Friday, September 19, 2014

Polaris 2014, day five: Timber Timbre, Yamantaka Sonic Titan, Strumbellas, 36

Every day this week I posted about two Polaris Prize shortlisted acts and two equally—if not more—worthy albums from the year in question. This is the final installment. The winner will be announced at the gala Sept. 22.

The shortlisted

Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams (Arts and Crafts)

The album: This isn’t supposed to enter into Polaris considerations, but I’ve liked Hot Dreams considerably more since I was completely blown away by their career-making Massey Hall performance. I had seen Timber Timbre several times over the years, but this current lineup is electrifying and elastic, and even if most of these songs sound exactly the same, goddam do they ever sound incredible. Note: everyone except Taylor Kirk is part of an instrumental soundtrack project called Last Ex, whose debut comes out on Constellation Records on Oct. 14. You can hear a track here.

My Hot Dreams review from April:

Timber Timbre frontman Taylor Kirk checked into Heartbreak Hotel, and he never left. The more he discovered how haunted it really is, the more he liked it. On this, his fifth album, he still drenches his voice in rockabilly reverb and peers into every dark corner he can find, using blues, ’50s lounge crooner music, ’60s spaghetti Western soundtracks (you can almost hear the clip-clop of trotting horses on the opening track, “Beat the Drum Slowly) and sheets of spooky-ass noise of indecipherable origin. Organs wheeze, pianos grown, lecherous saxophones beckon, string sections weep and sing. All the while, as always, one can’t help but picture Harry Dean Stanton imbuing Roy Orbison songs with eternal dread in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—especially when Kirk calls in female backing singers to sing what Kelly Hogan calls “Roddenberries” (vocals that sound like the Star Trek theme song) over a bolero beat. Doom is always either imminent or has already wreaked its havoc, leaving desolate survivors to wade through the wreckage.  

Sound like a good time? No, of course not. But everyone loves a good creep: just ask the creators of The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad; the latter has used Timber Timbre’s music in the past. Kirk runs the risk of camp, which he fell into far too often on his last album, where the lyrics tried too hard to create the sense of dread that the music did naturally. He’s more careful this time out, although there’s the occasional clunker—like when he opens a song by declaring, “I want to dance with a black woman.”  

If Kirk’s songwriting is neither here nor there (there’s an odd melodic nod to “Rivers of Babylon” on the track “Grand Canyon”), he and his band continue to improve as arrangers: there’s a strong influence of dub reggae, psychedelia and RZA-style hip-hop production that leaves plenty of space for ghostly textures, and sets them far apart from other rootsy retro acts who think reverb and a Farfisa organ are convenient crutches to create mood. Guest performer (for the third album in a row now) Colin Stetson on saxophone is also a welcome presence.  

Timber Timbre has a shtick, and Taylor Kirk is sticking to it. It’s not only working for him, but he keeps getting better at it. 

The chances: Good. Unless you’re totally turned off by the shtick, this album gets better and better with repeated spins. As with all Timber Timbre records, it maintains a consistent mood, and this time there are no dud tracks at all, even if the songs are secondary to the performances and production—both of which are stellar. This is a tough year: I still think the final three albums jurors will be arguing will be Drake, Tagaq and Basia Bulat. But anything can happen, of course, and that includes Timber Timbre getting their due.

Yamantaka Sonic Titan – Uzu (Paper Bag)

The album: Describing this band usually makes their music sound more exciting than it is. Calling themselves “noh-wave,” a nod to Japanese kabuki, this female-fronted prog-metal band draw from paranoid psychedelia, Black Sabbath, Asian melodies and Native American rhythms to craft something unlike anything else in this country or anywhere else. (Sweden's Goat, who have a new album out this month, are the only thing in remotely the same ballpark, that I'm aware of.) For a heavy band, they’re never quite heavy enough; for a weird, trippy band, they’re never quite weird or trippy enough. The rhythms can plod, the ideas sound stillborn. So much creativity and potential here; only half of it is ever realized.

When it works, of course, it’s brilliant: “One” (not a Metallica cover) is exhilarating and monstrous, demanding to be played at top volume. The guitars are searing, the vocals are haunting, and the drummer actually decides to drive the band for a change. It’s preceded by the two other strongest tracks: “Seasickness Pt 2” and “Bring Me The Hand of Bloody Benzaiten,” the triptych of which display almost everything this band can do. On the flipside, “Windflower” and “Saturn’s Return” are lovely, almost pretty.

I don’t doubt that one day, sooner than later, Y/ST will make their magnum opus and that it will be brilliant. Uzu is not it.

The chances: Average. Y/ST’s uniqueness would score them major points in any other year—it certainly did the last time they were shortlisted, with their 2011 debut album. But this year you can’t out-freak the freakiest of them all: Tanya Tagaq, who is twice as intense and mysterious and, because she operates outside of any genre at all, doesn’t have any baggage or expectation to live up to. Whereas there are times when I just want Y/ST to be a better metal band, or to just freak the fuck out.

The could’ve been, should’ve beens:

The Strumbellas – We Still Move on Dance Floors (Six Shooter)

The album: As someone who grew up on Spirit of the West, the Pogues, the Waterboys, and pre-Achtung Baby U2, this band pushes a lot of my teenage buttons. Now I’m an adult who can count on one finger the number of even remotely Celtic acts he’s enjoyed in the last 20 years. (I’m not even sure who that might be—I’m just saying that to cover my bases.) And yet this band warms my cold, cold, self-hating Scot heart.

Yes, it was produced by the guy behind the Lumineers record, so yes, there are a few “hey-ho” moments here. And yes, the eighth-note piano pulse on “Sailing” appears to be a direct nod to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”—and Lord knows we’ve endured enough carbon copies of that band in the last 10 years. There’s nothing particularly original here, so the cool and the jaded can stay at home.

But these are the kind of songs people learn to play with their first bands, the kind of songs on which you learn how to sing harmony, the kind of songs you sing when you’re 23 and music has the power to lift you up and envision futures full of possibility, the kind of songs you sing at the summer folk festival until you fall down drunk in the mud. They’re great songs, and this is a great band with real chemistry, an anthemic rock band that knows how to employ banjo, violin and accordion tastefully without sounding like a hokey revival show.

Thirty minutes, nine songs, every one of them is a hit. It’s even more impressive if you managed to hear their debut, which—well, let’s just say I didn’t expect much going into this. The Strumbellas didn’t make the 2014 shortlist, but they’re going to be cashing a lot of folk festival cheques for at least the next decade based on this album alone.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: Two words that act as instant rockcrit repellent: “Hey-ho!”

36? – Where Do We Go From Here? (independent)

The album: I’m an old guy. To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of music made by people younger than 25 anymore. Except this band, this guy: Calgary’s Taylor Cochrane—who just turned 25, and this is his sixth album since he was a 17-year-old on various medications to treat his ADD. Judging by this record, he’s lived several lifetimes in one. As 36?, he tries on a lot of hats—and they all fit. A lot of bands who try this end up failing miserably—even, as we’ve seen, the mighty Arcade Fire. Here, however, Cochrane is at once a snotty punk, an ambient balladeer, a swaggering falsetto singer, a folkie delivering soaring anthems—and that’s all on the first five songs. “How fucked up can it get?” he sings on “Mrs. Brown.” Pretty fucked up indeed, as proven by a 13-minute, three-song noise collage near the end of the album.

Here’s my review from March of this year:

As per the perplexing band name and album title, Where Do We Go From Here sounds like a confusing mess on the surface. It’s not. It’s actually one of the most refreshing and inventive Canadian rock records in a long while.  

Bandleader Taylor Cochrane delivers ambitious and anthemic alt-rock, psychedelic textures, weirdo electro-pop, folkie detours and a three-part suite of ambient noise: the kind of mix tape or open-format radio show no one makes anymore. That all-out noise excursion aside, Cochrane writes great pop songs, and then throws everything he can at them to see if they survive. There’s no indication here what instruments Cochrane or his bandmates Eric Svilpis and Scott White handle individually; it’s safe to assume there are no slackers on board. Drummer Ryan Kusz gives it all muscle that prevents everything from drifting apart: in the middle of the eclectic experimentalism, this is a rock band. It also helps that Cochrane is no vocal slouch either: when he goes for those high notes that all emo boys attempt, Cochrane actually pulls it off. Nineties campus radio fans: imagine Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum joining Change of Heart circa Smile.  

What’s next for this band? Apparently a plan to rerecord this album with household objects and acoustic instruments. Why would they do that? Like everything heard here: just because.

Unrelated tangent: With the sole exception of Chad Van Gaalen, 36? may well be the only musical act from Calgary I've ever loved. I've yet to be convinced otherwise.

Why it didn’t even make the long list: You think the rest of Canada hates Toronto? Not true. The rest of Canada hates Calgary. But seriously, this should be on Arts and Crafts or Merge or Sub Pop or Matador: it’s way too big to be relegated to Bandcamp. I’m sad Polaris couldn’t give it a bigger push.

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