Thursday, September 15, 2016

Pre-Polaris, day five: U.S. Girls, White Lung

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000 and a gig with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2016. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list

The shortlist:

U.S. Girls – Half-Free (4AD)

U.S. Girls is Illinois-born Meghan Remy, who moved to Toronto for love many years ago; her husband, Slim Twig, plays a backing role here. She has a stunning and soulful voice, with shades of Amy Winehouse or Santigold, with a decaying vibrato worthy of Horace Andy. It’s always the best thing about any given track, whether she’s drawing from David Lynch soundtracks (I’d love to hear her do something with Toronto’s Del Bel), Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, or ’90s guitar rock.

If I believe everything I read, this album also references Phil Spector, Michael Ondaatje, John Cassavetes, Cocteau Twins, Giorgio Moroder, dub reggae and Bruce Springsteen. Which sounds like something right up my alley. Sadly, it’s not. I’ve listened to this record plenty since it first came out a year ago, figuring there must be something I’m missing. I’m still coming up short, with the exception of the excellent “Window Shades,” with its minor-key piano, sparse drum machine and conga, and disco harmonies. “New Age Thriller” has also creeped up on me.

I totally understand why people are excited about this artist; I just don’t think all the component parts are gelling on this album. But I’m looking forward to her next steps.

The chances: Fair. I’m an outlier here; other people love this record, and Remy is second only to Grimes as an enigmatic presence on this rather conservative shortlist. Her sense of mystery and the number of sonic and lyrical layers at work here could play well in the jury room.

White Lung – Paradise (Domino)

Who asked for a mash-up of Metric and Metallica? Because that’s all I hear here.

Singer/bandleader Mish Way gives great interview, and every time I read about this band I wished I liked them more than I do. But I fear her move to L.A. has done her no musical favours; Paradise sounds to me like every Sunset Strip band in the mid-’90s hoping to get swept up in the alternative sweepstakes. Punk rock with metal solos and Def Leppard harmonies and twinkly synths in the background? No thanks (says this old man).

The chances: Slim. I’d be shocked if a straight-up rock record ever won the Polaris, unless someone on the grand jury can make the case that the politically charged Mish Way is a more worthy feminist icon than the rest of the competition here.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

All this week I’ve been trying to focus on records that didn’t even make the Polaris Long List, because they obviously need some more love. The long listers I’ve been revisiting are on the more obscure side (Michelle McAdorey, Veda Hille), or, like Coeur de Pirate, indicative of a demographic I’d have liked to see on the shortlist (i.e. francophone Quebec). There are three other long-list records I love, but don’t feel the need to revisit at length here: Peaches’ Rub, Destroyer’s Poison Season, and Operators’ Blue Wave. Now, on to the last two of my favourites you might have missed this Polaris season:

Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)

My March review:

For the last 10 years, Montreal producer Ghislain Poirier has been mutating dancehall, soca and Brazilian styles into his DJ nights and original material. He’s released various EPs and singles since his 2010 album for Ninja Tune, Running High, as well as a detour back to his roots in abstract electronics under the name Boundary (Poirier originally came from the same minimalist scene as Tim Hecker).  

So for his first full-length in six years, Poirier comes out swinging, with massive tracks that build on everything he’s ever done, whether it’s straight-up reggae and soca or draping chilly electronic textures over instrumental dancehall beats. Global guests on the aptly titled Migration include New York-via-Jamaica dancehall MC Red Fox, electro-reggae Chicago-via-Panama MC Zulu, Berlin-via-North Carolina producer Machinedrum, Toronto’s Dubmatix, Montreal-via-Haiti MC Fwonte and longtime collaborator Face-T. The thread throughout is Poirier’s finely honed aesthetic: the man is a veteran, not a dabbler, and his 15 years of experience can be heard in every track. His curiosity carries him anywhere with bright sunshine and deep bass, bringing it all back to the city in Canada where you’re most likely to find a street party on any given summer night.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: I don’t know, maybe because we were all preoccupied with how supposedly Caribbean-centric the new Drake was alleged to be? More likely because young upstart Kaytranada (deservedly) took all the headlines on behalf of Montreal’s beat scene in the past year. Or maybe because Poirier retreated for a while after his Ninja Tune deal and went back to his more abstract, avant-garde side before coming back six years later, diving deeper into dancehall and reggae than ever before. Whatever the reason: you still have a few more days of summer ’16 to feel this.

Un Blonde – Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper Factory)

My June review:

Jean-Sebastien Audet spent his teenage years in Calgary with a variety of musical projects, which is probably why the latest album by this 19-year-old and recent Montreal transplant sounds so accomplished, even though it’s incredibly bare, featuring little more than acoustic guitar and layers of Audet’s gospel-tinged harmonies. (For anyone, like me, who’s been seeking out Prince demos online since that legend’s death, Un Blonde has further resonance.) One song is called “I Felt the Evening Come Through the Window,” and indeed, Audet retains the sound of falling rain outside his apartment, along with seagulls and other ambient noise. Audet isn’t just a singer-songwriter fond of sparse arrangements; on instrumental tracks like “Exercise A,” he also explores ambient textures (with what’s either a melodica, accordion or harmonium—hard to tell). Good Will Come to You features 21 songs in 46 minutes; tiny perfect sketches that speak volumes about the man’s talent.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: It came out right before the Polaris deadline, it’s by a guy who’s completely obscure outside of the Weird Canada faithful, and it’s a really freakin’ odd and fragmented record that most resembles that first Devendra Banhart album, when that freaky folkie was recording two-minute songs into his answering machine. Audet is an insanely creative guy bursting with ideas and blessed with an incredible voice; once his songwriting steps up a notch, we’ll most definitely be talking about him a whole lot more at a future Polaris.

Pre-Polaris, day four: Püp, Andy Shauf

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000 and a gig with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2016. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list

The shortlist:

Püp – The Dream is Over (Royal Mountain)

The chances: Depends on if the median age of the grand jury is under 30. (It is not.)

Andy Shauf – The Party (Arts and Crafts)

This is a very nice record.

The chances: Depends on if the median age of the grand jury is over 40.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Michelle McAdorey – In Her Future (DWR)

My October review:

Fans of Crash Vegas—a brilliant and oft-overlooked Toronto band who released three classic albums between 1989 and 1995—might well have been wondering what the future might hold for singer Michelle McAdorey. This is the first new music from her in 10 years, following two very low-key and experimental records in the early 2000s. Into Her Future finds her teaming up once again with Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor—with whom she founded Crash Vegas in 1988; he left when they became too busy—and returning from her more experimental forays back toward the dusky, psychedelic country ballads that comprised some of Crash Vegas’s most compelling moments. This is a record as quiet as it is sleepy, with one or two exceptions. McAdorey and Keelor get as trippy as they wanna be—if it wasn’t all so well-executed, you might think it was made over a lost weekend on Keelor’s farm under a haze of smoke. She’s no longer a steely-eyed rocker, but her voice is as riveting as ever—McAdorey has been dearly missed.

Read my interview with McAdorey here. It’s one my favourite conversations of recent years, and a teenage dream come true.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: I feel like one of the only critics still working who even remembers Crash Vegas (shout out to Aaron Brophy, Sarah Liss, Sarah Greene, Tabassum Siddiqui, Mark Rheaume and Roch Parisien). The albums have been out of print for decades; they’re not even on YouTube, although 1992’s Stone showed up on Spotify recently for some reason. McAdorey hadn’t played live in years, so her profile even in her hometown of Toronto was low. Sadly, the world was not clamouring for a new McAdorey record. The fact it catapulted onto the long list (where she was the second-oldest nominee, after Art Bergmann) was a huge victory in itself, hopefully providing as a wakeup call to latent Crash Vegas fans that this record exists.

Tami Neilson – Dynamite! (Outside)

My September review:

The hottest country artist from New Zealand is Canadian. Tami Neilson grew up playing in her family band—that would be the Neilsons—in Canada in the 1990s, before moving to New Zealand to start her adult career. There, she’s won no fewer than five nods for Country Album of the Year at that nation’s equivalent of the Junos or Grammys, among other laurels. This, however, is the first time one of her solo records is getting a Canadian release. It couldn’t possibly be a better introduction.  Neilson is a throwback; everything here is steeped in ’50s rockabilly and Nashville, and she’s got it down pat: the bare-bones production, the ace band, and a showstopper of a voice that could fill any room without a microphone. Her lyrics might be well-worn tropes—songs about a heart the size of Texas and lipstick on your collar—but the melodies, arrangements, and especially her vocals are all fantastic.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Traditional country doesn’t go far in Polaris, and there’s nothing remotely modern about this record. If, 32 years ago, a certain Canadian superstar hadn’t already claimed to be the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, Neilson might well make the same claim. Anyone with fond memories of the first Neko Case record or who want Lindi Ortega to record with the Sadies would do well to knock on Neilson’s door. Dynamite! was a Canadian re-release of her latest album in New Zealand; she has a brand new record out this month, which you can stream at CBC Music here.

Tomorrow: U.S. Girls, White Lung

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pre-Polaris, day three: Kaytranada, Jessy Lanza

The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is five days from now, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000. All other nominees receive $3,000.

Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list. Day one (Black Mountain, Basia Bulat) is here. Day two (Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen) is here.

Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL)

For me, there’s only one album in contention for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. This is it. O, Kaytranada.

Daft Punk spent millions of dollars on vintage synths and disco legends to make Random Access Memories. Kaytranada—24-year-old Montreal DJ Louis Kevin Celestin—made this tour-de-force debut record in his parents’ basement, where he still lives, and it’s every bit as all-encompassing and forward-thinking as the French duo’s Grammy-winning classic.  

Until now, Kaytranada has been known for remixes posted on Soundcloud, of Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott and others, which launched his international DJ career. He doesn’t pull that kind of starpower on the guest list here—even though he’s gone on tour with Madonna and been summoned to Rick Rubin’s ranch. But he certainly doesn’t need name-dropping when he’s made an album like this. 

 At a time when EDM and hip-hop both opt for maximalist excess, Kaytranada is refreshingly raw and sparse, his speaker-rattling bass lines falling behind the beat—which is fine, because the bass throughout is mixed far louder than any of the drum tracks. One can hear J Dilla’s work with Erykah Badu in here, as well as Stevie Wonder’s ’70s prime, and the Brazilian-influenced broken beat scene out of West London at the turn of the century. Detroit jazz drummer and hip-hop producer (and Dilla associate) Karriem Riggins—whose day job is behind the kit for Diana Krall—lays down some live tracks. Toronto group BadBadNotGood are natural collaborators, as is Phonte, an MC from 2000s hip-hop cult heroes Little Brother. Anderson.Paak, Vic Mensa, Aluna George and Craig David all show up for the party.  

Along with Poirier’s Migrations, 99.9% marks a massive moment in Montreal’s beat-making scene. Don’t be surprised if the Haitian-born Kaytranada becomes his hometown’s biggest international calling card since Arcade Fire. 

Why is this the one? For starters, it’s downright refreshing. This country has plenty of great beatmakers of various stripes, but I’ve never heard a single hip-hop producer in this country make an album as consistently strong as this one. It’s the best instrumental hip-hop record I’ve heard since J-Rocc’s Some Cold Rock Stuf. And as someone who’s left downright chilly by the so-called “Toronto sound” in the domestic hip-hop scene that has the whole world talking, Kaytranada is much more my bag of meat.

Someone tried to convince me that this wasn’t a hip-hop record at all, but an EDM album. Which is ridiculous for several reasons, starting with the fact that EDM is anything but funky. This record has maximum soul.

Compared to everything else on the shortlist, it’s also the record that gives me the most pleasure. As much as I love Black Mountain and Basia Bulat, I know their moves stone cold. Kaytranada’s record reveals more to me with each listen. And dammit, I can dance to it.

There’s also the not-insignificant matter that he’d be the first, shall we say, “non-old-stock” Canadian to take the prize (with the exception of the couple at the core of Arcade Fire), and the first from this genre of music—and I’d argue that it’s also the best hip-hop-related record to ever be shortlisted in the prize’s 11-year history, so a win would be far from a token affair.

The chances: Excellent. The fact it sounds like nothing else on the shortlist this year bodes well, especially if the rockists and popists on the jury split their votes.

Kaytranada is playing Echo Beach in Toronto this Saturday, Sept. 17, with Anderson.Paak and long-lister Daniel Caesar (who you might see on next year’s shortlist, by the way).

Jessy Lanza – Oh No (Hyperdub)

This Hamilton artist seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013 to be signed to a prestigious British electronic label, and her debut, Pull My Hair Back, was shortlisted for the 2014 Polaris. It showcased Lanza’s electronic production skills, her playful, confident vocals and her love of ’90s R&B and ’80s synth pop and ’00s Daft Punk disciples. But if the debut was merely promising, Oh No delivers on every level. With co-producer Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys back on board, Oh No buries any sexist assumption that he was the principal architect of Lanza’s sound, seeing how this album betters his band’s entire output. There’s nothing cold or distant or arch about Lanza’s music; Oh No is joyous and even euphoric, something that too much of modern retro-tinged synth pop seems to forget. Oh No is a sunnier side of Grimes, and easily the best electronic pop record out of this country since that artist’s Visions. Oh look, and summer is right around the corner.

I’ll admit I was fudging a bit there: I really did not like Pull My Hair Back at all; I thought it was slight, unformed, green—although promising. For me, the leap between Lanza’s two records, therefore, is huge. Her vocals are much more confident, the beats have more bounce. I realize I dump on Greenspan a bit much; the Junior Boys have never done it for me. He obviously brings much to Lanza’s music; I’m just glad she’s in charge.

The chances: Weak. Aesthetically, she sits somewhere between Grimes and Kaytranada, and sympathetic votes that might go her way will likely propel one of those two instead. Those are also more sonically diverse records—though that could also work against them for some jurors who appreciate consistency.

The could’ve, should’ve beens:

Veda Hille – Love Waves (independent)

Jesus fucking Christ I love this record. It was #1 on my ballot. (Kaytranada was #2.)

My May review:

Not since David Bowie’s Blackstar have I wanted to play a new album every day, as often as possible, in the weeks after first hearing it as I have Veda Hille’s Love Waves.  

There’s a direct connection there—and no, this veteran Vancouver songwriter is not on her deathbed. Far from it. She is, however, taking some stock of her musical influences, with an unrecognizable cover/interpolation of Bowie’s 1980 song “Teenage Wildlife,” and rewriting Brian Eno’s 1977 song “By the River” to make it even more gorgeous than it already was. Other artists are happy to cover their heroes; Hille has the cojones to improve on them.  

If that weren’t enough, there’s also a cover of a Gilbert and Sullivan song from The Mikado (“The Sun Whose Rays”), a nod to Hille’s extensive work in musical theatre—which has included her brilliant Do You Want What I Have Got?: A Craigslist Musical and the delightfully absurdist source of her last album, something called Peter Panties.  

And because she’s Veda Hille, this album also features an adaptation of a Greek myth performed in part by a pitch-shifted, gender-bending voice singing in German. 

 “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so stay away for a little longer,” sings Hille on the opening track here, and Love Waves is her first non-conceptual recording in seven years. Of course, Hille is usually juggling a half-dozen projects at once, so a solo album of disconnected songs gets bumped down her priority list, seemingly a vanity project in comparison to her other work. But her wealth of experience doesn’t distract from her own songs; it enhances them immensely. She gets progressively more melodic with each album, while pulling off feats like modulating the key of a song via an a cappella phrase, like she does on “Trophy.”  

Love Waves’ co-conspirator John Collins of the New Pornographers brings the same sympathy for synthesizers he developed while co-producing Destroyer’s 2004 classic Your Blues—only instead of that album’s deliberately arch digital display of an orchestral Potemkin’s village, Love Waves bathes in warm sounds reminiscent of those ’70s records by Bowie and Eno that Hille references directly. Her backing band consists of Vancouver all-stars: Collins, engineer/guitarist Dave Carswell, resident genius Ford Pier, Tagaq violinist Jesse Zubot, jazz cellist Peggy Lee, P:ano’s Nick Krgovich, and longtime rhythm section drummer Barry Mirochnick and Martin Walton.

  Opening track “Lover/Hater” slowly unfolds over underwater pianos before a cavalcade of cascading e-bowed guitars carry the first chorus unaccompanied, sounding like the most beautiful swarm of insects you’ll ever hear in your life. Shortly after, 2/3 of the way through the song, an electronic bass drum start thumping, and the rest of the track bounces like a Tegan & Sara Top 40 single—albeit one in a mournful minor key.  Love Waves is a record with enough surface pleasures to draw you in immediately, but with dozens of tiny tasty tricky bits, both musical and lyrics, that reveal themselves over time.

  “I will make a record just for you,” she promises. “I will make it like the old days / just as good as I can do.”

I don’t have anything to add to those thoughts, other than that once the lyrics to “Burst” finally sank in, the parent in me got pretty weepy in ways I haven’t been since Gord Downie’s “Trick Rider.”

Why it didn’t shortlist: Art-rock cabaret music from Vancouver isn’t really trending right now (what kind of world is this). But also, this was released a week before the Polaris deadline, and it’s the kind of record that, if you’re not predisposed to Hille’s brilliance, could take some to appreciate. She’s not an artist summarized in a sound bite. I’m ecstatic that she did rally enough jurors to land her on the long list. I’ll be even happier if you go and listen to the whole thing right now. (Which means you’ll have to buy it; only one track is streaming anywhere, which is here.)

Selina Martin – I've been picking Caruso's brain; I think I have the information we need to make a new world (independent)

My March review:

“Why is the harder road always the way to go?” sings Selina Martin on her fourth album, the music of which answers her question for her: because refusing to take the easy route makes Martin’s music that much more rewarding. She’s a female singer-songwriter who doesn’t do acoustic ballads; she’s a rocker who doesn’t hide anonymously behind a band; she’s a guitarist who loves manipulating electronic textures. Martin has always had an ear for pop hooks—her last album, Disaster Fantasies, was full of them—but here she and producer Chris Stringer seem just as interested in what lies underneath, both in terms of overall sonic sorcery and in particular the ways in which they can manipulate the live drums of Jesse Baird (Feist).

Martin is interested in messing with rock music in ways few people have in recent years; the only recent analogues that comes to mind is EMA or Micachu or Deerhoof; the furthest precedent is Post-era Bjork (the groaning electronic sirens in “The Addicted” recall “Army of Me,” but there are other hints throughout). That said, she’s far from obtuse: songs like “Hawaii” would not at all be out of place on rock radio. She’s a frequent collaborator with former members of the Rheostatics; in many ways, she takes the best of what that band did and filters it through a modern digital lens. Always a strong lyricist, Martin scores here on several tracks, but most especially “Wish List,” the rare new Christmas song that will actually survive the season.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: Like Veda Hille, Selina Martin isn’t subject to sound-bite summaries. (The two are also friends and collaborators; Martin starred in Hille’s Craigslist musical.) If I, a fan, consider the most apt reference points to be obscurities EMA and Micachu and Deerhoof, that doesn’t bode well for explaining what it is that Martin does. Would she be more successful if she ditched the trappings of rock and went all-electronic for the Grimes era? (The electro version of “When the City Fell” that closes the album is better than the “normal” version in the regular sequence—although the melody is the main draw in both takes.) Maybe, but Martin is a) a great guitarist and b) doesn’t think rock music and progressive fuckery are mutually exclusive, and nor should she (or you).

Note: Selina Martin is heading to France for a year, but is playing a series of dates in central Ontario. You should go:
Hamilton Saturday Oct 15 @ L’Étranger on James
Toronto Sunday Oct 16 @ The Dakota Tavern 7-9pm
Guelph Friday Oct 21 @ Van Gogh’s Ear
London Saturday Oct 22 @ The St. Regis Tavern
Ottawa Friday Nov 18 @ TBA
Montreal Saturday Nov 19 @ Bad Lunch

Tomorrow: Pup, Andy Shauf