “Dear Yessie,” “Body Count” and “Saint Nobody,” all of which exude the confidence and prowess as a singer and rapper that set her far apart from her peers. “There is no template for Jessie Reyez: she is the template,” wrote Ryan Patrick in his Exclaim review—and yet “Fuck Being Friends” is almost a parody of herself. “Apple Juice” is a lovely soul waltz, and “Sola” is a solo acoustic number sung in Spanish (Reyez is the daughter of Colombian immigrants). Yet there’s nothing here that’s as bold or gripping as “Blue Ribbon,” “Figures” and “Gatekeeper,” the killer triumvirate at the heart of Kiddo, three of the greatest pop songs written in this country in the last decade. After arriving as one of the most original new voices in pop music—and a welcome antidote to the morose moping that passes for cutting-edge in both pop and rap—Reyez still sounds like she’s just warming up.

The chances: Slim. Reyez is a goddam superstar, but this feels like a mere stopgap.

The could’ve/would’ve/should’ve beens:

Orville Peck – Pony (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)

The album:

From my May review

Let’s say you’re a Toronto guy via Vancouver 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. 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. 

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.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I was convinced it would. Alas. Among some jurors there is some deep resistance to Peck’s shtick—why, I don’t know. I thought authenticity died sometime in the ’90s. I think some critics feel conned by someone hiding behind a mask; a journalist’s instinct is that the public has the right to know everything about public figures—especially in this era of excessive sharing, on social media or otherwise—and so when someone purposely messes with that, critics get their collective back up. Of course, plenty of people just subjectively don’t like Peck’s songs. I’m sure the mask doesn’t help. Yet I’m not sure this project would work otherwise; Peck’s vibe doesn’t fit into modern sounds in country and western music, and would likely fall through several cracks without some other way of getting your attention. Remember Daughn Gibson? Right, exactly. 

Rae Spoon – Bodiesofwater (Coax)

The album:

From my September 2018 review:
“Should I be an artist, even after I turn 40?” asks Rae Spoon, rhetorically, on a peppy song they titled “Do Whatever the Heck You Want.” The answer, as shouted back by a sudden chorus of onlookers on the track, is, of course, “YES!” Especially if, like Spoon, you’re just hitting your prime.

Bodiesofwater, however, sounds very much like the culmination of a life’s work, and not only just because it’s so good that it sounds like a greatest-hits, with pop melodies that rival Alvvays and other current master crafters. Spoon has successfully integrated their electronic influences, which in the past often felt like slightly ill-fitting clothes, into their often sparse, guitar-based arrangements with live drums. The one time they dive deep into the electronics, on the stirring, dirgey anti-pipeline protest song “You Don’t Do Anything,” they sound like the Eurythmics’ earliest work (i.e. “This is the House,” from 1983’s Sweet Dreams). As an arranger, a producer, a songwriter and a storyteller, Spoon is at the top of their game.

Why it didn’t even longlist: That’s a bit of a crime. All these songs are killer, not to mention total earworms. I can only guess that a prolific artist of Spoon’s age is easily taken for granted, and people with a set impression didn’t open their ears. Don’t make the same mistake. Unrelated: there’s been some internal Polaris jury discussion about the lack of longlisters from the Prairies, which is entirely valid. (See also: Christine Fellows, Belle Plaine, John Wort Hannam.) Rae Spoon’s inclusion would have made a difference. They have a brand new record, Mental Health, which is almost as good. Let's talk about it in the next eight months.

Tomorrow: our final look at the shortlisted albums, with Shad and Snotty Nose Rez Kids, along with two final should've-beens.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 3: Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty

Part three of five posts looking at this year's Polaris Music Prize shortlist, as well as some should've beens. Day one is here; day two is here.

The shortlisters: 

Les Louanges – La nuit est une panthère (Bonsound)

The album: Slick R&B pop in the same neo-’80s vein as Blood Orange, Twin Shadow, et al, and à la français. I’ll admit that I was surprised this was the album that franco jurors rallied around, as opposed to Salomé Leclerc, Laurence-Anne or even the acoustic Jean Leloup record. Les Louanges is the project of Vincent Roberge, of Lévis (across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City), and this is his debut record. He’s a student of jazz and a lover of R&B, and there are certainly some unconventional harmonies and textures here that make it anything but rote, hence the numerous accolades he’s been getting from in and outside Quebec. It’s not a fusion that works for me, as someone who lived through the ’80s and wasn’t exactly jonesing for a combo of Scritti Politti and Level 42 minus the pop songs. I can’t begrudge his talent, but this record leaves me ice cold. Is he the Quebecois Frank Ocean? I’m the wrong guy to ask, because I’ve never been able to dive into Ocean, either, so take that for what it’s worth.
I also suspect the unforgivable Steely Dan renaissance has something to do with this, though that's hard to prove. 
The chances: Karkwa! 

Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor (independent)

The album: I thought we’d be talking about this Brampton MC last year, as part of The Sorority, a group of female MCs who found strength in numbers (and became the first four-member rap crew that I can recall in a long time). Sadly, that record didn’t longlist. But Ms. Mighty (yes, that’s her real name) more than holds her own on the 13 songs on 13th Floor. Co-produced by A Tribe Called Red’s 2oolman, 13th Floor is a slick hip-hop/pop hybrid that showcases this woman’s immense talent as both a singer and rapper. There’s no particular musical angle here: the trap element is minimal, there are Caribbean flavours, nods to U.K. grime, some AutoTuned R&B, some spoken word and political poetry, some Rihanna-esque pop. The consistency comes in Mighty’s delivery: her talent matches her charisma, which is at Lauryn Hill levels throughout. The fact that she shares this shortlist with Jessie Reyez speaks volumes about the future of feminist hip-hop, in Canada and elsewhere. 

The chances: Very strong. I’ve got my money on someone else to take the prize, but this would be my second bet. And if she doesn’t take it this year, I’d bet that she does sooner than later. Unrelated to this discussion: her live show is the bomb. Expect her to deliver all the goods at the gala.

The could’ve/would’ve/should’ve beens:

Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk (Latent)

The album:

My January 2019 review:
Tom Wilson has a story to tell. He always has. Until somewhat recently, he didn’t even know what it was. As he details in his 2017 memoir Beautiful Scars, his family was full of all kinds of secrets, one of which—spoiler alert—is that the lifelong Hamiltonian was born to two Mohawk parents in Kahnawake, outside Montreal.

On the fourth album by his current band, Lee Harvey Osmond, the former Junkhouse leader uses the title track to set an excerpt of his book to music. It is evocative and haunting, setting the scene for Wilson’s first visit to Kahnawake to meet his sisters. As spoken-word verses with a sung chorus, it’s not unlike Robbie Robertson’s “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” (produced, of course, by fellow Hamiltonian Daniel Lanois), though Wilson easily beats Robertson at his own game.

The rest of the record is business as usual for Lee Harvey Osmond—and business is good. Moody, bluesy folk rock that leans toward the minor keys, it’s driven by the slow, loping bass lines of Anna Ruddick, perfectly tasteful guitar work by the wizard Aaron Goldstein, and evocative horn lines by Darcy Hepner. It all underscores Wilson’s delicate baritone, as always delivered like an old carny sharing secrets with you in a southwestern Ontario town after the Ferris wheel shuts down for the night. Harmonica from Paul Reddick and backing vocals by Suzie (Oh Susanna) Ungerleider are welcome additions.

Producer/co-founder Michael Timmins once again brings an obvious Cowboy Junkies vibe to the whole affair—most explicitly on a faithful cover of that band’s underrated 1996 single “A Common Disaster,” which is ripe for rediscovery.

Despite Wilson’s persistence in clinging to this truly awful band name, Lee Harvey Osmond remains an embodiment of 50 years of roots, rock, folk and blues in this province—from Ian & Sylvia and The Band to Jennifer Castle and Timber Timbre—and should be considered a national treasure. There’s nothing here to surprise fans of the first three records, but not enough people heard those albums—so hopefully Wilson’s new literary profile while shine some more light on his new songs.

Why it didn’t shortlist: Ever the bridesmaid, never the bride: Wilson is in the unofficial Polaris Hall of Fame for the most appearances on a longlist without shortlisting. Considering the age demographic of the jury, I would never expect someone of Wilson’s vintage to shortlist. Only Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie have ever done that, and in each case those were exceptional circumstances—and exceptional artists. No slight against Wilson, but he doesn't have that godlike status.

Steven Page – Discipline: Heal Thyself Part II (Warner)

The album:

My September 2018 review:

Discipline is perhaps the single strongest collection of songs Page has ever assembled.

He warned us that he was not messing around. Earlier this summer he dropped the single “White Noise,” and released a lyric video featuring footage of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, over which we could hear an unusually punk rock Page singing, “I tell you, as an immigrant and a Jew / I’d be more than glad to replace you … Let’s have a Second Civil War! / That’s what the Second Amendment is for … Said the snowflake to the nationalist / ‘I won’t cease until you desist / you raise your flag, I’ll raise my fist / Resist! Resist! Resist!’ ” He wasn’t just interested in sloganeering, either: the song itself was a major-key pop song that would stand as one of his finest singles, regardless of what it was about. Fist, meet velvet glove.

The rest of the record isn’t pointed as directly at the jugular (with the exception of the brief interlude, “You Fucked Yourself”), although opening track “Nothing Special” is a similarly political song, where it’s odd to hear a peppy pop song with the couplet, “Children starving in the desert sun / look out, mama, junior’s got a gun!” Much of the genre-jumping song there is set to an “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” shuffle and similar synth sound. Page’s secret weapon throughout, as it was on 2016’s first instalment of Heal Thyself, is Craig Northey of the Odds, who also shares some co-writing credits.

What sets Page the solo artist far apart from his previous work is his embrace of lush orchestration—indeed, he’s performing several gigs this fall with local symphonies. The arrangements suit the range of his melodies; Page has always been somewhat underrated as a vocalist, but even a casual listen to this record would illustrate his obvious skill. Several tracks lean on a bossa nova beat, notably the satire of anti-science skeptics “Gravity” (“All I can see is what God tells me to see / and we live in a world that’s outlawed gravity”), while others echo Burt Bacharach (“What I Got From You”) or Broadway (“Done”), with a straight-up 6/8 R&B ballad for good measure (“Where Do You Stand”).

It would take a game-changing, incredibly strong record to help Page shake the baggage of his former band. This record is it.

 I haven't been posting any videos during this series, but I really don't think enough people heard this song, various lyrics from which run through my head at least once a week while trying to crawl out from under an avalanche of depressing headlines. 

Why it didn’t even longlist: Even if it wasn't made by a former member of Barenaked Ladies, for most Polaris jurors this likely sounds too much like Michael Bublé. Which, of course, it doesn’t at all. But this is definitely music for old folks. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT. (Hi, I'm one year younger than Steven Page.)

Tomorrow: Day four, with Pup and Jessie Reyez, as well as two more should've-beens

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 2: Fet.Nat, Dominique Fils-Aimé

My annual pre-Polaris summation, day two of five. Day one is here.

The shortlisters: 

Fet.Nat – Le Mal (Boiled Records)

The album:

From my February review:

This band sound like the wheels falling off Deerhoof’s touring van. Their second album, Le Mal—“the sickness”—opens with a staggered, stuttering groove that recalls Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Not Be Alright,” if it was arranged by Mike Patton and featuring Kid Koala on turntables. The rest of the record gets weirder from there.

Vocalist JFno is muttering and snarling about something, but even if he was singing in English (he’s not) the meaning would be secondary to the way he’s integrated into the interplay between everyone else. Killer drummer Olivier Fairfield (Timber Timbre, Last Ex, Andy Shauf) is the principal driver here, his art-damaged Tony Allen licks challenging guitarist/bassist Pierre-Luc Clement to a rhythmic game of chicken, each daring each other to land on an unpredictably syncopated beat. Saxophonist Linsey Wellman skronks sporadically, popping up like a Whac-a-Mole in the rare spaces left open by Fairfield and Clement.

The most traditional track here is the dark post-punk of “Soft Purse,” and it’s less than two minutes long. It’s also the only composition that doesn’t appear here twice—ostensibly, anyway. The titles of the second half of the record are variations of the first, and though there are similarities between each version of each title, they have about as much in common as Agent Dale Cooper’s doppelgangers in Twin Peaks: The Return. Which is another way of saying: this glorious mindfuck of an album makes as much sense as you let it, depending on your willingness to surrender. "Your world is my mystery gift," sings a small chorus of women here. Right on.

Looking forward to seeing this band baffle and blow away the Toronto gala crowd on Monday. What I'd give to see them come out and play this Canadian classic, on a similar wavelength.

The chances: Normally, I’d say slim, but ever since Lido Pimienta’s win, I’d say all bets are off. It’s a strange new world, and this strange record could well climb on top. Which on the one hand would be amazing, but on the other it would further marginalize Polaris in mainstream discussions. Which is fine—maybe that would finally put an end to the think pieces about why Drake never wins. (The record-breaking pop star didn’t even longlist this year.)

Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned! (En Soul)

The album:

From my May review:

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.

The chances: Fair. I loved this record the moment I heard it (at the suggestion of another Polaris juror). I championed it and voted for it. And yet I was shocked to see it make the shortlist. I can’t recall anything since Sarah Harmer’s I’m a Mountain, way back in Polaris’s inaugural year, that draws from pre-punk pop traditions. Fils-Aimé is steeped in jazz and blues, albeit with a decidedly modern bent, but there’s way too much upright bass, hand percussion, gospel harmonies and jazz trumpet for this to be on the shortlist, right? Maybe there’s enough resemblance to the ever-cool Sade for this to have wide cross-generational appeal; maybe those inexplicably enamoured by Charlotte Day Wilson will hear this and see the light. The closest Polaris ever got to jazz before this was the drastically different Colin Stetson and perhaps BadBadNotGood. Nothing like this. But for all my pleasant surprise, this record’s differences may well help it stand out against the competition. 

The could’ve/should’ve/would’ve beens:

Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (Arts and Crafts / Merge)

The album: This band won the Polaris in 2009 and were shortlisted in 2012. 2014’s Glass Boys didn’t long list, but this one did. It’s also the first Fucked Up record I’ve ever voted for, as it managed to finally convince me of this band’s greatness. Disclosure: I’ve never been drawn to this band’s style of hardcore punk, and even if I was I didn’t think Fucked Up made good studio records. Their live ferocity always seemed compromised and muffled in the studio. This one changed my mind.

An excerpt from my October review:

Dose Your Dreams is a game-changer. It is here that everything this band has worked toward comes to fruition. The production is crisp: the layers of guitars no longer muddied, the drums thunderous, the myriad extra layers expertly woven throughout. The arrangements are more creative than ever, employing atmospheric textures and harsh electronics, as well as Jane Fair’s saxophone and Owen Pallett’s strings. Most important: this record is where Fucked Up find an actual groove, as on the slinky disco of the title track (which owes debts to the Stone Roses), or the mid-tempo Springsteenian rocker “I Don’t Wanna Live In This World Anymore,” or the lilting shoegaze wash of “How to Die Happy,” or the Eno-esque weirdness of “Two I’s Closed.” There’s even a Skinny Puppy influence on the back-to-back electronic detour “Mechanical Bull” and “Accelerate.” Abraham surrenders more lead vocals than he ever has before, and the album is better for it—especially on the duet between Jennifer Castle and J Mascis on “Came Down Wrong.” Meanwhile, the traditional punk tracks (“House of Keys,” “Living in a Simulation”) are visceral, raw and anthemic fist-pumpers; some things never change, and, in fact, even get better.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I’m guessing a generational shift in jurors is one reason; Fucked Up are now a legacy act, one to be taken for granted. There’s also a political shift away from white guitar bands, which puts them at a disadvantage—although that didn’t stop (the much younger, and therefore still novel) Pup this year. Also, there was a lot of strong support for the new Voivod record, considered to be one of the best in that band’s 35-year career; there may have been some vote-splitting among jurors inclined to only have one aggressive act on their ballot. 

La Force – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

The album: This was the first record of the eligibility period that I fell in love with, and it remained at the top of my ballot six months later.

My September 2018 review:

Ariel Engle made my favourite record of 2013, In the Pines, as one-half of the duo AroarA. Five years later, on her debut as La Force, Engle has once again announced herself as a major talent—this time under a new name, and with her alone in the spotlight.

In the interim, she and her friends Leslie Feist and Snowblink’s Daniela Gesundheit formed a trio called Hydra, mainly as a social club with which Engle could play summer festivals with her newborn in tow. She then followed Feist into the latest incarnation of Broken Social Scene; Engle joined the already-crowded band on their comeback record, 2017’s Hug of Thunder, and easily carved out her own space beside the starpower of Feist and Emily Haines. Broken Social Scene also features Andrew Whiteman, who was not only Engle’s partner in AroarA, but off-stage as well. He co-wrote the music for La Force, but this is her project. She’s more than ready for her close-up.

For starters, she’s an arresting vocalist, every bit as compelling—if not more so—as her more famous friends. (The sole distraction on the album is on “Upside Down Wolf,” where she sounds remarkably like Cat Power—for an artist whose voice is so otherwise distinctive, this presumably accidental homage is somewhat jarring. It’s still a great song, though.) Her melodies are lovely, often based—as the best folk songs are—on as few chords as possible, if not just a plain drone (like the opener, “The Tide”).

But where Engle truly shines is in her rhythm: not just in the live and/or electronic percussion behind her, but in the role that every instrument plays on this record, starting with her own guitar playing. Latin rhythms often percolate underneath, not always in recognizable ways, though the bossa nova vibe of “Mama Papa” is undeniable. The overall production aesthetic is that of slick, art-rock torch music with more than a few nods to ’80s new wave (see “Epistolary Love Song”), with thoroughly modern technology; there’s nothing retro here, other than a sheer devotion to craft. As perfect as this record is, it also leaves the future of La Force wide open. This is an artist who could easily pivot in any which way: into darker corners, into sunnier settings, situated anywhere in the world.

Even though all her other projects have been with dear friends and loved ones, once this record makes the rounds, Ariel Engle’s own work will never be seen as an adjunct to someone else. Viva La Force!

Why it didn’t shortlist: There may well be juror fatigue with Broken Social Scene and their satellite projects, which is a shame because this truly does tower above anything from that camp in the last decade, with the exception of Feist. (I’m also partial to Kevin Drew’s 2014 Darlings.) Polaris is also not typically kind to mid-career artists, particularly women. The only shortlisters this year on the other side of 35 are Shad and Elisapie; the latter was previously unknown enough to be considered a new artist to most people this time out. Too bad: your forties is when life really starts to get interesting. Engle’s writing certainly confirms that.

Tomorrow: Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty, and two more should've-beens.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 1: Marie Davidson, Elisapie

“The best shortlist in years!” I’ve heard that said more than once about the 10 albums vying for this year’s Polaris Music Prize, mostly from jurors themselves. I’m not sure the same could be said of the general public. Or me.

The shortlist: 
Marie Davidson – Working-Class Woman
Elisapie – The Ballad of the Runaway Girl 
Fet.Nat – Le Mal
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned!
Les Louanges – La nuit est une panthère
Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
Pup – Morbid Stuff
Jessie Reyez – Being Human in Public
Shad – A Short Story About War
Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline

I’m rooting for exactly half these 10 records. (One year, there were as few as two.) As always, this year there were several records on the long list that I would prefer to have made the final cut; there’s a few that missed even the long list that should also be a part of the discussion.

What I think separates this shortlist from all others is the element of surprise: heavyweights faltered, underdogs rule.

Carly Rae Jepsen or Shawn Mendes? Nope. Fucked Up or Broken Social Scene? Nope. This list provides exactly the type of narrative that we music critics love. Look who made it on the list instead of Drake: a female francophone electronic artist! A female Indigenous filmmaker from northern Quebec who sings in three languages! A weirdo jazzy prog band with elements of Zappa and Mr. Bungle! And in an extremely rare nod to pre-punk pop forms, a Haitian-Québécois woman steeped in gospel, R&B and jazz!

The list gets even more diverse as it goes on, albeit less genre-busting. There are only two names that your family and co-workers might possibly recognize (and that’s by no means a slam dunk): Juno-winning show-stopper Jessie Reyez, and the rapper Shad, who these days is likely better known for hosting CBC Radio’s Q (2015-16) and HBO’s Hip-Hop Evolution than he is for his music. (Season 3 of HHE is now on Netflix, by the way.)

Is this list weird? Yep. I like weird. But it’s also wildly uneven. 

Last year’s was exceptional. On the 2018 list there were only two records that I didn’t think were excellent—and even those I was still rooting for, either because I like the artist’s previous work or I simply felt they were good people doing things the right way (o, Canada). Plus, it was just as diverse as this year’s list, if that’s important to you. Take a look at it again: Alvvays, Daniel Caesar, Hubert Lenoir, Jean-Michel Blais, Partner, Pierre Kwenders, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, U.S. Girls, Weaves, and winner Jeremy Dutcher.

This year, there is only one album I think actually deserves the prize. We’ll get to that much later. In the meantime, as per tradition on this blog, we’ll break the list down into five parts, and each day also direct some attention toward some other records we should be talking about.

The shortlisters:

Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune)

The album: DJ Davidson “works all the fucking time,” she’ll have you know. She’s been on the scene for more than 10 years: first in the duo Les Momies de Palerms, who released an album on Constellation, then in the duo Essaie Pas, who longlisted in 2016, while also putting out three solo albums before this one. She may be a new name to you, but she’s been around a few blocks.

It sounds like her music has, too. In what decade was this album made? Her drum programming has a rigidity that suggests she’s using sequencers made before she was born. It’s my own bias that I expect modern electronic musicians to at least conjure interesting sounds and rhythm; otherwise, I’d rather go back and listen to Kraftwerk. Or, at least, something equally retro but that has a swing, like Vancouver’s Jayda G. Davidson’s drum programming is not only dated, but dull; on “Workaholic Paranoid Bitch,” it’s practically punishing—and not in an interesting, avant-garde way, either. Her vocals are campy and distracting; not because of her heavily accented English, but because her script sounds downright corny, as on the supposedly spooky “The Tunnel,” or the supposedly sexy “So Right.” I enjoy this record much more when Davidson steers off the dance floor and into hypnotic, Philip Glass-like arpeggiations. 

Davidson has already signalled that this album marks the end of a prolific spurt, and that she’s taking some time to slow down and focus on something new. I’m much more excited about where that is than what we hear here.

The chances: Slim. This album’s champions are fervent; I keep reading their words hoping they can convince me. But I can’t see Davidson having the same crossover effect as previous winners Caribou or Kaytranada—all three of those artists are very different, but can be loosely grouped together as largely instrumental electronic music. Alas, as I will point out repeatedly in the coming posts, I am often very, very wrong. 

Elisapie – The Ballad of the Runaway Girl (Bonsound)

The album: This is the third solo album by this 42-year-old artist, who has a long list of accomplishments before her Polaris accolade. She grew up in Salluit, in northern Quebec, where at age 12 she sang on a song by local band Sugluk (featuring her uncle), and later worked at a local CBC station. She was one-half of the Juno-winning duo Taima, and is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with the NFB. This, her first album in seven years, was intended to be covers of artists found on the Native North America compilation—though Elisapie no doubt heard them long before that collection surfaced in 2014. She does songs by Sugluk (the title track), Willie Thrasher (“Wolves Don’t Live By the Rules”) and Willy Mitchell (“Call of the Moose”), but dives deep into her own personal history and culture for a solid series of songs that flesh out the record, including ones about her adoption, her birth mother, post-partum depression and MMIW. She sings in English, Inuktitut and French. Co-producer Joe Grass, a leading light of Montreal’s underrated roots music scene (Lil Andy, Katie Moore, El Coyote), does an ace job behind the boards, and the backing band includes members of Patrick Watson, Plants and Animals, and Suuns.

I like this record a lot, but I don’t love it; I feel like I heard better modern folk records in the past year (Digawolf, Lee Harvey Osmond, Great Lake Swimmers, Salomé Leclerc). But I admire the artist and the ambition and I’m glad to see her thrust into a larger spotlight. This album has grown on me a lot since I first heard it; it’s the one record on the list that I’m happy to have had to spend more time with. But all told, I’d much rather listen to this talented artist talk about her work. Listen to this great interview with Strombo.

The chances: Fair. This is a very nice, mostly musically conservative album that seems tailor-made for the CBC. Those kinds of records don’t usually win Polaris. But this one has deeper and darker edges that could convince jurors who spend more time with it.

The could’ve/should’ve/would’ve beens:

Digawolf –Yellowstone (independent)

The album:

From my February review:

“It’s cold, but I don’t care / because there’s something in the air.” There sure is. The man who calls himself Digawolf hails from the top tip of Great Slave Lake, 80 km northwest of Yellowknife, from the community of Behchoko, the capital of the Tlicho Nation. It’s not a big place, and Digawolf’s creativity can be found everywhere there—because he helped design the street signs.

Recorded in an oceanside barn in Denmark, with Greenlandic producer Jan de Vroede, Yellowstone sounds massive: this is not a lo-fi production from an artist in a remote community. The drums are crisp and thunderous, the guitars are fuzzed-out and thick, and other sonic layers provide gorgeous colours. Digawolf himself has a gravelly voice that sounds like it could only come from the Canadian Shield, which suits his thoroughly modern and often atmospheric take on the blues, not entirely unlike Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond. On opening track “By the Water” he hews a bit too close to July Talk’s Pete Dreimanis; it’s almost a bit too imitative—doubly so, because Dreimanis himself draws heavily from Tom Waits—and will no doubt cause confusion when played on the radio (which it should be). The other obvious influence is Daniel Lanois; when he’s not digging into a heavy riff, Digawolf is a textural player, separating him from any straight-up traditional takes on folk or blues.

On top of the musicianship, the production, and the (unfortunate) novelty of such a fully formed Northern artist, the songs here are all fantastic, whether they’re folk songs like “Northern Love Affair” or droning, dubby blues like “The Undiscovered World.”

Though he hails from the middle of nowhere, Digawolf has made major inroads in the industry, with wins or nominations from the Junos, Canadian Folk Music Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards, and the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. This is the album that should connect him with a much, much bigger audience.

Dig in.

Sadly, few did.

Why it didn’t even longlist: No idea. I thought it was a shoo-in for at least the long list. Maybe because comparison points are a bit too obvious—July Talk meets Daniel Lanois in the Far North!—that worked against him? No idea. FWIW, I’m not a big July Talk fan, just in case that comparison is scaring you off. (And FWIW I am a fairly big Lanois fan.) Maybe the Elisapie record pushed a lot of the same buttons for other people that this one did for me: they have some stylistic similarities, and Digawolf also sings in both English and his Indigenous language, Tlicho. Now that you know who Elisapie is, check out this guy as well. 

Christine Fellows – Roses on the Vine (Vivat Virtute)

The album:

From my February review:

There’s no easy box in which to fit Christine Fellows. The Winnipeg artist is a singer-songwriter who collaborates with visual artists and choreographers, writing songs based on people and events generations apart. For most of her career she played piano; other than textural synths, there are few, if any, keyboards on this, her seventh album. It was co-produced by her life and writing partner, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans; she, in turn, plays the same role on his recent records. Their influence on each other is obvious, and fans of the intricate character studies in his songs will find plenty to love in the writing of Fellows.

Roses on the Vine might well be her finest work to date, even from just a purely musical standpoint. There’s too much ukulele here for my own tastes, but other than that the plaintive cellos, the blurpy and droning synths, stuttering drum machines, and the always eclectic percussion from the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait all colour these creations in indelible ways.

The title track is a straight-up country song, and it’s a beautiful one. “One More For the Road” should be the closing song at every Canadian folk festival in the next 10 years. “Me and Carmen” is deep into Sufjan Stevens territory: wistful but wise. “Evening Train” owes a debt to Television’s “Marquee Moon.” "Unleashed" is so pop it could be a Tegan and Sara song.

It all adds up to a dense but rewarding listen, an embrace of eclecticism, and a masterful display of craft. Phase two of her career starts now.

Why it didn’t even longlist: Just a wild guess here, but Fellows has a lot of things working against her in this arena. She’s a fortysomething arty singer-songwriter from the Prairies on her own label, for starters. Let’s just say that if there was a profile in Vice, I must have missed it. Yes, she’s the partner in life and creativity of the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, and she has that band’s Jason Tait on this record, but even the once-beloved Samson is again an underdog these days. But hey, the equally excellent Veda Hille did manage to long list a few years ago with her masterpiece, Love Waves (one of my favourite records by anyone, anywhere, of the last 10 years). Jennifer Castle once shortlisted; Elisapie is there this year. Fellows belongs on a list with all those artists. (I realize these comparisons comprise a gender-specific pool, but I’m hard pressed to think of any living Canadian men other than Samson who write at this level.) I can’t blame people for missing it; Roses on the Vine was released in November 2018, and I didn’t get around to reviewing it until February, because I thought I had Fellows all figured out. Maybe others kept putting it off as well and/or took her for granted. Don’t do that. This is an unplucked gem.

Tomorrow: Fet.Nat, Dominique Fils-Aimé, and two more shortlist should’ve-beens