Pontificating on Polaris

Then the North Star
is guiding us home in your friend’s car
Will we take a chance or will we restart?
The sky is a map that’s guiding back to my heart

“North Star” by the Rural Alberta Advantage (2011 Polaris Music Prize Nominees)

The Polaris Music Prize is an annual competition that seeks to reward the best in Canadian recorded music.  The organization’s mission statement is to ‘recognize and market albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history’.  In other words, Justin Bieber and Nickelback need not apply.  It is modeled on the UK’s Mercury Music Prize, and nets the winner a cool $30,000.

Each year, a plethora of new albums by Canadian artists are nominated by over two hundred jurors for consideration.  The jurors range from print and online music journalists to radio programmers to musically-orientated TV personalities to (scraping the bottom of the barrel) some lowly bloggers.  The breadth of backgrounds is reflected in the wide stylistic variety of albums that get nominated.  The winners over the past five years include:

  • 2007:  Close to Paradise by Patrick Watson
  • 2008:  Andorra by Caribou
  • 2009:  The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up
  • 2010:  Les Chemins de Verre by Karkwa
  • 2011:  The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

For 2012, a ‘long list’ of 40 candidate albums was published back on June 14th.  Earlier this week, the candidates were pared down to a top-10 ‘short list’ featuring (in alphabetical order):

  • Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City
  • Cold Specks – I Predict A Graceful Expulsion
  • Drake – Take Care
  • Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
  • Feist – Metals
  • Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
  • Grimes – Visions
  • Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
  • Japandroids – Celebration Rock
  • YAMANTAKA / SONIC TITAN – YT//ST

Sadly, several excellent records were left off the short list.  Kathryn Calder (on a diversion from her day job in the New Pornographers) didn’t make the cut with Bright and Vivid.  Septuagenarian legend Leonard Cohen and his Old Ideas were good ideas, but evidently not quite good enough to make the top ten.  I really like New Wild Everywhere by Great Lake Swimmers, but they didn’t make the short list this year.  I was very surprised that Dan Mangan’s excellent Oh Fortune was left off the list, after a winter and spring of fawning praise from all corners of the media.  Scrappy Happiness by Joel Plaskett Emergency is pretty cool but was maybe too new to gain enough momentum.  The Weeknd got a lot of buzz last year with Echoes of Silence (among other releases), but it’s not going to win the Polaris prize.  Likewise for Yukon Blonde’s Tiger Talk, which is a genuine grower of an album.  And one of my favourites, Summer of Lust by Library Voices, didn’t even make the long list.

Admittedly, the short list IS a pretty tidy microcosm of Canadian hip & happening music.  Feist and Drake are the biggest names that mainstream music fans would recognize, but star buzz doesn’t help an artist in this contest.  In fact, the Polaris Prize often carries more than a whiff of indier-than-thou preciousness, where bands are celebrated seemingly for being willfully obscure.  I bought the Patrick Watson record that won the prize back in 2007, largely due to favourable comparisons to Pink Floyd’s Meddle album (and the Craven Hermit LOVES the languid intensity of Meddle).  But for the life of me I can’t see why Close to Paradise was even considered for the Polaris Prize, unless it was the way that its’ ho-hum mediocrity sprung forth from total musical obscurity.

The nomination of Cadence Weapon brings a modern, experimental hip-hop flavour to the proceedings.  Kathleen Edwards continues to release perfectly nice, introspective indie-pop records but, truth be told, they’re just too boring to ever truly grab my attention.  Cold Specks is an interesting proposition – not a lot of cotton-field old-skool soul sisters creating a buzz in Canada.  Japandroids are defiantly waving the beer & nachos indie rock flag, which is totally cool with me.  I personally hope Japandroids win, but the Polaris Prize jury has a track record of picking winners that skew more towards the musical margins.  Even so, Celebration Rock is about the most fun you can have with your pants on.

I’m less comfortable with Fucked Up’s nomination.  I love the idea of an ambitious anarcho-rock-opera, and the music is exciting and engaging, but I simply cannot stand lead ‘singer’ Damien Abraham’s gonzo vocals.  This ass-clown also single-handedly ruined my favourite show on MuchMusic.  Every millisecond Abraham’s preening, self-aggrandizing douchiness polluted the screen during his guest-host stint on “The Wedge” made me want to hurl nasty epithets and blunt objects across the room.

This year’s left field pick is YT//ST by the art collective of Yamantaka and Sonic Titan.  I’m a reasonably well-read indie music fan, but this one’s so far off my radar I had to Google it.  Whereupon I learned from the National Post that YT//ST is an “Asian Diasporic psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multi-disciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of Eastern culture”.  I’m trying to keep an open mind about YT//ST until I actually get a chance to hear it, but based on this description alone I’m steeling myself for some serious Pitchfork-baiting, industrial-strength, avant-garde bullshit.  It’s almost as though the IDEA of this record is more important than the record itself – which is never a good situation.

All of the foregoing maybe leaves Vancouverite (by way of Montreal) Grimes as the favourite by default.  In a country as big as Canada, with so many different regions and musical histories, it’s so difficult to find consensus in the zeitgeist.  Yet somehow, everyone seems to be rallying around Claire Boucher’s quirky electro-indie-dance-pop stylings.  Her squeaky childlike voice is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition (personally, I’d leave it), but the music is undeniably compelling.  Visions by Grimes might just find itself parked at a quasi-stationary spot in the Canadian night sky this year.

The Polaris Music Prize jury has been pared down to an eleven-member Grand Jury for the final round of voting.  We will find out which album gets the prize on September 24th.

Zeroes and Ones

Have you ever stopped to wonder why our society puts so much value on big, round numbers?  Especially when we’re talking about the passage of time?

The length of a day is set at how long it takes for the planet to spin about its longitudinal axis.  The length of a year is set at how long it takes for the planet to make one revolution around the Sun (give or take a leap day).  Most cultures have arbitrarily defined a “day” as 24 hours, even though we could have said there are five or ten or a thousand hours in a  day just as easily.  A year takes something like 365 and a quarter diurnal periods, give or take some leap-seconds.  Months can have 28, 29, 30, or 31 days.  Meanwhile, there’s 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5280 feet in a mile, 16 ounces in a pound, 2 pints in a quart, and 4 quarts in a gallon. It’s all pretty arbitrary.  Thankfully, the metric system is based on far more sensible, less esoteric base-10 mathematics.  But we could have just as easily standardized on base-2 or base-16 or some other numerology.

Just like the metric system, our society puts a lot of emphasis on 10th anniversaries and 100-year centennials and 1000-year epochs.  There’s something about big round numbers that appeals to us, even though time scales are largely an arbitrary human construct.  It even carries over to our fascination with automobile odometers, thousands of dollars, millionth online customers, and so on.

A few events have transpired in the Craven Hermit household lately that rolled over the digits on various virtual odometers.  Previously I’ve bored you to death with details from various hikes around town.  Today’s 20.00 km walk (yes, I watched the odometer roll over on the way up the driveway) was fairly unexceptional, except to say that according to my Nike+ app I’ve now surpassed the 1000 km cumulative mark.  I picked up my Bluetooth token about 20 months ago, and I don’t always use it for every walk or hike, but there’s still something kind of neat about rolling over into quadruple digits.  When I finished my walk today, Paula Radcliffe even appeared in my headphones to congratulate me on my (dubious) achievement.  Which is nice, I guess, despite having only a vague idea who Paula Radcliffe is.

Well I know we should take a walk
But you’re such a fast walker, oh-whoa, well all right
I know where I’ll be tonight, all right
Outta mind, outta site

– Wilco, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, 1996

Today was a good opportunity to test out my new headphones.  I finally retired my trusty Sony in-ear buds; they survived an accidental ‘journey of discovery’ through my washing machine, but they don’t sound quite right anymore.  I picked up some new Klipsch s4i headphones on sale yesterday, and they sound really nice.  The bass is subtle but tighter than my Sony’s ever were, the midrange is clear, and the highs are crisp and precise.  With these new ‘phones, the acoustic guitar on The Shins’ “New Slang” actually sounded like a resonant wooden instrument.  The staccato guitar and percussion on Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” seemed to be coming from right inside my head.  Even the bleeps and bloops on Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” were beautifully synthetic, just like Ralf and Florian would have wanted.  Not bad for $80.

Meanwhile down at the local wetlands, the pelicans were having a field day chasing around a school of minnows.  So it was a good day for people and our feathered friends alike.

This blog has also experienced a milestone of sorts.  Early yesterday, the Craven Hermit blog experienced its 2000th unique hit.  This is pretty remarkable, considering that I have never really publicized this blog anywhere.  I sent a link to a half dozen friends of mine, people that I thought might be bored enough to occasionally spelunk the inner machinations of my musically-wired mind.  Other than an email here or there, this page was designed to lurk quietly in the shadows (much like its curator).

The vast majority of visitors to the Craven Hermit blog arrive via Google search.  Based on the spam I get, a fair number of my site’s visitors are mainly looking for opportunities to market boner pills to dysfunctional fifty-five year olds.  I think of these interlopers as the ‘One-and-Done’ crowd, because they must realize pretty quickly that this blog is actually about popular music.

Thankfully, a good number of the people that stumble across this site take a few minutes to poke around and see what’s up.  A few brave souls have even signed up to receive regular updates from my blog, which is pretty cool and really gratifying.  This form of communication sure beats shouting into a gale-force wind, which is kind of how real life feels for me sometimes.

In February, WordPress rolled out a new feature that shows which countries your visitors are arriving from.  Not surprisingly, Canada and the USA dominate the charts.  But in amongst the usual suspects, there have been visitors from exotic locales like Libya, Greenland, Cambodia, Sudan, Fiji, Belarus, and Djibouti.  Not to mention pretty much every country in the western hemisphere.  They come from many places where English isn’t even the predominant language and where popular music is a completely different kettle of fish than my local airwaves.  It makes the world seem like a much smaller place.

There’s no one rhyme or reason for why people check out my blog.  One of the most popular features is my monthly preview of upcoming releases.  The Charlie Brown themed blog seems to attract a lot of attention, mainly for the cartoon image.  My feature on Roger Waters’ tour for The Wall got a lot of hits from all over the world, which was fun.  Even those photos of my vinyl records bring people to the site.  If you ever have any suggestions or ideas for future blogs, please let me know.

Whatever set of circumstances led you to this site – thank you for taking the time to read what I have to say.  As I laid out in my original mission statement last October, I’ve tried to make this blog informative and entertaining and honest.  Hopefully that comes across in the words on your screen.

Oh, right, one last thing.  This is my 100th post!  Yet more arbitrary zeroes and ones to celebrate.

Bob Tells It Like It Is

One of the more insightful music blogs out there is written by Bob Lefsetz.  In truth The Lefsetz Letter is more than a blog, it’s a conversation about the music industry that has been going on for over twenty years.  Bob seems to be about as well-connected as an industry ‘outsider’ can be.  He is close enough to the industry to see the inner machinations first-hand, but far enough away to maintain some perspective.  Bob has a nose for what works in popular music, but his best asset is calling out the parts that don’t work.

Lefsetz recently gave the keynote address at the Music Matters conference in Singapore.  You can watch the interview on YouTube. It’s well worth the 45-minute investment of your time if you want to hear some fascinating stories about the state of the music biz.  I subscribe to most of the same theories as Bob – about the power of music as a social language, the death of terrestrial radio because algorithms do all the music programming, and especially his views on how concert promoters lie to the public about ticket pricing.

There are a couple of things that Bob touches on in this interview that differ from my perspective.  Bob is all about the immediacy of a ‘hit’ song – he’s completely uninterested in listening to something five times to ‘get it’.  Most of my favourite songs are songs that didn’t really grab me on first listen – they took time to set down roots and grow into my soul.  Meanwhile, a number of hit songs like “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne were catchy on first listen, but now I’d rather push sharpened pencils into my ears than listen to that saccharine bullshit ever again.  Maybe if Bob wasn’t bombarded by 500 new tracks a day, he’d have the time to absorb new sounds.  He has to live in the moment.  But for me, it’s about quality more than quantity.

The other spot where Bob and I differ is in the music consumption model.  Bob foresees a future where everybody is content to rent music via paid streaming services like Spotify.  In Bob’s world, why own music when you can download it from ‘the Cloud’ anytime, anywhere with an Internet connection?  Meanwhile, I’m a neo-Luddite.  I appreciate the portability of mp3s, but I still want to have a physical disc (CD or vinyl) on my shelf at home.  I love looking through record shops and buying something that I can hold in my hands.  I have an ongoing relationship with my record collection – I spend a lot of time organizing, cataloging, and researching.  I don’t think I could ever develop that kind of relationship with ‘the Cloud’.  But then again, I’m a neo-Luddite.  Long term, in the broader sense of the overall music industry, Bob Lefsetz is probably right.

He almost always is.

Going to Graceland

All too often, the re-release of the records of yesteryear is a cheap, cynical cash-in.  Record companies exploit the imagined nostalgia for days gone by, re-selling the public 10th and 20th and 30th anniversary issues of mediocre, forgettable albums.

Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case with the re-release of Paul Simon’s landmark album Graceland.  Originally released in 1986, Graceland received the deluxe re-issue treatment for Record Store Day 2012.  You might see a remastered CD + DVD reissue of this album the next time you’re at your favourite record store, and I’m sure it’s excellent.  I recently picked up Graceland in its 180-gram vinyl incarnation, and promptly fell head over heels in love all over again.

Lead-off song “The Boy In The Bubble” has been back on my musical radar for awhile, thanks largely to Peter Gabriel including a very stripped-down version of it on his recent Scratch My Back album.  In concert, Gabriel introduces his version of the song as a lively number that’s had all the African blood drained out of it, exposing the miserable white man at the core.  On Graceland it comes across as an overcrowded bazaar of influences – equal parts township jive, Senegalese grooves and effortless western pop melodic motion.  Hearing this song leap out of its grooves in 2012 made me a fan all over again.

Each subsequent track is another, richer fold of musical tapestry.  The title track is a perfect road-trip song, echoing back to the songwriter that brought the world “America” all those years ago.  Who hasn’t sat up late at night, ruminating on turns of phrase like:

And she said losing love is like a window in your heart
Everyone sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

“I Know What I Know” must be among the bounciest tunes that Rhymin’ Simon has ever committed to recording tape.  I defy anyone to listen to the brilliant chorus and not have it lodged in their heads for the rest of the week:

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

Impossibly, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” ups the ante even further, integrating Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s wonderfully poetic harmonies into the mix.  The song is ostensibly about New York City, but musically sounds half a world away from the concrete jungle.  SoHo by way of Soweto.

“You Can Call Me Al” was the big hit from the record, aided in no small measure by a cameo appearance by Chevy Chase in the video and synth and horn sections that are more infectious than the Ebola virus.  The sinewy bass line and pennywhistle solo also dig down straight towards the funk centre of your soul.

I personally think the crown jewel of Graceland is the choral genius of “Homeless”.  I won’t even try to describe this song in words – they simply don’t do it justice.  But those glorious Zulu voices – they will follow you around like a lost puppy for days:

Homeless, homeless,
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

Simon undeservedly took a lot of flak for the world music influences on Graceland, particularly the South African connections.  The western press accused him of appropriating another culture’s melodic structures for personal gain.  Others vilified Simon for breaking the unofficial cultural rules of apartheid.  At the end of the day, with the benefit of a quarter-century of hindsight, all Graceland really represents is a glorious intersection of American and African musical idioms.  The songs still resonate with listeners all these years later not because they’re gimmicky or exploitative, but because they’re utterly fantastic songs.

Sometimes records deserve the deluxe reissue treatment so that a new audience might discover them all over again.  Graceland is one of those records.  It will make you dance, make you love, and make you think.

Ben Folds with the ESO

Ben Folds made his very first visit to Effington Edmonton this week.  He joined forces with the formidable Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to bring an orchestral treatment to his whip-smart musicality.  Your faithful correspondent was lucky enough to have a seat in the right-side loges of the beautiful Winspear Centre for the gig.

All too often in rock and pop music, symphonic elements are used as mere window dressing, extensions of the songwriter’s out-of-control ego.  The next time you hear some swooping strings tucked behind nine minutes of squalling guitars and distorted bass, you can safely assume that the rock star’s core message is “I enjoy the drug cocaine”.

Ben Folds tries his best not to subscribe to this cliché.  Over the years he has developed detailed charts for most of his songs, and he has learned how to collaborate with symphonies for maximum effect.  This much was obvious at the Winspear gig.  Folds’ grand piano was centre stage and audible (but not overly prominent) in the mix, which gave the ESO the sonic room to bring out new melodic and rhythmic nuances in the songs.

On the breezy first number of the night, “Zak and Sara”, the ensemble hit the ground running.  A small choir of local musicians provided dramatic counterpoint vocals to “The Ascent of Stan”.  The orchestra even got a chance to swing on “Jesusland”.  This brought a fun new element to the song that was not evident on the album version.

For “Picture Window”, co-written by Folds and author Nick Hornby, the violas plucked out notes that underscored the bass line of the song.  The horn section flexed their muscles on a stomping version of “One Angry Dwarf”.  Xylophone added a twinkle of ear candy to “Narcolepsy”, while the orchestra’s drummer and Folds locked into a percussive duel on “Steven’s Last Night In Town”.  Likewise, the whole ESO brought a cool syncopated groove to “Not The Same” while the star of the show stepped away from his piano throne to direct the audience’s three-part harmonies.

The highlight for many was likely the way Folds and the ESO improvised yet another version of “Rock This Bitch” on the spot.  One by one, Folds gave the different sections of the orchestra some basic melodic cues, quickly building a new song from scratch.  The eventual arrival of mariachi horns and timpani gave the song a spaghetti-western feel, then Folds brought the tune home with a short lyric and a final symphonic flourish.  The fact that dozens of people could play together seamlessly on a brand-new piece of music with minimal direction was testament to the skill and musicianship on stage.  One gets the sense that Ben Folds was having a (no so quiet) riot behind the ivories.

Folds mentioned that the Ben Folds Five are back together, and the band is trying to put the finishing touches on a new album.  It sounds like if they can complete the recording in June, we might see the results in stores and iTunes by sometime this fall.  Let’s hope that when the BF5 develop plans for a tour, their pianist puts in a good word for his new friends in Edmonton.

Setlist for Ben Folds w/ the ESO, 29-Mar-2012:

  • Zak & Sara
  • Smoke
  • The Ascent of Stan
  • Effington
  • Jesusland
  • Picture Window
  • One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

Intermission

  • Landed
  • Gracie
  • Not The Same
  • Rock This Bitch (impromptu)
  • Brick
  • Cologne
  • Steven’s Last Night In Town
  • Narcolepsy
Encore:
  • The Luckiest
Ben Folds solo:
  • In The Air Tonight (quick drum solo)
  • Army
  • Annie Waits
  • The Last Polka