Monday, June 15, 2020

Moneyballing the 2020 Polaris long list

The 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list was announced today. My annual moneyballing follows, but first here’s the list: 

Allie X — Cape God
Anachnid — Dreamweaver
Aquakultre — Legacy
Marie-Pierre Arthur — Des feux pour voir
Backxwash — God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
Badge Époque Ensemble — s/t
Begonia — Fear
P'tit Belliveau — Greatest Hits Vol. 1
Daniel Caesar – Case Study 01
Caribou — Suddenly
Chocolat — Jazz engagé
Louis-Jean Cormier — Quand la nuit tombe
Corridor — Junior
dvsn — A Muse in Her Feelings
Flore Laurentienne — Volume 1
Jacques Greene — Dawn Chorus
Sarah Harmer — Are You Gone
Ice Cream – Fed Up
Junia-T — Studio Monk
Kaytranada — Bubba
Cindy Lee — What's Tonight To Eternity?
Men I Trust — Oncle Jazz
nêhiyawak — nipiy
Obuxum — Re-Birth
Owen Pallett — Island
Pantayo — Pantayo
Lido Pimienta — Miss Colombia
Joel Plaskett — 44
William Prince — Reliever
Jessie Reyez Before Love Came to Kill Us
Riit — ataataga
Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline
Super Duty Tough Work — Studies in Grey
U.S. Girls — Heavy Light
Leif Vollebekk — New Ways
Wares — Survival
The Weeknd — After Hours
Whoop-Szo — Warrior Down
Witch Prophet — DNA Activation
Zen Bamboo – Glu

My stats are, as always, full of subjective slip-ups. All corrections are welcome:


Female-led and female-identified: 17 (includes Backxwash, Cindy Lee, Wares)

Racialized, for lack of a better term: 14

Specifically Indigenous: 6
(Anachnid, Nehiyawak, Lido Pimienta, William Prince, Riit, Whoop-Szo)
That’s quite a diverse range of sounds, sure to shatter any stereotypes. None of those people sound remotely alike.

First-ever Filipina nominees: Pantayo (CORRECTION: First Filipina band. First FilipinX longlister was Vancouver's Kimmortal way back in... 2019. Toronto band Ohbijou performed at the very first Polaris gala beside Owen Pallett, but were never on a long list.)

Francophone: 6
(Marie-Pierre Arthur, P’tit Belliveau, Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier, Corridor, Zen Bamboo) 
Flore Laurentienne is the work of francophone Mathieu David Gagnon, but he makes instrumental music.

Allophone: 4 (Nehiyawak, Pantayo, Lido Pimienta, Riit)

Acadian: P'tit Belliveau. First franglais rapper in Polaris since Radio Radio. Waiting for a Lisa LeBlanc collab. 

Artists over 40 (that I’m aware of): 6
(Caribou, Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier, Sarah Harmer, Owen Pallett, Joel Plaskett)

Bands or duos (vs. solo projects): 11


Specifically hip-hop/R&B: 13
(Aquakultre, Backxwash, Begonia, P’tit Belliveau, Daniel Caesar, Dvsn, Junia T, Kaytranada, Obuxum, Jessie Reyez, Super Duty Tough Work, The Weeknd, Witch Prophet). 

No doubt some will argue about me putting Begonia and P'tit Belliveau in this category.

For the first time ever, I believe, the aforementioned loose genre overshadowed the next one, which is…

What was once known as indie rock: 10
(Chocolate, Jean-Louis Cormier, Corridor, Ice Cream, Cindy Lee, Nehiyawak, Owen Pallett, Wares, Whoop-Szo, Zen Bamboo)

Specifically roots/folk: 4
(Sarah Harmer, William Prince, Andy Shauf, Leif Vollebek). Could include folk festival favourite Joel Plaskett here.

Instrumental: 4 (Badge Epoque Ensemble, Jacques Greene, Flore Laurentienne, Obuxum). Could include Kaytranada here, but most of his record features vocals.

Should be a commercial radio star: 4 (Allie X, Begonia, Dvsn, U.S. Girls) Actual commercial radio stars: 3 (Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, The Weeknd)

Super weird: 3 (Anachnid, Cindy Lee, P’tit Belliveau)
Remotely heavy: 2 (Backxwash, Whoop-Szo)


Owen Pallett
Previous winners: 4
(Caribou, Kaytranada, Owen Pallett, Lido Pimienta. Also Jean-Louis Cormier as member of Karkwa.)
Previous shortlisters (not including above winners): 10
Previous longlisters who have yet to make a shortlist: 3 (Chocolat, Jean-Louis Cormier solo, Jacques Greene)

Total veterans: 17
Debut albums: 12



Toronto: 17 (two, Jacques Greene and Andy Shauf, come from Montreal and Regina)
Montreal: 10
Winnipeg: 3 (Begonia, William Prince, Super Duty Tough Work)
Halifax: 2 (Aquakultre, Joel Plaskett)
Edmonton: 2 (Nehiyawak, Wares)
Calgary: 1 (Cindy Lee)
Panniqtuq, Nunavut: 1 (Riit)
Guelph: 1 (Whoop-Szo)
Moncton: 1 (P’tit Belliveau)
London, UK: 1 (Caribou)
Kingston: 1 (Sarah Harmer)
Vancouver: 0 (!)

Laurentian elites: 30
Atlantic Canada: 3
Prairies: 6 (7 if you include Andy Shauf)
North: 1


Hall of famers:

All-time hall-of-famer Dan Boeckner missed out this year, as Wolf Parade’s Thin Mind (a great record, by the way) did not make this year's long list. The man who now leads Operators has a total of six nods to date, including two shortlist spots (one each for Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs).

Joel Plaskett and the Weeknd are now at five nods each; Plaskett takes the edge for having been shortlisted twice (which the Weeknd now has a chance to match). They now join a club that includes winners Arcade Fire, as well as repeat shortlisters New Pornographers, Drake, and eternal longlist bridesmaid Tom Wilson. Those last three artists all had eligible records this year; none made the longlist. This marks the first time the New Pornographers have failed to long list (their latest is also a great record, one of their best).

Four-timers Basia Bulat, Daniel Romano and Patrick Watson all failed to longlist this year. The fact that Romano put out seven albums in 2020 alone might—might—have hurt his chances. Matthew Tavares left four-time nominees BadBadNotGood to put out a solo album; it did not longlist. Other four-timers in the hall of fame, who did not put a new record in the last year, are Bahamas and the Sadies (though there is a collection of Sadies odds and sods). 

Also in the four-timer club is Shad, who has had each of his last four records shortlist. He's the only artist with four shortlist nods, which puts him in a class of his own.
UPDATE: Owen Pallett, winner of the inaugural prize in 2006 and shortlisted in 2010 and 2014, has been longlisted again, which now puts him in the four-timer club. Same with Caribou, who won in 2008 and, like Pallett, was shortlisted in 2010 and 2014. If both men shortlist again this year, they'll tie with Shad. And of course, if either wins, they'll be the first repeat winner. Because we're all friends here, Pallett played on the last two Caribou records. 


Things I didn’t see coming at all:

Joel Plaskett’s 44. It’s a four-record set with 44 songs on it, which is a lot to digest, and it came out a month before the deadline. Plaskett has a lot of good will in Canada’s critical community, as he certainly should, but at this point in his career I didn’t expect this risky move to make jurors’ ballots—especially when the jury is skewing younger than, uh, 44.
Zen Bamboo’s Glu: I heard a lot of discussion about many franco artists this year, but not a lot about this one. Produced by Julien Mineau, of the first-ever franco Polaris shortlisted band, Malajube.

Things I’m super sad about not seeing on the long list:

Speaking of francos, Bon Enfant made one of my favourite albums of the last 12 months. Go find it and play it loud in the springtime sun. I’m also upset fellow Montrealers Lil Andy and Little Scream didn’t make the cut, and the absolutely gorgeous Frazey Ford record. I’ve been a huge fan of Lightning Dust for years, and they put out their strongest record to date. The Dears put out a strong new record. Marleana Moore from Edmonton was one of my favourite new finds this year, followed by Boniface and Dana Gavanski. Kacy & Clayton from Saskatchewan suffered from both an anti-roots and anti-Prairie bias. I wrote about all my favourites in four parts, here, here, here and here.

Go listen! Shortlist will be announced July 15.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

My personal Polaris 2020 long list part 4

Day four!
Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.

I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered (10 in each post). Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.

Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so prepare yourself with as many grains of salt you feel are required.

Part 4/4: 

Owen Pallett – Island: This long-delayed album came out two weeks before the Polaris deadline, and yet I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it become one of the most-discussed albums this year. And not just because the first single (with its excellent accompanying video) contains this lyric: "Do not be scared / Surely some disaster will descend and equalize us / a crisis / Will unify the godless and the fearless and the righteous.” Though as lushly orchestrated as much of his work, these songs are centred around acoustic guitar, marking a new(ish) direction for Pallett: very little evidence of his violin-virtuoso past, few of the electronics that shaped 2014’s In Conflict, the orchestration never draws attention to itself, the music rich with subtleties and no concessions at all to pop audiences (usually Pallett would throw a bone or two). This sounds like Pallett’s most musically personal album; it also features the loveliest vocals he’s ever put to tape. For day-one fans, it’s as much a mature, one-man version of Les Mouches as it is a Final Fantasy record. Bandcamp link here.

Pantayo – s/t: Now here’s something you haven’t heard before: a group of Filipinas integrating traditional percussion (kulintang) with R&B and pop that lies somewhere between ESG, Massive Attack and Solange. Yes, the novelty is part of the appeal, and that will help this land on the long list and go possibly much further this Polaris season. But, like Tagaq or Jeremy Dutcher’s work, this is far from mere novelty: it’s an incredibly strong record: the grooves, the vocals, the songs, the sonic textures, the production by Alaska B (Yamantaka // Sonic Titan). Pantayo didn’t start out like this; when I saw them perform at a Long Winter event several years ago, it was definitely more on the traditional side. Now, “V V V (They Lie)” and “Desire” are total radio summer jams, uptempo and down, respectively. There’s even, it seems, some ’80s new wave in the mix here, but that could just the Scarborough boy in me being brought back to a time when I would have first heard traditional Filipino music at high school talent shows 30 years ago and now I’m weirdly conflating a bunch of my own memories in what is apparently a record review. Anyway, this is going to be the record that will make the list and have industry veterans wondering, “Where the hell did this come from?” Bandcamp link here.

Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia: Is it okay to say now that I didn’t like Pimienta’s 2017 Polaris winner La Papessa? That was a milestone win for many reasons (first allophone winner, entirely indie release), but I still heard a nascent artist who had yet to fully bloom. The conversation around the win—and the way Pimienta dealt with an onslaught of hateful criticism—was more worthy than the album itself, in this random white guy’s opinion, FWIW (not much). The Toronto artist took a lot of time and care following it up, and now we can talk about the music again. Everything has stepped up, starting with Pimienta’s own vocals: they’re stronger, express more dynamics and inflection, and generally more emotionally resonant. That’s true of the electronics as well; she’s said part of her challenge here was to make the technology sound beautiful, and she succeeded. The brass arrangements throughout are also a nice touch. Prince Nifty, a.k.a. Owen Pallett collaborator Matt Smith, co-produces here (check out his lovely new solo release), and guests include Colombian palenque group Sexteto Tabala (the collab here will sound familiar to any fans of Caribbean-Colombian legend Toto La Momposina) and South American superstar Li Saumet of electro-cumbia-pop band Bomba Estereo. One could argue that Pimienta won the Polaris prematurely, but if she hadn’t, then this superior record would likely not be getting an international release; its ambition might not even have been possible. Bandcamp link here.

Slow Leaves – Shelf Life: It’s not like critics are stumbling over themselves in a hunt for the new Lightfoot in 2020. But hey, FWIW, Slow Leaves is likely the new Lightfoot, or at least the most worthy contender since Doug Paisley dropped the 2011 classic Constant Companion. Davidson sings with a gentle lilt and affecting tremolo, his breezy folk rock designed to be played on crackly vinyl or around a campfire. Davidson sounds like a middle-aged dad, which he is, and this is an ideal midlife rainy day record when accompanied by coffee and/or scotch. It’s not new or dark or sexy; it’s just life. Hard to make that sound exciting in a record review. But hey, if the likes of Leif Vollebekk can crack the shortlist, surely Slow Leaves can. Bandcamp link here.

Rae Spoon – Mental Health: This artist has had quite a rollercoaster two years: they continue to run the best truly indie label in Canada (Coax Records) and they released two of the best albums of their career (including this one). But shortly after cancelling a tour due to the pandemic the non-binary artist announced they were diagnosed with cancer before even turning 40. Rae Spoon’s music has always been about resilience, which means in 2020 an album like Mental Health strikes particularly potent chords. As a former folk country artist who now makes what could be called electro-tinged indie rock, Spoon is first and foremost a classic pop songwriter: their songs are full of earworms, no matter the arrangements underneath. Lyrically, this record taps into the anxiety age with precision, which makes it essential listening. Bandcamp link here.

Storry – CH III: The Come Up: The back story behind this record is fascinating, terrifying, tragic, and a whole other tale unto itself (read Nick Krewen’s profile here). But the short on Storry is that this debut album (don’t let the CH III title fool you) is about her past life as a sex worker after an opera career went astray. She turns her classically trained voice to gutsy and jazzy R&B with some ace players behind her. The slick veneer might be suited to upscale jazz clubs, but the narratives pull no punches. Even if there wasn’t a back-Storry here (sorry), the woman’s voice is enough of a draw on its own. Ain’t no AutoTune here, she belongs on a stage. Won’t even need a microphone.

US Girls – Heavy Light: It’s weird to think of Meg Remy as a Polaris veteran, but this is likely to be her third appearance on a shortlist and another likely winner—I thought she’d take it for 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, my favourite record that year. Heavy Light picks up where that record left off, and, inspired by her 2018 Polaris performance, features a strong vocal presence from backing singers including arranger Kritty Uranowksi, James Baley (remember that name), and Basia Bulat. E Street saxophonist Jake Clemons also shows up, as do members of Arcade Fire and Ice Cream. The album was recorded largely live in Montreal by Howard Bilerman, and the electric energy is evident. Hard to go wrong with that many all-stars on board, and Remy rises to every challenge: she’s one of the most astute and fascinating lyricists working today, set to beautiful melodies steeped in the history of pop music. Part of this album’s success is due to Remy’s generous and collaborative spirit: she’s not precious about empowering her collaborators, working with co-writers (including Bulat), or even revisiting earlier material from her lo-fi solo days (“Overtime” and “Red Ford Radio” are highlights here). Everything about this exudes empathy and community, which is exactly what we need right now.  

Whoop-Szo – Warrior Down: I’m a lightweight when it comes to heavy music, which makes Whoop-Szo all the more surprising. This is stoner sludgy grunge that packs a wallop, even more so when Adam Sturgeon sings about his family’s experience in residential schools or a cousin being shot by cops in Saskatchewan (The chorus “Warrior down in a Saskatchewan town” says so much with six words, a Neil Young-esque simplicity all political songwriters should study). But this isn’t just a Sabbathian sonic anvil; this band started out as a considerably more experimental project, and there are more delicate moments here and prog diversions and deliciously dirty synth interludes and piano instrumentals. I don’t know who London, Ontario engineer Kyle Ashbourne is, but he’s heavy as fuck when he wants to be, with a Blurtonian touch that serves this material extremely well. Watch out for Whoop-Szo: at least one more record like this and they could turn into the most important rock band in Canada. Bandcamp link here.

Witch Prophet – DNA Activation: I certainly didn’t hear any other Canadian record like this in the last year: Habesha hip-hop beats with an Afrofuturist bent and jazzy saxophone (Karen Ng) throughout. Fans of Erykah Badu’s work with Georgia Anne Muldrow will find a lot to love here. This is hypnotic, healing music for humid days, during days when these lyrics strike deep: “Where do we go from here / When the whole world is falling / Through darkness / And we cannot see the light.” The woman known as Witch Prophet brings that light. Bandcamp link here.

Wolf Parade – Thin Mind: All great bands who feel like they’re hitting a wall should take a seven-year break. It did wonders for Wolf Parade. Both 2017’s Cry Cry Cry and now Thin Mind take everything that was ever intriguing about this group of musicians—as players and songwriters—and amplify all their strengths. Rare is the rock band that actually gets better with age, but this new chapter of Wolf Parade is the prime of their career, and Pacific Northwest star producer John Goodmanson captures it perfectly. Other than the obvious strengths of frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, the MVP here is drummer Arlen Thompson, who gives the material a real swing and swagger. Fuck nostalgia, forge the future. Bandcamp link here.

I’ll feel extremely lucky if even half of those 40 records make the longlist.

These next ones are not my bag, but here are 15 artists whose albums are likely to be longlisted, so give them a listen if you haven't already: 

Marie-Pierre Arthur
Daniel Caesar
Flore Laurentienne
Men I Trust
Nap Eyes
William Prince
Jessie Reyez
Andy Shauf
Super Duty Tough Work 
The Weeknd

The official long list will be announced on Monday June 15.
Jurors will then have a chance to submit their shortlist ballot; the shortlist will be announced July 15, and the winner on Sept. 21.

Happy listening! Buy the music you love! 

My personal Polaris 2020 longlist part 3

Day three!
Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.

I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered (10 in each post). Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.

Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so take all this with as many grains of salt you feel are required.

Part 3/4: 

Kacy & Clayton – Carrying On: This duo are second cousins from south Saskatchewan who have now made two records with producer Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, but you’d be forgiven if you thought this was a lost Laurel Canyon classic. Kacy Anderson takes most of the lead vocals, and, along with Jennifer Castle, she may well be the most compelling female voice in Canadian folk music since Frazey Ford showed up in the Be Good Tanyas. This duo’s take on countrified folk is lazy, hazy and fairly sparse. In other words, it’s perfect. Yet another act I wish I was seeing at a folk festival this summer. Bandcamp link here.

Kaytranada – Bubba: This album dropped in the dying days of December, after a lot of publications assembled their year-end lists, and so got somewhat lost in the shuffle. It was also an album that, though I loved Kaytranada’s Polaris-winning debut, I didn’t want to listen to in the dead of winter. This is summer music! Maybe it was big in Australia five months ago?! Giving it a proper listen now, in warmer climes, it’s a winning follow-up to 99.9%. The worst thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t expand on what the artist has already accomplished, and the guests are less inspiring this time around (especially, perhaps oddly, Pharrell Williams). But it’s head and shoulders above everyone in this genre not named Anderson.Paak. And the hotter it gets, the better it sounds. 

Lightning Dust – Spectre: Josh Wells and Amber Webber left Black Mountain a few years ago; they’d been in that band since the beginning and even before, in its predecessor Jerk With a Bomb. Over the years they put out three duo albums as Lightning Dust; all were great, none of them got much traction. Now that this is their full-time project (when Wells isn’t drumming for Destroyer’s live band), they’ve returned with a whopper. Webber is still one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in Canada, her witchy tremolo perfectly suited to the minor-key psychedelic folk songs she writes with Wells, which sound like they came out between in the years between ’70s soft rock and the birth of new wave (“Run Away” sounds like Patti Smith covering Springsteen’s “The River” in 1981). Honestly, I could listen to Webber sing just about anything, but this is the strongest material she’s ever delivered, while drummer/producer/keyboardist Wells retains his rep as one of the MVPs on the West Coast. This side project now has their full attention, and it shows. Now it deserves yours. Bandcamp link here.

Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied To Us: "All the Love Songs Lied to Us"—the title sounds like something Stephen Merritt would have penned for 69 Love Songs. And that's the league Andy is aiming for here, albeit within a specific sonic space, and tied specifically to country music. Not an urban hipster ironic take on country music, either. Andy is a songwriter in love with the literary side of country music: the clichés that ring true, the wordplay, the storytelling. While the instrumentation doesn't stray from the traditional, the lyrics are resolutely set in the modern world. But about that instrumentation: he's got Montreal MVP Joe Grass at his side here. His guitar playing here is downright magical, like Nels Cline playing straight-up country. Andy's love of Leonard Cohen shows in the ornamental use of female backing vocals, notably on "The Lives of Others." But longtime collaborator Katie Moore—another Montreal MVP—also provides gorgeous, straight-up Emmylou-ish harmonies underneath Andy's rich baritone. This is a country record, but one that transcends genre. Most important, it's a songwriter's record, brilliantly illustrated by top-notch arrangements, sparse and gorgeous production, and lovely vocal performances all around. For years now, Lil Andy has been working somewhat quietly within the confines of a certain Montreal neighbourhood. This record deserves to be heard around the world. Bandcamp link here.

Little Scream – Speed Queen: This is richly produced, textural pop music that sounds like Fleetwood Mac made by art school students: soft rock with real bite, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Lyrically, she's a poetic force, at times Joni-esque, an acute observer with a razor-sharp pen: "I don't mind burning bridges to gated houses I don't want to live in." First single "Dear Leader" is an absolutely essential song for these times (by which I mean at least the last decade, not just the last month). There's some songwriting collaborations here from Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse, Wooden Stars), Mike Dubue (Hilotrons), Pietro Amato (Bell Orchestre, Luyas) and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire); all of them bring their top game here, resulting in what is easily Sprengelmeyer's best album so far. The songwriting, the production (Marcus Paquin: Arcade Fire, Stars, Begonia, Sarah Harmer, etc.), the arrangements, the playing and her inviting vocals are all top-notch. This one took some time to grow on me, and then it hit me hard. Real hard. Bandcamp link here.

Loving – If I Am Only My Thoughts: I don’t have a lot to say about this Victoria band’s second release except that I never liked Mac DeMarco but I love this and listening to it makes me feel too drunk and sun-baked to actually say anything intelligent. Tune in, turn on, drop out and all that. Bandcamp link here.

Jon Mckiel – Bobby Joe Hope: There’s a fascinating backstory to this record, involving an old reel-to-reel tape machine Mckiel purchased, which included tape with instrumental snippets recorded likely decades ago. The Sackville, N.B.-based Mckiel collaborated with Joyfultalk’s Jay Crocker in rural Nova Scotia to “collaborate” with this found material to create hazy folk songs for a psychedelic breakfast. In the lineage of Atlantic Canadian weirdness, this is very much an extension of Eric’s Trip, though obviously its own thing, creating modern magic with vintage tools in a dialogue with the past. Bandcamp link here.

Marleana Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed!: This is another of my favourite discoveries from fellow jurors. This Edmonton songwriter is bound to appeal to anyone raised on 90s indie rock or more recent purveyors like Angel Olsen or this album’s producer, Chad Van Gaalen. Moore has an inviting voice with a wide range, the songwriting is incredibly strong, and the players (including members of Calgary’s Preoccupations) provide perfect colour. I’m at an age where twentysomething indie rock usually either bores me to tears or drives me bananas; this record easily rises far above her peers (i.e. the Boygenius crowd). Extra points for the beautiful cover art and the entirely apt title. Bandcamp link here.

New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights: It’s more than easy to take this band for granted: this is their eighth album, Dan Bejar is long gone, and 2017’s Whiteout Conditions was incredibly disappointing—even more so because it followed the late-career highlight Brill Bruisers in 2014. Morse Code finds the band back on track, playing to all their strengths: lush, inventive, intricate power-pop rock with plenty of left turns and massive harmonies. Just because they’re now celebrating their 20th year together doesn’t mean we should appreciate them any less; this album, like Brill Bruisers, guarantees they won’t remain a nostalgia act. 

Obuxum – Re-Birth: “Take up SPACE!!” is the title of one track here; the emphasis is hers, not mine. It’s a reference to the fact that this young beatmaker from Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood doesn’t see a lot of support for people like her: i.e. a Somali-Canadian woman making electronic music. She travels interstellar paths similar to those of fellow Habesha-Canadian Witch Prophet or L.A.’s Flying Lotus: dreamy, discombobulated, rich with texture. She got some spotlight when she produced “In Women Colour” for Haviah Mighty’s Polaris-winning album last year, but she’s not the type to normally work with MCs. She’s much better off left untethered in her travels, where she can take up as much space as she needs. Bandcamp link here.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

My personal Polaris longlist 2020 part 2

Day Two!

Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.

I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered. Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.

Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so take all this with as many grains of salt you feel are required.

Part 2/4:

The Dears – Lovers Rock: This band has been making anxiety-ridden apocalyptic prog-rock for 20 years now, so the fact they’re releasing their best record in years right now is sheer coincidence. Older, wiser, and with their grand ambitions tempered with humility and grace, the Dears easily conjure the fireworks of their finest hours—“The Worst in Us” is vintage Dears, and would be a highlight on any earlier record—while balancing the bombast with breezier fare like “Play Dead” and “Is This What You Really Want,” both of which wouldn’t have been out of place on singer Murray Lightburn’s excellent 2019 solo album. Bandcamp link here.

Frazey Ford – U Kin B the Sun: Words will always fail to describe Frazey Ford’s voice, probably because she fails to enunciate most of her words in the first place. Such is the magic and mystery that this soulful singer brings to everything she does, whether it was the folk revivalism of the Be Good Tanyas 20 years ago or the soul music she immerses herself in here. This is not exactly retro R&B, but it is a solid live band with a Hammond organ (or imitation) hovering over the bass-heavy grooves and gospel-tinged backing vocals. She’s a devoted D’Angelo fan, and her last record used the same band Cat Power did on The Greatest; Ford brings her own hippie B.C. vibe to the genre. She’s not in this game to win; she can take or leave the music business, as she’s proved over the years while moving at her own pace. The music she makes is for healing, for uplift, for the spirit. Which is all well and good and inspiring, but the songs she brings to the table this time, and the players she gathered to perform it, that elevate this far beyond mere good intentions. It’s the balm. Bandcamp link here.

Fountain – Laughing Through Traffic: Holy shit, this came out of nowhere (look ’em up, and you’ll find next to no press at all, so shout out to CJLO’s Francella Fiallos for tipping the jury to this). This is a Beefheartian Montreal band with incredible chemistry despite sounding like they’re being pulled in at least three different directions at once. There are elements here of everyone from Television to Old Time Relijun to recent Polaris faves Fet.Nat, with a singer possessed of the necessary sardonicism to sell the sizzle (“On an art deco gecko all I drink is prosecco / that’s not healthy!”). One of many contenders this year that I wish I could see live, though this recording has raw energy to burn. Bandcamp link here.

Dana Gavanski – Yesterday is Gone: No wonder this odd little record is so fascinating: it was born in Vancouver, Montreal, the Laurentians, Banff, Toronto, and Serbia. Gavanski packs a lot of work, discipline and experience into her debut album, which fits into a lineage that spans Nico to Aldous Harding (and FWIW I’m not a fan of the latter). It’s unassuming at first, with subtle arrangements and Gavanski’s deadpan voice somewhat off-putting. But the intimacy and delicacy of the instrumentation ultimately draw you in; every tiny production decision here is very particular and deliberate, creating a world you want to inhabit on a lazy afternoon. Fans of Jennifer Castle should be paying attention. Bandcamp link here.

Golden Seals – Something Isn’t Happening: Dave Merritt lives outside Ottawa and puts out new music of an old-fashioned vein about every six years or so, which means this record had zero push behind it other than Merritt’s always entertaining online presence. He’s the kind of 50-year-old guy with Beatles deep in his blood and a whole lotta Nick Lowe and Aimee Mann on his shelf, and has likely had a Mojo subscription for the last 20 years. All that pop scholarship pays off here, which not only has Sexsmithian melodies and jazz chords, but the production here is much more vivid than one would ever expect from a home recording—even the track he recorded as a phone memo sparkles. (Local Ontario heroes Andy Magoffin and Philip Shaw Bova shared mixing duties; both do great work, as always.) There’s tightly wound nuggets of pop perfection on tracks like “Independence Day,” “Idiot Kid” and “The Opposite End of the Country,” but he gets pleasantly unspooled on the closer “The Takeaway.” This is old fart music par excellence. Don’t hold that against him. Bandcamp link here. Zunior link here.

Jacques Greene – Dawn Chorus: I’ll admit that full-length techno records are not my bag, but Greene’s 2017 release Feel Infinite was intriguing, as was his work on Cadence Weapon’s excellent 2018 self-titled album. That rapper turns up to return a favour here, joining electronic artist Julianna Barwick, film composer Brian Reitzell, hip-hop producer Clams Casino, and underrated Toronto singer Rochelle Jordan. The result is a late-night cinematic journey with character and depth, recalling early 90s rave (yes, Moby) records in the best possible ways. Does that musical era sound retro now? I have no idea. But this record sounds great today, illuminating empty urban landscapes with memories of what once was. Bandcamp link here.

Sarah Harmer – Are You Gone: The master is back. It’s been 10 years since we last heard from her, and she’ll tell you this is her best record yet. Strong words: it’s hard to top the untouchable You Were Here or I’m a Mountain. But this comeback is full of timeless gems, not the least of which is “Just Get Here” and “St. Peter’s Bay.” And dammit, “New Low” is exactly the political pop song we needed in 2020; I only wish she turned up the guitars on that one in order to match the lyrical bite. Ah well, maybe Billy Talent will cover it. Bandcamp link here.

Kevin Hearn – Calm and Cents: He’s one of this country’s MVPs (Barenaked Ladies, Lou Reed, Gord Downie, Rheostatics) but Hearn’s solo records are criminally underappreciated (see: 2014’s Days in Frames). This one is largely instrumental and absolutely lovely. Featuring longtime bassist Chris Gartner, drummer Gavin Brown and violinist Hugh Marsh, this is a meditative and melodic record about environmental decay, in which Hearn’s delicate piano is balanced with ambient electronics, Vocoders, and very subtle reggae influences underneath the sci-fi surface.

Ice Cream Fed Up: This record sounds like 1999. The year of Peaches and Le Tigre. The sound of Prince’s classic album 1999. But in 2020, Ice Cream are two Toronto women who deliver dual-lead electric guitar over electro beats and catchy pop songs (“Peanut Butter,” “Banana Split”). There’s plenty of darker material here, as well (the title track, “Dove’s Cry”). These women are killer singers and players—which is why they’ve been drawn into the U.S. Girls universe (Carlyn Bezic was playing in the current lineup; both she and fellow Ice Creamer Amanda Crist play with Meg Remy in the band Darlene Shrugg.) If Fifth Column were around today, they’d sound a lot like Ice Cream. Bandcamp link here.

Junia T – Studio Monk: This is a winner on so many levels. For starters, Junia T steps to the forefront after being Jessie Reyez’s tour DJ for the last few years to craft this masterful collection of grooves built from the bottom up with live musicians and engineer Slakah the Beatchild. It took him two years, a time during which the MC decided to put down the mic to focus on the music, and invite an array of mostly Toronto talent to shine in his stead. So not only is this a solid, jazzy hip-hop and R&B record with a rich vintage sound (and by vintage I mean not only 70s soul, but there’s a particular late 90s vibe here), it also functions as a mixtape with all-stars like Reyez, Sean Leon, and River Tiber, but relatively unknown singers Storry and Faiza, as well as highly underrated Toronto vet Adam Bomb. Sometimes this much talent on one record means a lot of compromise and mush, but every single artist here brings their A-game. (Well, maybe not Nate Husser.) If at least one hip-hop record makes the shortlist this year, this is going to be it.