Tuesday, September 30th, 2008
Photo by Frank Yang
I’m immensely relieved that Caribou won this year’s Polaris Music Prize for last year’s Andorra, because if he didn’t then I’d have had to find a new post title. Because so confident I was that this is how things would turn out, I’d already committed to… typing it. And I didn’t want to have to hit that backspace key soooo many times.
So there’s your winner. And though I’m sure that some people figured they knew which way my vote was going to go, despite the fact that I’d not really written about the Caribou record at all, it was my top choice for the prize and I’m very pleased that it came through in the end. I detail the specifics on what I thought of each of the nominated albums, through the filter of what the Polaris criteria was supposed to be, after the jump. And here, I’m not really sure what I can write about. Because though as a member of this year’s Grand Jury, I’ve got a lot I’d like to talk about, I’m not actually allowed to do so. What happens in the jury room, stays in the jury room And since I was sequestered away for most of the gala, I didn’t get to see the show either. So. I guess I’ll just cover what I’m allowed to say about the process.
It started on Sunday night with a dinner with all the Grand Jurists, ostensibly to meet and greet each other and have an informal discussion about the nominated albums. What it turned out to be was a very revealing look at where everyone’s inclinations lay, and which albums would be serious contenders and which would likely be saying, “it was an honour just to be nominated”. It was as essential to the process as the official jury session the night of the gala and I think gave everyone the inclination to revisit at least one of the nominated records that they might have thought their minds made up on
Though the mission statement of the prize, to seek the album of the “highest artistic integrity”, is pretty straightforward (if impossible to actually define), everyone’s criteria for picking a winner was obviously different. While my picks for initial balloting was pretty straightforward – what were my favourite eligible albums and in what order? – for the final round, I took the criteria more seriously. Personal biases would be checked as much as possible, but while I definitely analyzed each album more objectively than I normally might, it still came down to a gut feeling. I wanted something that was more than just a good album – they’re all good albums – and that was for lack of a better, less cheesy word, transcendent. Something that was more than just a good example of its respective style or genre. Something that I’d be comfortable having as a sort of ambassador for Canadian music for the next year.
So going into things on Monday night, I already had the top contenders already sorted out – the middle of the pack could certainly jockey back and forth but they likely wouldn’t end up making much of a difference. My mind was pretty much made up what I was going to pull for and I think most everyone else was as well. The actual jury session result was a very interesting (and civil) discussion about each record, but not so much the knock-down, drag-out argument that you might have expected (or hoped for). Working as I do in mostly isolation, it was a really interesting exercise to actually discuss and debate the merits and flaws of the records, getting different points of view in real time. It was like a book club. And it was amusing to have read some of the more conspiracist theories as to what records we might pick and why, based on agendas that had nothing to do with the albums themselves – Give the finger to the Conservatives! Punish the successful label! They don’t need the money! It’s time for a woman! A rapper! A westerner! Blah blah blah. There was more than enough to talk about in just about the music without getting off-topic.
So when we were finally let out of the jury room and a winner selected (though not revealed to us), I managed to catch the very end of the gala and performances from Shad and Holy Fuck, both so good that I was sorry I missed the rest of the proceedings, even for the privilege of being on the Grand Jury. Holy Fuck were also the only act I got any photos of. But being right up front beside Caribou’s table and seeing the shock and disbelief on Dan Snaith’s face when he was announced as the winner was a real treat. And yes, I was feeling quite good and validated in my opinions.
I’m a bit sad that now having done the Grand Jury thing and having wholly enjoying the experience, I know I won’t get to do it again. It was a real pleasure and honour to have been a part of the process, for something that I think has done a fine job of establishing its credibility as a worthy award and has quickly become an important part of the Canadian music machine. Sure, there are complaints about the records that make the short list (or don’t make the short list) or the Polaris process in general, but now having seen how it all works, I can honestly say that its doing its very best and strives to be as open and fair as possible.
Plenty of coverage on Caribou’s win in the media today, but I found this piece in The Guardian, from a UK perspective, particularly interesting. And as mentioned, I only got a handful of photos of Holy Fuck but there’re some more from the end of the gala at my Flickr.
|Black Mountain / In The Future
Impeccably performed and recorded, and yet such a deliberate and self-conscious homage to ’70s stoner rock that I couldn’t bring myself to take entirely seriously. I don’t want to trot out the i-word (irony) but I can’t bring myself to believe that the band didn’t break out laughing hysterically at least once during recording. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if this one won, but it would have to do it without my help.
|Basia Bulat / Oh My Darling
I know most everyone expected I’d go to the mat for this album and yes, it was a favourite of 2007 and I’m obviously a big fan of Ms Bulat. But while I think that it’s a remarkable debut and it pushes all my buttons, it’s also true that it has its less remarkable moments and as a whole, doesn’t deliver all the potential that Basia has. She’s got more and better albums in her yet, and I doubt this will be her last visit to the Polaris short list. Still, though, it made a last minute rally and moved up a couple spots on my final ballot.
|Caribou / Andorra
Honestly, I had hardly listened to Andorra prior to being named to the Polaris Grand Jury. Dan Snaith’s previous records hadn’t done much for me and the cursory listens I’d given this one were equally intriguing and unsettling for reasons I couldn’t articulate, so I didn’t go back to it. And then I did. And again. And again. This, and to a lesser extent the Shad record, were the new discoveries that basically set the bar for what the best Canadian album of the year should elicit in terms of an emotional and cerebral response. Too classically pop to be regarded as an electronic album and too electronic to be regarded as a classic pop record, Andorra feels like its been orphaned by its parent genres and has instead started its own. It’s the android Beach Boys singing Gregorian chants in outer space. Timeless yet modern, comforting yet creepy, with each listen it revealed something new to me and also, each time, cemented its place at the top of my list.
|Kathleen Edwards / Asking For Flowers
You’d think that familiarity would be an advantage in these things, but in the case of three of the nominees whose careers I’ve essentially followed since the beginning, this wasn’t the case. In Kathleen Edwards’ case, the fact that Asking For Flowers felt like boilerplate Kathleen Edwards was a definite strike against her. I didn’t think it stood out even from her own catalog, let alone the rest of the short list. In fact, whenever I tried to recall who was on the short list, this would be the last album I remembered. That said, with some of the cases made for it over the Polaris process will encourage me to revisit it and maybe give it another chance.
|Holy Fuck / LP
I would be perfectly happy to put LP on at a party and let it ride, as it’s thoroughly enjoyable as both something to listen to and something to soundtrack other activities. It’s grown on me a lot and given more than a couple months to spend with it, it might have gotten more traction in my mind but considering the fact that I’m a lyrics and themes kind of guy (look back at my top albums of the year for the past however many years – all dense and wordy mofos), Holy Fuck probably never had a real chance with me.
|Plants & Animals / Parc Avenue
I know I’ll take grief for this from lots of people, but this was a record that – even pre-Polaris – began gaining more ill will from me with each listen. I can’t even explain why. The band are obviously tremendous musicians and there’s truly prodigious talent on display, but it feel like an over-long hippie jam that lacks real substance. It just didn’t speak to me at all. Of all the Polaris noms, this was the album I dreaded putting on the most because I knew that I’d like it even less than the last time I made myself listen to it. And I know of at least a half-dozen people who now hate me for this.
|Shad / The Old Prince
It would seem that an artist’s best chance at winning the Polaris is to have me not hear the record. How else to explain how the two short list records that I heard the least (or not at all) before entering the judging phase would end up at or near the top of my list? As I’ve said countless times before by way of disclaimer, I don’t listen to hip-hop. But I don’t dislike it – I enjoy it live and like to think that I can recognize good hip-hop when I hear it. Like the best music of any genre, you shouldn’t need a lot of background for it to reach you. And the first time I listened to The Old Prince, my initial reaction was “I like this” and “this guy is good”. But I admit I needed verification from more hip-hop-savvy acquaintances that this guy, indeed, had the goods and that he wasn’t just the best I’d heard from my sample group of one. This record picked up more and more good will with each listen, and, of course, there was the video.
|Stars / In Our Bedroom After The War
We weren’t supposed to compare any of the nominated records against the rest of the artist’s oeuvre but that’s really difficult to do, especially when your initial emotional response to said album was disappointment because it didn’t measure up to its predecessors. Case in point, Stars – though Bedroom contains a handful of the band’s very best songs ever, the album as a whole felt overlong and too much of a retread of themes and styles already well-covered on Set Yourself On Fire. It didn’t display much in the way of artistic growth and it feels like the Stars recipe is starting to get a little stale.
|Two Hours Traffic / Little Jabs
Little Jabs is a textbook example of superb, Summer-y power pop but that’s a genre that’s traditionally had trouble being taken seriously, rightly or wrongly. It’s easy to do it to a mediocre level, but to do it in an outstanding way – as Two Hours Traffic do – is incredibly hard and definitely worthy of note. The album’s catchy as hell and there’s no other album on the list that I’d rather have playing if I were on a road trip somewhere, but it just felt a bit too slight to stand up against the other nominees and take the prize.
|The Weakerthans / Reunion Tour
My comments on the Stars record also apply here, though the merits of Reunion Tour have grown on me more in the last few weeks. Samson is a devastatingly good poet/songwriter, but his choice of subject matter this time out felt a little too “sponsored by CBC”, too deliberately Canadiana, to win me over. And like the Stars record, it felt very much like it was covering the same ground as its predecessor in Reconstruction Site but less successfully so. And I much preferred the cat song on that one to the cat song on this one.