Part one of this Polaris discussion is here.
The Polaris Prize will be awarded on Monday, Sept. 20.
The remaining five nominees are:
Owen Pallett – Heartland (For Great Justice)
The album: I’m tired of anyone with a string section getting comparisons to classical composers. Because frankly, Owen Pallett is one of the only composers making some semblance of pop music who writes the kind of melodies and orchestrations that successfully blend classical forms, pop melodicism and modern arrangements. There are straight-up songs here that need no explanation—“Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” being the obvious one—but it’s tracks like “The Great Elsewhere,” with its seemingly spastic keyboards, skittering and stuttering electronic percussion, stabbing strings and gentle, lilting melody that sum up most of Heartland’s strengths. In terms of compositional ambition in 2010, I don’t see anything in Canada or anywhere else that approaches this album’s scope. For that reason alone I’m ready to write Pallett another Polaris cheque.
The chances: Fair. Like Caribou, Pallett has the previous Polaris winner curse on him; at this young stage in Polaris history, the chances of a repeat winner are slim. And not everyone—including the self-deprecating Pallett himself—thinks he has the vocal chops to pull this off. Arguably the whole project is too egghead-y and not visceral enough. But more than a few critics simply don’t buy into Pallett’s lyrical concept, which has something to do with a meta-narrative involving a 13th-century farmer in a story told by one Owen Pallett, who rises up and kills off his creator, the very same Owen Pallett. I think it’s a fascinating comment on free will, theology, role-playing games, power struggles and the role of fiction in general. Others would use Pallett’s least favourite adjective: pretentious. Which is an entirely inaccurate term, as Heartland is very much true to who Pallett is, and manages to meet his own lofty ambitions.
Radio Radio – Belmundo Regal (Bonsound)
The album: If there’s a dark horse this year, this is it. It’s also a testament to the growing power of the listserv to which Polaris jurors subscribe, where we champion albums we love and spam each others’ inboxes. It’s safe to say that this Acadian hip-hop group had zero profile in the rest of Canada until it began to be championed by a couple of jurors. And while Bonsound is a promotional powerhouse in Quebec, there’s no guarantee of a golden touch. The music, however, is merely okay. It is fun trying to decipher the deeply regional take on franglais, but (I’m only guessing here) there’s nothing terribly deep going on. Not that there has to be: the music is funky enough, a hip-hop-electro-pop hybrid with a bit of Southern bounce to it, and it’s pleasant enough one track at a time. But album of the year? This sounds like Bran Van 3000 b-sides at best.
The chances: Slim. This is definitely the luckiest band on the list—in that sense, they’ve already won.
The Sadies – Darker Circles (Outside)
The album: Like anyone else in southern Ontario, I love the Sadies and have seen them dozens of times, with one or two ecstatic experiences in there somewhere. And yet I never, if ever, put on one of their albums for my own listening pleasure. There’s good reason this album—their, um, umpteenth—is getting more than its usual share of attention. I was frankly worried when I heard they were working with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks—a man who, talented though he is, is not known for his grit or sense of adventure. (Side note: he did excellent work on another Torontonian album last year, Kirsten Jones’s The Mad Mile, though no one would accuse that of being adventurous or gritty.) But as he did with their last album, New Seasons, Louris clears away only a bit of the haze and otherwise helps the band define their textures a bit more clearly; on Darker Circles, they’ve definitely hit their stride in their studio work, both with each other and with Louris. Whether he whipped their songwriting into shape or whether they’re just naturally maturing is beside the point; one finally gets the sense that the Sadies believe in these songs, that they’re not just vehicles to get them on the road and perform.
The chances: Good. Surely when a band that could be eligible for a lifetime achievement award makes an album this strong, it has to count for something.
Shad – TSOL (Black Box)
The album: The best Canadian MC whose name doesn’t begin with K (although his last name does), Shad is hard to dislike: he’s warm, witty, and nerdier than thou. He’s also whip-smart and insightful when he wants to be, like on the haunting “At the Same Time,” but his metaphors can just as easily fall flat on their face (“Trying to listen to Jesus is hard as fake boobs”). Mostly, though, he’s full of good times and positivity, and uses his spotlight to spread the love and laugh at himself. The music rarely matches the dexterity of his lyrics, however; hopefully his continued success will attract stronger collaborators.
The chances: Excellent. Shad surprised a lot of people with his last Polaris shortlisted album, The Old Prince, and many feel that this is his year—not to mention the fact that it might be time a hip-hop album took home the prize. On top of genuine love for TSOL, people also love Shad himself; his chances of riding a wave of goodwill to the top are better than strong. He splits his time between B.C. and Ontario, which would at least be a small dent in Central Canada’s stronghold on the prize so far.
Tegan and Sara – Sainthood (Universal)
The album: I’ll admit to having dismissed this album when it came out; not because I disliked it particularly, but because it was a competent, commercially palatable pop record and the world has plenty of those—why should I care about this one? I listened with open ears, hoping for at least a conversion on the level of Metric’s Fantasies; instead, I cast it away. The single “Hell” crept up on me during many a grocery trip (where I’m always a captive audience); the other singles are just as strong, and there’s a good chance they could be giving Carl Newman a run for his money in another few years. Maybe if my stepkiddo was as enthralled with Tegan and Sara as she is with Billy Talent, I might have succumbed by now, due to sheer overexposure.
The chances: Fair. Like the Sadies, they’ve been around a long time and their recorded output continues to improve; this may well be their best album yet (I have no idea; I haven’t followed them closely), which could tip some votes their way. But the same critics who won’t give Billy Talent the time of day are unlikely to give Tegan and Sara an objective listen.
The could've beens:
Schomberg Fair – Gospel (Hi Hat)
The album: Last year I dumped on Elliott Brood, and arguably Schomberg Fair are cut from the same cloth. Except that they’re awesome. The breakneck banjo songs are thrilling, but there's much more going on here than a hackneyed hoedown. Bassist Nathan Sidon is the most frog-voiced singer I've heard since Gabe Minnikin in the Guthries, but it totally works for him. I don't hear a lot of people putting soul into roots music these days—and by soul I don't mean R&B (though there is a strong gospel element here, hence the title, as well as the aptly titled oddball track “Motown Break”), but that indescribable "it" that gives certain bands undeniable chemistry and sets them apart from genre-fication. This band absolutely kicks my ass: the blistering shredding, the Christian guilt, the gutsy playing that's probably the most punk rock thing I've heard in Canada this year, the banjos, the rumbling baritone voice, and the ability to breathe life into hoary clichés like "Wayfaring Stranger."
Why it didn’t make the short list: This band barely has a profile in its hometown of Toronto, never mind the rest of the country.
Souljazz Orchestra – Rising Sun (Strut)
The album: What began as a rather imitative second-rate Afrobeat band has grown up quickly, and Rising Sun is an intriguing and varied jazz album that happens to use some African instrumentation and grooves. It’s their first for an international label, and they’re more than ready for the spotlight. Keyboardist Pierre Chretien deserves top marks for tying it all together; tenor saxophonist Steve Patterson has plenty of fine performances here as well, particularly on the dreamy, spacy “Consecration,” which owes a debt to Alice Coltrane.
Why it didn’t make the short list: World music? Jazz? Polaris has a long way to go. And fans of these genres rarely rally around a favourite, no doubt leading to an insane amount of vote-splitting.
South Rakkas Crew – The Stimulus Package (Mad Decent)
The album: Polyglot pop and deconstructionist dancehall that draws from just about every dance music trend of the last 15 years. It’s wicked, wacky and wild party from beginning to end, full of booty bass that’s both abrasive and persuasive, and even the occasional auto-tuned vocal merely adds to the overall madness rather than a nauseating distraction. This came out on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and it has much more in common with that scene than anything else going on in Canada. Indeed, the Crew themselves have lived in Orlando (?!) for over 10 years now, but coming from Brampton and Mississauga, their sound is definitely the sound of the modern, multicultural suburbs—suburbs barely recognizable to Arcade Fire.
Why it didn’t make the short list: Because it’s a free mix tape, not a “real album,” the old world has a bit of trouble grasping the fact that this was not available in stores and therefore not legit. It also recycles a couple of “riddims,” in Jamaican parlance, which means four tracks here with the “double-up riddim” sound exactly the same except for the vocal—that doesn’t mean each individual one is less thrilling, however. But really, the main reason South Rakkas Crew didn’t make the shortlist is because not nearly enough people listen to David Dacks.
John Southworth – Mama Tevatron (Dead Daisy)
The album: John Southworth must be as sick as anyone by descriptors like “weird and wonderful” or, that classic kiss of death, “quirky.” But on Mama Tevatron this unique character not only shows off his songcraft at its best, but moves away from several of the stranger personas he’s inhabited in the past. Gone is the sweater-clad boyish man, gone is the weird blackface bluegrass phase; in its place is a space-age bachelor pad pop music that’s a strange hybrid of Esquivel, the Ramones and Dirty Mind-era Prince—that has to be heard to be believed. Nine of these 10 songs are pop perfection, both in their immediate appeal and the layers underneath. The final one, “Zulou,” could be Klaus Nomi covering Pink Floyd, as Southworth heads deeper and deeper into space.
Why it didn’t make the short list: Southworth’s heyday—if he had one—was over 10 years ago, when both he and Hawksley Workman were starting out and were cut from the same cloth; their paths have since diverged considerably. Maybe people still have him pegged in that period, who knows. If so, they’re missing out.
Yukon Blonde – s/t (Nevado)
Zeus – Say Us (Arts and Crafts)
The albums: I’m going to cheat and group these together—because I can barely tell them apart, and not just because they’re always neighbours at the bottom of any alphabetical list. They’re both full of bearded boys who love ’60s pop and ’70s guitar rock, and have the kind of chops that will come in handy when Paul McCartney needs a new pool of backing players. They’re both full of rich harmonies and harmonized guitar leads, and goddammit, they both write songs that are mere inches away from the greatness of their biggest influences. If I had to give the nod to one, it would be Zeus; though their lyrics are equally as inconsequential, they do avoid downright dorkiness, which Yukon Blonde is guilty of on occasion.
Why they didn’t make the short list: Because no one else can tell them apart either, and most jurors likely reserved only one spot on their ballot for ’70s retro rock, meaning both of them (and Jason Collett, for that matter) suffered from vote-splitting. Just get together and form a supergroup already!