Thursday, October 15, 2020

2020 Polaris Music Prize shortlist, Day 3: Lido Pimienta, Nehiyawak

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:

Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia (Anti)

The album: It’s great. And I say that as someone who didn't at all love Pimienta’s Polaris-winning La Papessa. Here, her vocals are much (MUCH, MUCH) warmer, the production is impeccable, the melodies more memorable, and her blending of Colombian rhythms with electronics more fully developed. The record is roughly divided into two parts: side one is more modern, side two is (mostly) more traditional, with guest spots from South American pop stars Bomba Estereo and the traditional Afro-Colombian percussion/vocal Sexteto Tabala illustrating the scope of what Pimienta is aiming for
and achieves. Her lyrics are fearless (“Nada”) and her musical choices just as daring. 

Bandcamp here.

Bonus: Though Pimienta clearly runs her own show, her primary collaborator here is Matt Smith, a.k.a. Prince Nifty, best known for his work with Owen Pallett in and outside Les Mouches. Prince Nifty put out a wonderful, weird, and virtually unnoticed album earlier this year, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore. It doesn’t sound anything like either Pimienta or Pallett. Check it out here

The chances: Normally I’d say good to strong, but there’s the fact that Polaris has yet to have a repeat winner and I think it’s unlikely Lido will be the person to do it, especially only one album later.

Nehiyawak – Nipiy (Arts and Crafts)

The album: I thought this was just another boring rock band, until I started reading reviews claiming the lack of melodic hooks was a conscious act of decolonization by this Cree band, who are apparently toying with the tropes of Western music. 

That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure I buy it—but it’s also not my place to buy it. I’ll leave that to my more academic-minded colleagues who want to know What It All Means. 

What I hear is an Edmonton act influenced by what’s known as Flegelrock, the Calgary bands revolving around the Flegel brothers (Women, Viet Cong / Preoccupations / Cindy Lee), dream pop, and a healthy dose of early Cure, all produced very well by Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Destroyer, Kathryn Calder). What I don’t hear are a lot of songs I want to hear again, other than maybe “Starlight” or “Copper.” Guitar music has to be a lot better than this to get me out of bed these days. I wish these guys all the best for a whole bunch of reasons, but this record cuts no mustard with me. 

Bandcamp here.

The chances: Weak. But who knows? They could pull a Karkwa. I realize this is entirely subjective, but I can’t see a guitar band like this inspiring people who might not even like guitar music in the first place (and yet, obviously, it does). It’s neither experimental nor melodically strong. It’s interesting, but that’s not enough. Maybe the fact it doesn’t register with this raised-on-rock music listener only means it has greater appeal to generations after me. Also: For the past 30 years I’ve impulsively recoiled at any artist labelled “shoegaze,” so take that with several shakes of salt. But trying to be clever and calling it “moccasin-gaze” doesn’t make it any more inspiring.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Lightning Dust – Spectre (Western Vinyl)

The album: When this came out in the fall of 2019, there were already a lot of spectres on the horizon. We had no idea we’d be blindsided by an entirely new one. I liked this record well enough when it first came out, but it became one of my go-tos during the pandemic (also, my partner fell in love with it around that time). Partly because Amber Webber’s stunning voice, with its trademark quaver, is the ideal companion for the darkest of days. And partly because she and musical partner Josh Wells have always favoured minor-key melancholy, hints of psychedelia and goth-y new wave informing their fractured take on modern folk music: perfect for dark nights of the soul during months of isolation. Sweet Jesus, there’s even a song called “Inglorious Flu.” 

“Run Away” is a killer pop song, where the chord progression borrows ever so slightly from Springsteen’s “The River.” “When It Rains” is beautiful and devastating, and I’m hoping someone sends it to Stevie Nicks. The arrangements are universally sparse, even when the strings come in or Stephen Malkmus drops by. Spectre sits on a shelf with records by Low (“Devoted To”), Robert Plant’s trippier solo material, or, on the piano ballads (“Inglorious Flu,” “More”), even early, pre-cheese Sarah McLachlan.

This is their first record since jumping off Black Mountain (whose latest record suffered from their absence), and Webber wasn’t even sure she wanted to continue as a musician. And so Spectre is filled with a sense of clear, midlife purpose: do your best, or don’t bother anymore. As a result, Spectre might well be the best record either of them have been associated with (and I’m a huge fan of the first Black Mountain record). 

Bandcamp here.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: I’m guessing it’s still viewed merely as a Black Mountain side project, which is really unfortunate. Not only are they not in the band anymore, Lightning Dust has clearly developed their own identity since their 2007 debut. We’re also getting to the point where the mid-2000s crowd is getting squeezed out of Polaris picks. See also: New Pornographers (on whose 2014 shortlisted album Brill Bruisers featured Webber), discussed on Day 2.

Marlaena Moore  Pay Attention, Be Amazed! (independent)

The album: It's a good sign when the opening track on your debut album is a song of longing on par with "Nothing Compares 2 U." Yes, this Edmonton performer's "I Miss You" is that good, and so is the rest of the record. Moore has no shortage of great lyrics that document fragility ("You came to see my harvest and you wanted it for free / Now this empty garden is all that's left of me"), and she often delivers them with a voice with just enough waver that you think she might break, but her inner strength pulls through every line. Moore's an incredible torch singer, as closing waltz "Tiger Water" demonstrates, over guitar feedback, vibraphones and snare brushes. "Imposter" borrows from Roxy Music's "More Than This," likely  unconsciously, but the album is full of equally killer melodies all her own. "Xmas Oranges" is a total earworm, an acrobatic melody set to chugging cellos and a beguiling chorus: "Christmas oranges / I don't care for sticky citrus / You can't tell the difference between love and fatal interest." Producer Chad Van Gaalen, who's known for an often-hazy and psychedelic '90s aesthetic in his solo work and for others, helps Moore deliver a vivid and colourful sonic backdrop for songs that are part Patsy Cline, part Liz Phair, part Angel Olsen. It's hard not to be impressed with the chutzpah of the album title, but it turns out to be entirely accurate. I can't wait to hear more from this woman. 

If you don't believe me, always listen to Fish Griwkowsky

Bandcamp link is here

Why it didn't even longlist: No idea, but there were no other sad-lady songwriters on the long list, either; I'd hoped to also see pan-Canadian Dana Gavanski on there. And in terms of Western exposure, fellow Edmontonians Nehiyawak and Wares arrived with better backstories. Me, all I needed to hear was "produced by Chad Van Gaalen" and I was intrigued, but this record exceeded any and all expectations.  

Veterans MIA:

Wolf Parade 
 Thin Mind (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)

It's a complicated thing to assess a band's "comeback" records. I mean, the Buzzcocks put out a lot of great songs in their second and third waves, but all anyone wants to hear is Singles Going Steady. Wolf Parade, on the other hand, have put out two albums in the last five years that are infinitely better than the two records they released after their classic debut, which came out 15 years ago. Granted, I have a soft spot for 40-year-olds kicking this much ass, and with this much sense of renewed purpose. Sure, Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have put out a lot of great work in their own projects, and will continue to do so. But hearing them together and with Arlen Thompsonone of my favourite drummersbehind them is a whole other beast. Whether you were ever a fan or not, listen to the first three tracks here and try to deny their visceral power, captured by Sleater-Kinney's favourite producer, John Goodmanson. (And then go listen to 2017's even better Cry Cry Cry.) This isn't a comeback. This is a band still actively writing their legacy. They were one of the last acts I saw before the shutdown, a memory I'm going to cherish for a long time.

Bandcamp here.

Video for "Julia Take Your Man Home" animated by Chad Van Gaalen:

Tomorrow: Kaytranada, Junia T

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