Valentine’s Day for Feist

Congratulations to Leslie Feist for winning this year’s Polaris Music Prize.  The prize committee’s grand jury chose her introspective album Metals as the best example of Canadian music for 2012.  The prize seeks to reward “artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history, or label affiliation”.

More importantly, the nomination process helps to give exposure to dozens of worthy candidates each year.  Many of the nominees, often underground artists without the luxury of serious record-company ad money promoting them, would otherwise receive scant coverage in the national press.  Feist already has mainstream recognition in Canada – affiliations with Broken Social Scene and Apple products will do that.  But short-listed artists like Japandroids, Cadence Weapon, Cold Specks, and Grimes will surely get a ‘Polaris bump’.  If this helps draw a few more people to their live shows or sell a few more records, then so much the better.

Feist’s acceptance speech at Monday night’s gala got off to a rocky start.  When her name was announced, her first instinct was to hide under her table.  After collecting her thoughts, Feist ambled to the stage and it quickly became evident that she hadn’t prepared a proper speech.  She eventually managed to thank the appropriate people and waxed philosophical about the burgeoning Canadian music scene.

This anecdote from Feist about 2008’s Polaris prize winner Dan Snaith (aka Caribou) neatly sums up the true value of the event:

I was sitting in a bar with a friend having a beer, and this song came on in the bar that was beautiful and arresting, and I went over to the DJ and asked him what he was playing, and he said to me, ‘Caribou.’ So I am grateful to the Polaris for creating a conversation about music, and I am grateful to Caribou for making me think about how I hear things.

After the gala, the hopeless romantic rhapsodized that winning feels:

… a bit like getting the right Valentine from the right boy at school. It’s got this sense of secretness to it and it just has a sense of being personal that’s small and quaint and real.

Rumour has it that Feist is considering donating some of her $30,000 prize to her favourite cause, a group preparing a legal challenge against southern Ontario’s monstrous new Melancthon limestone quarry.  Proceeds from her tour merch already go to this cause, so she puts her money where her mouth is.  Meanwhile, on Valentine’s Day, this songstress’ heart is also in the right place.

Juno Awards 2012

The 2012 Juno Awards nominees were announced yesterday.  The Junos honour the best in Canadian popular music, across 40 different categories.  If you scan the list of nominees, you’ll probably see a few artists that you know and love, a bunch of artists that are kind of ‘meh’, a rogue’s gallery of musicians you’ve never heard of, and maybe a few that you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.  Par for the course anytime you have so many categories spread across so many genres.  It’s impossible to follow every trend in an industry this big.

The most disturbing trend to me is the weakness of the Album of the Year category.  In a perfect world, this category should be a reliable bellwether for the health of the Canadian music industry.  Whenever you get critically acclaimed bands with enough commercial clout to get nominated for Album of the Year, the industry as a whole is likely doing just fine.  Last year, Arcade Fire managed to win the big prize with The Suburbs.

But here is the 2012 short-list:

Avril Lavigne – Goodbye Lullabye
Drake – Take Care
Justin Bieber – Under the Mistletoe
Michael Bublé – Christmas
Nickelback – Here And Now

Can we be honest for a moment here?  I don’t mean for this to sound like holier-than-thou anonymous hipster blogger belly-aching.  But in all seriousness, that list is f&cking embarrassing.

Sure, the 2012 nominees sold a shedload of records last year, and most had a relatively high profile in the all-important American market.  But if we are going to pretend that these are the five most important records released in Canada last year, then that’s just sad.

Nickelback continue to rewrite the same watered-down Metallica song again and again, complete with misogynistic lyrics and all the charm of a used condom.  Bieber and Bublé were nominated for Christmas records, perhaps the tackiest of all dialling-it-in, easy-money schemes.  I wasn’t even aware that Avril Lavigne was still alive, never mind making records.  Apparently she crawled out from under the Rock of Obscurity just long enough to caterwaul a dozen or so new Generation Y ditties about boys and problems and boy problems into her bedazzled iPhone.

If there’s any justice, Drake should run away with this category (if not run away from this category).  I’m not a particularly big fan of his music, but at least he did something this year to push along the state of modern Canadian popular music.

In fairness, a quick scan of the Album of the Year nominees for the past several years also reveals a depressing amount of dreck.  Unless you happen to think that Justin Bieber, Billy Talent, Hedley, and Simple Plan make the best records in Canuckistan, in which case you might also think that the best show on TV is CSI and your favourite colour is beige.

Perhaps we’ll just have to concede that Album of the Year is more or less reserved for the most commercially successful Canadian album, artistic impression being a secondary (but unnecessary) trait.  In a future blog, let’s examine the Adult Alternative Album of the Year category and see if we can find something a little more substantial (and a little less embarrassing) happening on the margins of the mainstream.

Bucket List Bands

Here’s a new challenge.  List ten bands that you have never seen in concert but, given the chance, you would go see in a heartbeat.  A few ground rules:

  • You have never seen the band (or artist) live in concert before, not even as an act opening for someone else.
  • The band (or artist) has to be touring semi-regularly, so defunct bands like R.E.M. don’t count (that’s a different challenge).
  • The band (or artist) has to be alive, so the Jimi Hendrix Experience doesn’t qualify (that’s a different challenge).

I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of great bands over the years, so I don’t have to put legendary acts like R.E.M., Radiohead, Wilco, Muse, Arcade Fire, Pink Floyd, The Police, Rush, Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Young, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton on my list.  However, there are still dozens of acts that I would love to see in concert for the first time.

Here’s my ‘bucket list’ of acts I’d like to see at least once in my lifetime, in alphabetical order:

  1. Beck
  2. The Decemberists
  3. Eels
  4. Fleet Foxes
  5. Fountains of Wayne
  6. Peter Gabriel
  7. Guster
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. My Morning Jacket
  10. Secret Machines
  11. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
  12. Spoon
  13. The Stone Roses
  14. Teenage Fanclub
  15. The Zombies

Okay, so I couldn’t whittle it down to ten bands.  I would go see any act on this list if they played anywhere near my hometown.  A few of them I’d even cross the country to check out.  Road trips rock.

I would love to see The National headline their own show, but I saw them open for R.E.M. in Burnaby a few years ago so they aren’t eligible for this challenge.  Still, I wish I’d noticed The National were playing the Orpheum in Vancouver last November a little sooner, because I would have jumped on a plane for sure.  Maybe later we’ll do an Opening Acts You’d Like To See As Headliners challenge.  Today’s challenge is all about bands you’ve never seen.

Surely you have your own bucket list of bands – just click “Reply” to post them!

Skills to Pay the Bills

This story in Time Magazine was both a little unsettling and kind of unintentionally hilarious. Some snarky bloggers have argued about whether “indie rock” really exists anymore. We collectively have a naïve belief that anyone with $2000 and some songs can throw together an EP on compact disc, play a few gigs, work up a local fever, upload a couple of songs to YouTube, go viral, tour the world and – voilà – instant rock star! Or at least make enough scratch to scrape out an existence ‘living the life’.

Well, not so much.

It’s safe to say that aspiring musicians have to REALLY love music, and be willing to put up with insane amounts of shit, because the odds of becoming the next Bono are roughly the same as the chances of being struck by lightning AND winning the lottery on the same day. The vast majority of bands will play a few local gigs, develop no fan base, stagger along for a year or two eating Ron Chow and sleeping on friends’ sofas, and go nowhere other than flat-ass broke.

So if it costs six figures to get any kind of traction in the music business, then just how independent can an “indie” rock band really expect to be? These days, it seems that the price of fame can only be paid from deep pockets. Sure, Two Lights could choose to live in a far cheaper city than NYC, and Brooklyn is already infested with indie rock bands. That said, there’s something to be said for lingering near the media epicentre of the country.  In some lines of work it pays to relocate to certain places.

Two Lights’ cautionary tale is something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone branding your favourite indie artist a ‘sellout’ for cashing a $5000 cheque from Mountain Dew or Volkswagen or the University of Phoenix.