Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
The Chemistry Of Common Life
Fucked Up win 2009 Polaris Music Prize to delight of critics and dismay of censors
Frank YangThroughout this year’s process for the Polaris Music Prize, I’ve been saying that I’m thankful that I was on the Grand Jury last year – when there were no shortage of albums on the short list that I could get behind and the one I felt most deserving, Caribou’s Andorra, won – rather than this year, where the nominees by and large leave me feeling cold. That’s not saying that they’re not good or great albums worthy of the prize, just that I don’t think that I could come up with a real heartfelt advocacy for any of them. So while I’m glad I wasn’t sequestered in the jury room, I do sort of wish I had been a fly on the wall to see just how they decided to award this year’s prize to Fucked Up’s The Chemistry Of Common Life.
Make no mistake – I am thrilled that they won. Not necessarily because I’m a fan – hardcore is not my thing – but because if I were to have a horse in this race, it’d either have been them or K’Naan for no other reason than they would be the most surprising and interesting winners (though also, somehow, the least controversial). Both represent genres that most would have thought would be too niche to actually win the big prize, too outlier to win over a jury (theoretically) representing a broad cross-section of a diverse country. And yet here we are – a band with a name that can’t be printed or pronounced in most media outlets and a record that has more screaming than singing – has been declared the best this country has to offer. Fun-fucking-tastic.
So while Fucked Up improbably took the competition portion of the evening, the almost three hours of celebration leading up to it belonged to pretty much everyone. For the first time in the four-year history of the gala, all ten nominees were slated to perform – which made the scheduled allotment of two hours pretty absurd. Things were definitely going to go to overtime. Things started off with Metric – at least the James and Emily half of the band – performing acoustic renditions of “Help, I’m Alive” and “Gimme Sympathy”, trading the slick synth-powered album arrangements for something simpler and prettier, a side of the band not often seen. Great Lake Swimmers and Malajube followed up with solid but fairly typical two-song sets that were enjoyable and certainly reaffirmed that they belonged on the short list, but were not revelatory – especially not after being followed by Patrick Watson. The 2007 Polaris winner is a bit of a punching bag in some quarters precisely because he won the 2007 prize, but stunts like the one he pulled on this evening – leading his band into the hall like a marching band while decked out in a harness of megaphones and lights, all weird and wonderful – can’t help but generate good will. You’re winning me over, Watson, though it’s got little to do with your music.
If there was a prize to be awarded by the audience based on the performances, though, the Polaris would have gone to K’Naan. The man had an irresistible charisma onstage and his selections from Troubadour so powerful and anthemic, you wanted to give him the award – hell, every award – right then and there. Joel Plaskett followed up by taking things down a few notches, his first selection a downbeat and mellow piece performed with his father and then inviting Three collaborators Ana Egge and Rose Cousins out for a more upbeat “Deny Deny Deny”, and in the process reaffirming the fact that it’s impossible to dislike Joel Plaskett. It’s also impossible to keep a straight face whenever Chad Van Gaalen gets near a microphone. Though his set showcasing the noisy and delicate sides of Soft Airplane – which are often the same side – was fine, it was the introduction from Radio Free Canuckistan’s Michael Barclay and Van Gaalen’s own demented and rambling thank-you speech – both paying tribute to Leonard Cohen in the process – that were the real highlights of his moment in the spotlight. If you’re inclined to think that someone who makes the sort of animations that he does isn’t quite right in the head… you’re probably right.
Windsor’s Elliott Brood ratcheted up the audience participation quotient, handing out metal baking trays and wooden spoons and encouraging the house to clatter along, making for a righteous racket and turning the gala into a hoe-down. As the band gave shout-outs to the other nine nominees, it seemed clear they weren’t here to win – just to have a good time. Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! were pretty much an unknown quantity to me, but did their part to reaffirm as a land that likes big bands. They numbered 14, and I’m not sure if they played one song or two, but the first half was a down, piano-led dirge that thankfully blossomed into a grander, orchestral sort of thing. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, but my attention was starting to wander. Hey Rosetta made little impression.
And then Fucked Up. The fact that they were scheduled to play last had less to do with their impending coronation – no one knew about that – but for the fact that they would be an impossible act to follow. Mayhem is to be expected at their shows and mayhem is what they brought. With inaugural Polaris winner Final Fantasy and Lullabye Arkestra along for the ride, they turned the heretofore genteel gala into something, well, fucked up. Frontman Damian Abraham wasted no time in stripping down to his underwear while performing and even gave himself a wedgie. They played just one song – I believe Chemistry lead track “Son The Father” – but that was all they needed to basically blow everyone away. Though I’d heard tale of their live energy, I’d never seen it before and wow. That’s all.
It was ironic that that this performance and this achievement would come at the Masonic Temple, a room they’d been been previously banned from by MTV.ca for causing a couple thousand dollars of damage. I think they can afford to pay that off now. During their acceptance speech, Abraham mentioned that the band had been frisked by security every time they came into the building for the gala. If they get searched on the way out, they’d better have an explanation for why Abraham’s got that giant cheque shoved into his pants (assuming he’s wearing pants). Because I don’t really have an explanation for how they won, just a hearty congratulations that they did.
Here’s some photos from the night and after the jump, a recap of all the short list nominees, with attendant A/V materials.