Saturday, October 17, 2020

2020 Polaris Music Prize shortlist, Day 5: Caribou, Backxwash

My annual five-part look at the shortlist examines two records a day, plus two personal picks from the qualifying period, and this year—as 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 with Kaytranada and Junia T is here.

Day 5:

Caribou – Suddenly (Merge)

The album: It’s a bit weird that Dan Snaith gets increasingly popular the older he gets, and the longer he waits between records--especially as a so-called “electronic” artist. But dammit, he’s very good at what he does. This time out his old-school songwriting continues to develop, whether it’s warped electro-folk like bookends “Sister” and “Cloud Song,” soul-sampling pastiches like “Home,” straight-up four-on-the-floor pop songs like “You and I” (which could almost pass for Tom Petty, were it not for the absence of guitars), total psychedelic loveliness like “Magpie,” or early 90s house music like “Never Come Back.” Nothing is ever straightforward, however, or particularly faithful to genre: everything here sounds unmistakably like Caribou, with all the twists and turns that entails. 

The only thing that stops me from hailing this as his finest record, next to 2010’s Swim, is his overuse of clipped and stuttered vocal samples, which is great in small doses but is downright distracting on a track like “New Jade.” Brings back too many bad memories of 12” extended dance remix singles of the ’80s, when M-M-M-Max Headroom and P-P-P-Paul Hardcastle were both a th-th-th-thing. But that’s just me.

Bandcamp here.

The chances: Fair. It’s been long enough since his 2008 Polaris win that he might be able to shake the previous-winner curse. But I think it’s unlikely.

Backxwash – God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It (independent)

The album: The title track opens the album with Ozzy Osbourne moaning, “Oh no, no, please God, help me!” from the song “Black Sabbath,” and it closes with a sample of that band’s “War Pigs.” Yes, this record is bleak. It’s a metal-tinged rap record with seriously goth overtones, maybe even “horrorcore,” made by a black trans woman known to wear devil horns on stage. Which sounds great--on paper.

She is a Montreal artist, via Vancouver, via Zambia, with a little help from now-defunct Toronto duo Black Dresses, and yeah, there’s a whole lot of personality and backstory behind Backxwash. That she’s been vaulted from obscurity to pseudo-mainstream exposure (let’s face it, the mainstream doesn’t pay Polaris much mind) is a massive achievement, and one to be celebrated. Unfortunately, that also shone a spotlight on some of the uncleared samples here--you can’t exactly lift a Sabbath riff or one of the most overused drum samples in history, Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” without getting some unwanted legal attention. And so the album had to be pulled off streaming services, and can only be heard on Bandcamp as a free download.

That’s the story of the album. As a listener, as a critic, I come from a considerably more privileged position, and this album is based on some very personal pain that I could never begin to understand. For starters, I got out of Christianity unscathed; Backxwash clearly did not. And as a black trans person from an immigrant family, there are entire skyscrapers of struggle to leap over for an artist to reach this place of catharsis. She says the album is about her “version of forgiveness, and things I need to face in order to reach my version of that.” The song “Into the Void” is the sound of burning everything down to the fucking ground.

And yet, as much as simplicity is the shortest path to catharsis, as generations of hardcore punk musicians know, I want the rapping here to be better, especially with such a compelling story to tell. Many of the lyrics here are--well, fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. “Fuck these motherfucking fuckers.” “I fuck with black magic / I fuck with mathematics / I fuck with bad habits.” “FUUUUUUUUCK!” A whole lot of fucking rage here--not at all unwarranted or ineffective, but I think she has a lot more to say than this, and more interesting ways to say it.

I’ll be the first to admit though I'm a fan of both genres, I’m not a metal guy or a hip-hop guy; most of my favourite new records of either genre usually sound like they were made at least 20 years ago. But for a record that professes to combine the two, I don’t think it succeeds at either, and nor does it forge a new path. I’m not pining for the Judgment Night soundtrack or anything, but I want the music here to at least match the intensity of Backxwash’s delivery. Metal aside, I want the beats to be more engrossing. Backxwash helmed most of this herself, and it’s no small achievement (“Black Sheep”), but there’s a lot to develop. There’s no reason at all, in 2020, to turn to tired classic rock cliches that sound like the Beastie Boys in 1985. I’d love to hear what Backxwash could get up to with Tricky or Arca or Lotic (“Spells” makes a good argument for this).

Hopefully the Polaris nod will open up doors to opportunities as well as exposure (check this major piece on NPR). Right now it’s a story in search of a record. It’s a great story. And lo and behold, I probably spent more time listening to this record than many of the others on this list, if only to reckon with how I felt about it over the space of 800 words. So: thanks, Polaris. That’s what this should all be about.

The chances: Who knows? Stranger things have happened in Polaris history. Some winners have been accused of winning for political reasons: not coincidentally, in John A. Macdonald’s Canada, the subjects of said accusations are almost all racialized. If Backxwash were to win at this moment in time, it would certainly send a political message (which is not the point of Polaris, but whatever). Whereas a record like Jeremy Dutcher’s also had a great political backstory, it was a phenomenal record by an artist who arrived fully formed. That was also a so-called “novelty” record. You know what else is a “novelty” record? Pantayo’s. And that record rules. Maybe this does, too. Maybe.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Bon Enfant – s/t (Duprince)

The album: Okay, after talking about Backxwash, this is going to sound like some weak-ass shit. Because this is sunshine and roses. This is the kind of album you play on the first real day of spring, the day you open your windows and tune up your bike and start eyeing your garden. This year has sucked ass, so small wonder I’ve been drawn to music like this on any day we’re lucky to see sunlight. 

Bon Enfant are a new Montreal band featuring vocalist Daphne Brissette from previous longlisters Canailles. She's a commanding presence, a bit of a Gallic Neko Case, or Amber Webber's more extroverted Quebecois cousin. The band behind her sound like children of the '70s; synth instrumental "Ode aux pissenlits" sounds like it soundtracked a kids show on public television (Parlez-Moi or La Boite, perhaps) 40 years ago. The breadth of material here puts all Bon Enfant's strenghts on full display: the generous use of organs, pianos and synths; the harmony double-lead guitar lines that fell out of fashion with April Wine; the rhythm section that brings a powerful groove to everything, whether it's a motorik shuffle ("Aujourd'hui"), ye-ye ("Menage du printemps"), or psychedelic country soul ("L'hiver a l'annee), country boogie ("Liste noire") or the alternating 6/8 to syncopated 4/4 psychedelic Afrobeat pop of "Magpie," which sounds like the Swedish band Goat, only better. Then there's the entirely entrancing "Insomnie," a trippy slow burn featuring Brissette's best vocal performance here. 

In one of my many fantasies of post-Covid times, I'm at a cozy summer festival somewhere in the Canadian Shield with an electric crowd buzzing to a glorious live set of Bon Enfant. One has to dream. 

Bandcamp here

Why it didn’t even longlist: It was #1 on my ballot, for what that's worth. I tried.

Corridor - Junior (Sub Pop)

The album: The first franco band signed to Sub Pop, Corridor make it pretty clear why they’re ready for an international stage. A stew of potential influences immediately leap to mind: Television guitar interplay, Fleet Foxes harmonies, nods to Sonic Youth, traces of Stone Roses and Super Friendz. Propulsive rhythms and hypnotic guitars are the main appeal here; the vocals make it that much better. This is one of many acts on these lists that I long to have seen live this year. (I saw them cold several years ago and they blew me away.)

Bandcamp here

Why it didn’t shortlist: It’s always a mystery which franco acts crack the shortlist, which doesn’t happen often enough. This is yet another year without any franco representation. When Bon Enfant didn't make the long list, I put Corridor on my shortlist ballot.

Veteran MIA:

The Dears - Lovers Rock (Ting Dun)

When Murray Lightburn put out such an incredible solo album just last year, called Hear Me Out, I wondered if he would resurrect the ever-imploding Dears. But at his age, it's important not to mess with the brand and name recognition. Sadly, very few people heard that solo record. And as this record proves, there is still a lot of life in the Dears, where Natalia Yanchak is the only remaining member from their breakthrough 20 years ago. "Since all these years / is it still the same old song?" he asks. Maybe it is, but these are some of the best songs the Dears have ever written, starting with "The Worst in Us," the kind of melodic anthem they often excelled at, with a surprising and danceable bridge taking a left turn in the middle of the song. There are more orchestrations here than they've used since 2011's big-budget Degeneration Street, although Lovers Rock was recorded at their home studio and at Hotel 2 Tango (and Sam Roberts dusts off his violin for the occasion). Jake Clemons of the E Street Band (and Montreal transplant) elevates the lovely "Stille Lost" with his soaring saxophone, while some of the softer moments here ("Play Dead," "Is This What You Really Want," "Too Many Wrongs") are the most stunning. For a band that always resisted obvious Smiths comparsions, there are some decidedly '80s-sounding Johnny Marr effects on the guitars here, but at this point in time, with such a rich and varied career behind them, the Dears don't have to be so defensive. The closing track threatens "We'll Go Into Hiding." Let's hope not. 

Bandcamp here

That's all, folks. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening to new Canadian music. 
Again, you can watch the Polaris "gala" on Monday night here. I'll be equally happy if either U.S. Girls, Pantayo, Witch Prophet or Junia T takes home the prize, but there's no way I'm making any kind of definitive prediction this year. 

P.S. If you enjoyed my book The Never-Ending Present, you should read this piece I wrote for Maclean's about Gord Downie's new record. 

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