Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
Les Chemins de Verre
Karkwa wins 2010 Polaris Music Prize; English Canada says, “who?”
Frank YangThere’s been no secret about where, were I a betting man, my money would have gone in guessing who’d walk away with the 2010 Polaris Music Prize last night. From my first ballot through the announcement of the short list right up through yesterday, I’ve been pulling for Shad’s TSOL and amongst my informal polling, that seemed to be the consensus choice. Well if there’s one thing that I should have learned by now is that the Polaris will always surprise you. And surprised would be the best word to describe my reaction when Damian Abraham of Fucked Up – last year’s surprise winner – announced the $20,000 prize and accompanying year in the spotlight would go to Montreal’s Karkwa for their record Les Chemins De Verre.
It’s a record that I listened to a moderate amount in the course of my juror duties, but had only made it as far as my “I should listen to this more when I have the time” list. And since the members of this year’s grand jury obviously spent much more time with the record, it’s apparently an album that merits that further attention. It’s not as though it’s inaccessible, beyond the language thing (it’s all in French if that wasn’t clear) – it’s beautifully melodic, dynamic and expertly performed atmospheric rock that certainly doesn’t require a working knowledge of the language to enjoy. In fact, that aside, it’s probably one of the more conventional yet interesting records on the short list – but I had assumed that being virtually unknown outside of Francophone Canada before their Polaris nomination, they didn’t really stand a chance.
Well, I clearly underestimated both the record and the jury because after hours of deliberations, they came to a decision that should put to rest at least one of the complaints constantly leveled against the Polaris Prize – that it’s inherently biased towards English Canada and any Francophone artists included are there on a token basis. Well Karkwa just took twenty thousands tokens to the bank and the honour of having crafted the best album in Canada in the past year – congratulations to them. Yes, they’re still all white men who play guitars but one complaint at a time, alright?
As for the gala itself, it did a fine job of keeping the hundreds in attendance at the Masonic Temple in Toronto entertained whilst the 11 men and women of the grand jury went about their duties. For the second year, they had all ten nominees on hand to perform and though no one went as all-out with hijinks or antics as they did last year, all of them made splendid arguments for why they belonged on the short list and why after all the debate and discussion over who should and should not win the prize, it’s nice to just sit back and appreciate the depth of musical talent this country has to offer.
One of the big guns of the short list kicked things off, Broken Social Scene something like a dozen members strong opening the show with the rousing instrumental “Meet Me In The Basement”, which functioned as a sort of theme song to the evening. Their set was followed by The Sadies and a demonstration of why, powered by the Good brothers’ absurd guitar-slinging and spiritually bolstered by Dallas sporting Tommy Hunter’s suit borrowed from the CBC, they’re one of the country’s most fearsome live acts.
At this point, thing shifted both geographically (to Acadia), linguistically (regional dialect Chiac) and stylistically (hip-hop) with Radio Radio. I’ve made no secret that they were my least favourite of all of the shortlisters and I’d be dismayed if they actually won, but will freely admit that they delivered a good, fun and energetic performance with the three of them trading off MC duties whilst backed by a couple members of Karkwa. Entertaining? Sure. Best album in the country? No. The performance then swung out west for Dan Mangan, who couldn’t help but deliver one of the most understated performances of the night – his singer-songwriter fare is about intimacy, not grand gestures – not even when bolstered by strings, horns and handclappers. He did, however, stage the closest thing to an audience invasion the night would see when he pulled his mic stand into the audience and climbed onto a table to lead the singalong finale to “Robots”. At first I thought he had invaded another nominee’s table as a challenge, but it turned out to be his own. Which, I suppose, was the only nice thing to do.
It seemed as though Montreal’s The Besnard Lakes were the only act to play just one song but technically, “Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent” is a two-parter – it just happened to be an epic space-rock jam that gave Jace Lasek a chance to show off his guitar chops and guitar face. Karkwa – who would in less than an hour become the talk of the town, if not country – followed with a pair of songs that you didn’t need to understand to appreciate, showcasing their impressive musical chops and probably had more than a few people wondering, “who are these guys and why haven’t I heard of them before this?” – soon to be a moot question.
It was about this time that word began circulating a winner had been selected, just when Owen Pallett – winner of the inaugural Polaris Prize a half-decade ago – was up next. His horn-augmented performance that reaffirmed him as one of Canada’s premiere musicians in the pop music sphere, his two selections from Heartland veritably crackling with creativity and imagination. Shad’s performance also crackled and, featuring a guest spot from Broken Social Scene’s Lisa Lobsinger on “Rose Garden”, certainly looked like a champion up there, closing out with a freestyle that could have been cheesy but was instead wholly inspiring.
Though arguably the most successful act on the short list, Tegan & Sara kept their set intimate with just the two sisters backed up by Pallett, who continued the trend of nominees guesting with other nominees Canada, eh? I’d not paid much attention to Tegan & Sara since their debut arrived with no small amount of hype and didn’t do anything for me, but they really did sound great up there and their banter was as entertaining as advertised. And finally, there was Caribou who, along with his sizable band all dressed in white, closed things out with a well and proper disco party although no one actually got up to dance (there wasn’t a lot of room). Like every act before them, they presented a strong case for why they should be dubbed owners of the best album in Canada, even though it had already been decided by a group who saw none of their performances.
But in the end, it was Karkwa, who were stunned and humbled and gracious as they were declared the winners by last year’s prom queens Fucked Up – an unexpected but worthy choice which should make for some interesting debate and discussion in the coming days and months. I personally had no dog in this race, my part in the process was done with the submission of the second ballot months ago. What I mainly got out of it – besides an evening of entertainment and a late night of photo processing and writing – is the certainty that with the Polaris, the best strategy appears to be as unknown as possible, somehow sneak onto the short list, be hardly rated to win by anyone and then walk away with the cash while the heavily favoured stand around and shrug. I think the only year that a dark horse didn’t take the prize was Caribou, which means that I had the honour of being part of the most predictable grand jury so far… yay us?
Check out photos from the gala below and watchables and listenables from the shortlisted albums after the jump.