Friday, October 16, 2020

2020 Polaris Music Prize shortlist, Day 4: Junia T, Kaytranada

My annual five-part look at the shortlist examines two records a day, plus two personal picks from the qualifying period, and this yearas the prize gets older and still skews young—I’m including one veteran artist each day whose latest work risks getting lost in the shuffle.

This year we’re going in reverse alphabetical order, because, hey, everything else about 2020 is upside down.

The winner this year will be announced on Monday, October 19 in a televised ceremony featuring 10 commissioned short films, airing on CBC Gem, YouTube and social media.

Day 1, with Witch Prophet and U.S. Girls, is here. Day 2, with Jessie Reyez and Pantayo, is here. Day 3 with Lido Pimienta and Nehiyawak is here.

Day 4

Kaytranada – Bubba (RCA)

The album: It’s good. I know that ideally all these albums should be reviewed in isolation, without regard to biography, previous work, or live show. But I loved Kaytranada’s 2016 debut, 99.9%, so much; it was a total breath of fresh air. To these ears, he brought a unique sound to modern grooves; it wasn’t hip-hop or funk or pop or R&B or house or whatever else it was described as. It was a party in a can, with some top-shelf guests. I could say all the same things about Bubba
but I’m not sure what else I would say. There are some strong guests here, especially British singer Estelle, Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, and Jamaican-American Masego, but others sound like they’re phoning it in, and it’s the four instrumental tracks on Bubba that come out the strongest. The biggest name here, Pharrell Williams, shits the bed; his track shouldn’t have even been a B-side. So what we have here is Kaytranada doing what Kaytranada does exceptionally well, with less impressive collaborations bogging things down.

The chances: Slim. Again, as with Lido Pimienta and Caribou (and Owen Pallett, who didn’t shortlist) I think “previous winner” is a Polaris curse, even more so for a follow-up album. And Kaytranada would have had to make a better album than 99.9% to win again.

Junia T – Studio Monk (Pirates Blend)

The album: Kaytranada is hardly the only uber-funky beatmaker making waves this year. Right from the get-go, Junia T gives the previous Polaris winner a run for his money on the extremely Kaytranada-ish “Tommy’s Intro,” featuring Sean Leon and 99.9% guest River Tiber. The rest of the album maintains that standard, through different moods and singers. Jessie Reyez is the only big name here, but that’s because she appeared on a Junia T album long before her big break, and she then took him on the road as her DJ. Reyez is in fine company: Every guest here shows off big personalities
Benjamin A.D., Elijah Dax, Storry, Faiza, Toronto vet Adam Bomb and otherswhile never overshadowing the brilliance of Junia T’s arrangements, which draw from vintage funk, neosoul, reggae, triphop, Brazilian beats and jazz. The beats are killer; the bass lines even better. The singers are all pitch perfect. Slakah the Beatchild is behind the boards, ensuring a rich, warm, vintage sound. This album was two years in the making, and it shows: there is a deep attention to detail and mood on every track. This album should be to the next generation of Toronto what Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People was to indie rock in the early 2000s.

Read Del Cowie's profile here.

The chances: Strong. The only strike against it would be Polaris rewarding two Toronto hip-hop-adjacent records in a row, which is hardly a strike at all, considering Polaris's chin-stroking, wallflower history, and that Haviah Mighty was the first rap record to win Polaris (also: any broader contextual talk like this is banned during grand jury discussions, which are about the current albums only). But this isn’t a rap record, far from it; only four of the 13 songs even feature rappers. This is a genre-averse album that should be heard far and wide.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Ice Cream – Fed Up (independent)

The album: These daughters of Peaches and Le Tigre bring not only next-gen feminist electro pop extraordinaire, but some serious guitar shredding, inventive programming, strong vocals and top-notch production. Opening tracks “Bun Roo” and “Peanut Butter” are fun, industrial-tinged pop songs, but “Banana Split” is seriously slinky. The title track channels dystopian Detroit soundscapes while they sing about being “queens of the void, queens of everything.” “Dove’s Cry” is a surprisingly affecting ballad over an off-kilter beat
though it’s about soap, self-image and consumerism (I think). “Not Surprising” is ghostly and ice-cold while a saxophone dances around like a snow squall. Closing track “0.22” is a Gary Numan throwback, with lyrics seemingly about a woman’s indoctrination into a cult. Andthat’s it! Eight songs, ba da bing, ba da boom. 

Read Michael Rancic's piece about them in Now here.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I was surprised it didn’t. Hopefully the long list raised their profile a bit. They somehow ended up opening for Sam Roberts at a big drive-in concert by the Toronto waterfront last month.

Frazey Ford – U Kin B the Sun (Arts and Crafts)

The album: This B.C. singer has exactly the kind of voice I needed to hear this year. She returned from a six-year hiatus with her strongest solo record to date, 20 years after we first heard her in the Be Good Tanyas. She’s still mining Memphis grooves from Al Green, although this time she doesn't borrow his band like she did on 2014’s Indian Ocean. She co-wrote all this material with her Vancouver band, including longtime producer/engineer John Raham. The arrangements are incredibly sparse, usually with just a dash of piano or guitar over top the rhythm section, giving Ford’s voice room to roam. Ford sings of healing, redemption, empathy and resilience, in her unique delivery. The Aretha Franklin of the Kootenays? Let’s just say that words fail to describe the magic that is Frazey Ford. Or maybe I’m just a shitty writer. Kitty Empire at the Guardian is not, so read her live review here.

Why it didn’t even longlist: Just curious, but I’m guessing that
other than the complete anomaly that is Buffy Sainte-Marieno mid-career woman in her 40s has ever made the long list, with the exception of the mighty Sarah Harmer this year. Am I wrong? Also: not a single artist from Vancouver, or even British Columbia, made the long list this year. (Though Backxwash grew up there before moving to Montreal.)

Veteran MIA:

Kevin Hearn 
 Calm and Cents (Celery Music)

This Toronto keyboardist is better known for the eclectic company he keeps (Barenaked Ladies, Lou Reed, Rheostatics, Gord Downie) than his own series of lovely solo records, which are slightly proggy pop delights with lush production. Here, as the title suggests, Hearn is in a much more placid mood. He's not here to make Yet Another Solo Piano record, though (not that he ever has, but I'd love to hear it); there's a glut in the market for that right now. Instead, he employs fellow Look People alumnus Chris Gartner on bass, superstar producer Gavin Brown on drums, and fellow auxiliary Rheostatic Hugh Marsh on drums for a largely instrumental collection. On previous records, Hearn's voice could be a dealbreaker for some; here, he uses a Vocoder to sing of environmental decay ("The Silent Collapse," "Chemical Valley"). The music is most reminiscent of the Rheostatics' Music Inspired by the Group of Seven, which Hearn co-wrote 25 years ago; Calm and Cents is a futuristic, sci-fi vision of the Canadian Shield, anchored by a piano that sounds like it was recorded in a cabin in Algonquin Park. The dub reggae backdrop of "The Nemophilist" might seem incongruous on paper, but fits perfectly into Hearn's cinematic vision. I enjoyed this record when it came out; it became a go-to record during pandemic stress.

Unrelated: be sure to watch the acclaimed and surprising documentary about Hearn's odd role in exposing an art fraud ring in northern Ontario, called There Are No Fakes. It's streaming at TVO here. 

Tomorrow: Caribou, Backxwash

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