Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Polaritively Nositive: The Final Tally

June 10th, 2009

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Here’s how my Round 1 ballot for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize looks ($20,000 for the Canadian album released between June ‘08 and June ‘09, for those out of the know). What happens next is that on Monday, the Polaristocrats announce the “long list,” which includes the Top 40 point-getters from the ballots of the 190 voters. We all vote again solely on that list, which produces the 10-album official Short List, revealed on July 7. And the winner is chosen from that list by the 11-person Grand Jury, backstage during the gala ceremony in Toronto, scheduled for Sept. 21.

1) Blackout Beach - Skin of Evil

Carey Mercer (also, of course, of Frog Eyes and Swan Lake) is an utterly original and emotionally acrobatic songwriter and performer wherever he appears, but with Skin of Evil he’s created an extended, focused suite exploring a single narrative rather than the hyper-niscient jump-edits characteristic of Frog Eyes, a tale that at once conjures the potency of a romantic, self-martyring fixation and mocks and undermines it. The sweet-toxic mood is in the sound, in the notes and between them, even without the lyrics in which High Modernism melts into pink bubblegum, as if “The Wasteland” had been written by Archie Andrews. (By the by, Mercer has a blog, named Clouds of Evil after the first song on this album, that is almost as wild and entertaining as his music.)

2) Martha Wainwright - I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings, Too

Without the immediate personal charm of her older brother Rufus (except perhaps to those of us with a weakness for the “difficult” woman), but carrying many of the same neurotic-narcissist personality tics - along, of course, with the musical brilliance that runs in the family - Martha hasn’t done herself any favours in the past by writing songs that seemed excessively inward and repetitive, though every release has had a standout track or two. But on I Know You’re Married…, I feel as though she’s really opened her sensibility up, not to mention learned to edit herself, and produced a record that can sink in deep, to ears that are open to hear. (See my original Globe & Mail review after the jump.)

3) Land of Talk - Some Are Lakes

As I wrote in The Globe in January: “[Land of Talk] is founded on the sour-and-sweet blend of [Elizabeth] Powell’s spiky, dissonant guitar with her plaintive voice, as if Kim Gordon of post-punk band Sonic Youth had the wounded twang of Louisiana country-rock balladeer Lucinda Williams. Powell’s lyrics, too, hover in a twilight zone between Eros and Thanatos. … In this, she picks up on a cut-off 1990s strand from near-forgotten bands such as the Throwing Muses or Spinanes, who probed for a tough-yet-not-macho feminine rock voice by more complex stratagems of difference than the shock tactics of the riot-grrrl movement identified with Hole or Bikini Kill.”

4) Fucked Up - Chemistry of Common Life

The only potential Polaris nominee whose lead singer is a commentator from the left on Fox News, whose “unprintable” name (no, really, try it on your own printer - doesn’t work!) will pose an entertaining problem for news media for months and who are actually revolutionizing their genre. While you could complain that it’s just hardcore for people who don’t like hardcore (the way that Sunn0)))) etc. are often charged with being metal for people who don’t like metal), that’s belied by the fact that hardcore fans love them - it’s actually just hardcore that is so good that non-hardcore listeners like it too. Unlike a lot of the rock records that will be on the long list, Fucked Up’s Chemistry (like its predecessor Year of the Pig, which should have been nominated too) isn’t just the best Canadian record of its kind this year but the best record of its kind anywhere this year. Granted, its kind is not my main musical preference, but if I were on the final jury I’d argue for F.U. over most of the other artists with a strong chance of making the shortlist.

5) The Blankket - Pegatively Nositive

Sadly overlooked, in part because creator Steve Kado was out of the country when it was released (at art school in L.A.), this short sharp shock of a concept album deals in rattling junkshop rhythms, very-non-pitch-corrected melodies and untrammeled yelling - which may not sound so appealing, but it’s all in service of Kado’s provocative, unconventional messages about both mainstream and indie cultures and their mutually lazy, smug avoidance of the really tough stuff - death, for example, or actual independent thinking. (Rather than hipsters, he calls his targets “modern babies.”) Depending how you listen it could be a bitter bracing tonic or a hilarious send-up - in fact, Kado’s sleight of hand is nimble enough that it manages to be both at once.

I went back & forth all weekend about which way to flip #1 and #2; the order was fixed only when last night’s midnight deadline elapsed. I also regretted that no hip-hop albums made the cut, and continue to wonder if there should be some sidebar award for best single that might help to expand the musical palette of the prize.

The #5 slot is what changed the most: The Blankket’s album took it mostly because it was the last impulse I had when I logged on the voting page before I had to go out for the night. Also, in my mind, more or less tied for fifth were: Swan Lake, Castlemusic, Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project, Last Step (a new project from the man better known as Venetian Snares), Junior Boys, Tim Hecker, Anthony Braxton & the AIMToronto Orchestra, Rae Spoon, Great Lake Swimmers, Joel Plaskett, Leonard Cohen live, The Bicycles, Hank, Slim Twig, Kardinal Offishal, John Doe & the Sadies and possibly a few more.

But that is it for the teeth-grinding part of the process. Next up: teeth gnashing!

The Globe & Mail/Review
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Martha Wainwright
**** (4 out of 4 stars)

Pop music loves voices. It likes all kinds, from raw and guttural to whispery and coy, but most of all it adores grand, rangy, blow-the-door-open-and-steal-the-jewellery voices that astonish the same way a star athlete can do. Yet it also wants singers who sound approachable and intimate, not like they were nurtured in conservatories under special ultraviolet lights.

The counterintuitive fact is that Martha Wainwright has just such a voice - counterintuitive because Wainwright hails notoriously from a clan of artsy cult songwriters (New York dad Loudon, brother Rufus and Montreal mom and aunt Kate and Anna McGarrigle). Like all her fractious and variously estranged relatives, she performs archly poetic and often wrenchingly confessional songs. Yet if she took it into her head to enter Canadian Idol, she would walk away with the prize so handily it would frizzle the competition’s ironed bangs.

Such a double-sided talent - along with the pressures of her little-sister status and, no doubt, the civil wars of the heart that she chronicles in song - has complicated Wainwright’s career. Now, at 32, after all the guest appearances on friends’ and relatives’ records, a somewhat unfocused first album and a long line of EPs (the quintessential expression of music-biz ambivalence), her provocatively titled second album finds Wainwright finally going for it, all the way.

With only acoustic guitars, as she has often been accompanied the past, her voice can threaten to swallow up a song whole. It is a voice that sounds hungry for music, carnally yearning for melodic nooks and crannies to burrow into, secret harmonic passageways to spiral round and shimmery lagoons of texture to backstroke across. She gets all that here, a full complement of drums and strings and keyboards and synths, some of them played by famous family friends (you know, Pete Townshend, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen or the Band’s Garth Hudson was in town, having coffee, one thing led to another).

Some of the songs traffic in questions of religious faith and geopolitical instability (Jesus and Mary, Tower Song), romantic travel (Niger River, a song for her new husband, Brad Albetta) and fears of death (In the Middle of the Night). But there’s lots of Wainwright’s specialty, the wounded and pissed-off backtalk ballad, such as opener Bleeding All Over You, the source of the album’s title line, as well as The George Song, which says what most people aren’t honest enough to voice about a friend who commits suicide. One of her anthems for the betrayed hits the ear as a potential hit single (You Cheated Me), which would be a true family first. Over all, I Know You’re Married has the sureness of proportion and perspective that seemed to elude Wainwright in the past, when her songs felt so interior that she often went astray inside them. The two covers - Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play and the Eurythmics’ Love is a Stranger - are surplus, but otherwise there’s hardly a misstep.

It used to be that this country’s most singular songwriters, such as Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, were also our biggest mainstream stars. More substantial than Feist, less an acquired taste than her brother or the Arcade Fire, but much more multilayered than your Avrils and Alanises, Martha Wainwright is the best prospect to succeed on all those levels simultaneously in a very long time.

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  2. Stephen says:

    Great list.
    (Pssst. What’s the secretish location for the Owen Pallet Dundas after party thingy on Thurs?)

  3. Phil says:

    I shoulda suggested Fucked up…a very interesting release indeed. Call me sleepy, but until I heard the Q promo, I had no idea they are Canadian…though the brilliance should have been my first clue. Love the band and the album. I’ll be checking out Martha Wainwright now…couldn’t get past her pretty brother (whom I also love in spurts - LOL)…now I’m interested in the other half of this dynamic progeny of Loudon and Anna. The self indulgence of Rufus is bothersome, but his recent performance on Spectacle shows he will continue to grow as a performer and a singer, no matter what his personality does. I also enjoyed his cameo in the Cohen flick.

  4. Phil says:

    Sorry, I guess Kate is the mom, not aunt Anna…details, details…

  5. david b says:

    so sad to see no carey mercer on the actual list.

  6. Lia Hirsh says:

    I’m glad Timber Timbre / Great Lake Swimmers made the list without your help!

  7. matt says:

    Although I really like the Blackout Beach record, I think Fucked Up should win this award.

    It’s great you included Pegatively Nositive, too.

  8. the scowl » Blog Archive » Recommended Music Writing: 24 June 2009 says:

    [...] Carl Wilson offers his thoughts on recent Canadian music via his ballot for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize. Carey Mercer is discussed at [...]

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