Frank YangA day later than I would have liked – but some things like after parties, gin and tonics, and going to bed way too late can’t be helped – here’s my official writeup of Monday night’s Polaris Music Prize gala, in convenient short and long versions.
The short: Feist won the $30,000 prize for Metals. This pleased some people, displeased others. Eventually, everyone got on with their lives. Some got drunk first. Not naming names.
The long: Despite telling anyone who asked – or who’d listen – that I could see perfectly reasonable scenarios wherein six or seven of this year’s shortlist could walk off with the prize, I was more than a little surprised that in the end, it was Feist. This despite the fact that I become more convinced as time goes by that history will hold her as one of the most creative Canadian artists of this decade. I just thought that for all its artfulness, subtle merits, and general grower-ness, it hadn’t seemed to generate the sort of passion amongst listeners that would allow it to come out on top of such a strong pack of albums through what was surely a rough-and-tumble critical throw-down. Shows what I know.
That announcement came at the end of another largely entertaining Polaris gala, dedicated this year to the memory of Canadian music icon Sam ‘The Record Man’ Sniderman who’d passed away the day before.. Now that it’s in its seventh year, folks pretty much know what to expect: CBC’s Grant Lawrence hosting – this year with MuchMusic’s Lauren Toyota as co-host – cracking a few jokes but mainly passing things off to the journalists/jurors who would introduce each of the nominees and, if they were present, said artist would make an appearance or perform. This year’s live slate included seven of the ten shortlisters, with Japandroids bowing out on account of touring in Europe, Handsome Furs not performing on account of no longer existing, and Drake not showing up on account of being Drake.
The perennial question of, “who plays when?” had an extra angle this year in, “who plays after Fucked Up?” And since it would be unfair to make any one act follow their maniacal live show, the organizers probably did the smart thing in making everyone follow them while also kicking the show off with a bang. With the band laying down David Comes To Life, frontman Damian Abraham wandered onstage in a sweatshirt and backpack, looking like he just ducked out of class at Ryerson to attend to this, and got down to it. Having seen Fucked Up many times, this performance seemed a little more perfunctory than usual – not surprising given the setting, and unlike in 2009, they were here as former champions, not outsiders with something to prove. Still, they sounded good, Abraham still stripped down to his shorts and it was nice hearing Jennifer Castle on hand to reprise her vocals on “The Other Shoe”.
Handsome Furs had their moment next, with Alexei Perry offering an emotional and heartfelt thank you to all – Polaris and public – for their support over the band’s career. CBC has the full text of her acceptance speech, which no matter what came next would be the most moving part of the evening.
While some artists in the past have used the Polaris gala as an opportunity to do something different or fancy, Cold Specks opted to eschew performance frills and played to her strengths, letting her huge, emotive voice carry the songs from I Predict A Graceful Expulsion to the roof of the concert hall while her band played it spare and tasteful. Sticking with the “let the music do the talking” modus, Al Spx offered few words after performance, offering just, “cool” and “thanks”.
Cadence Weapon had the stage next, and playing with just his DJ as he always did, there was a lot of stage for him to work with. Taking advantage of the spotlight and working with efficiency, he got through three songs in his allotted time, rapping, dancing, and as on the nominated Hope In Dirt City, even trying a little actual singing. The beats were turned up loud but still sounded pretty tinny, though that’s less a flaw than a deliberate fidelity choice as on the record. One would hope.
Conversely, Kathleen Edwards only offered up one song, but decked it out with youth choir in addition to her full band. But rather than flirt with excess, “Soft Place To Land” from Voyageur was as vulnerable and bare a performance as the evening would offer. Edwards’ detractors – myself sometimes amongst them – often take issue with the traditionalness of her songwriting, but moments like this were a potent reminder that sometimes words, a voice, and a guitar are all you need. And a youth choir, if you’ve got access to one. Her acceptance speech was also solid and worth transcribing, or at least CBC Music thought so.
It’s possible that Grimes was conscious of how visually static her performance might seem, given that she wouldn’t have the time to deck the stage out in the way she would for her usual shows, so she did the only logical thing to spice it up: she hired a male pole dancer. And so as she went to work assembling the selections from the heavily-favoured Visions live, layering keyboards, triggering samples, and providing vocals, dancer Gary – whom she said she’d only met 10 minutes earlier – wowed the crowd with his moves up and down the stripper pole. It was all very tasteful and artistic, but not entirely PG – after messing up at one point an effected and very amplified, “fuck” rang out. Yup.
While acknowledging that Yamantaka//Sonic Titan might have a tough time recreating the dense and dynamic visual atmosphere of their typical live shows, I had still hoped that they’d be as much of a wild card on the evening’s performances as they were on the shortlist itself. That wasn’t to be, as they played without full costumes or stage props – the kabuki make-up was there, though – and chose the most prog and pop ends of YT//ST – “Reverse Crystal” and “Hoshi Neko” – to introduce themselves. It wasn’t as out there as some might have hoped for, but compared to Cold Specks, it still may as well have been from the furthest reaches of outer space.
Finally, there was Feist. She’d already begun slowly disassembling her Metals touring band when I saw her at FME earlier this month, so it wasn’t surprising that she had assembled a new band for the occasion. And while I didn’t recognize them at first, they were actually all familiar faces – Dan and Daniela from Snowblink on one side of her, AroarA (aka Andrew Whiteman from Broken Social Scene and Ariel Engle) on the other, forming a pretty formidable guitarmy with the added firepower of four-part harmonies. And this goes to what I’d said earlier about her creativity. No one would have said boo if Feist had just performed a couple songs from Metals solo – Feist solo is far from a simple, strummy affair – she instead went out and enlisted a new batch of players and rearranged the songs yet again for maybe a one-off performance. And while the other Metals shows were hardly polite, polished affairs, this was a raw, forceful performance that had the record had this kind of energy, even fewer people would be taking issue with its Polaris win.
And the win. Feist may genuinely not have expected to win – she’d later say she, like so many others, expected Grimes to take it – she reacted pretty quickly to the announcement of her name by Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire, repping last year’s winners, and immediately ducked under her table.
Recovering gracefully, she accepted the giant novelty cheque and opened her acceptance speech with the pullquote-ready soundbite, “This was my worst fear”. It’s unclear if she meant public speaking – you’d think she’d be used to having an audience by now – or actually winning the Polaris. The latter would be understandable for as much as Feist is generally universally respected in Canadian music, she’s committed the cardinal-to-some sin of being successful and as soon as her name was announced, you know the “she doesn’t need the money” comments began to swirl. Which, of course, is absolutely no one’s business but hers, but in the post-gala press conference she mentioned that at least some of the winnings would go to support the fight against the Melanchthon mega-quarry north of Toronto. See, there’s an upside when someone who doesn’t necessarily need to pay off van repair bills and bar tabs comes into the prize money.
In any case, the Polaris win is a very nice punctuation point on Feist’s year of Metals, and I’ve no doubt she’ll wear the title of reigning Polaris champ well. And if you don’t like it, just wait twelve months – there’ll be a new musical injustice for you to rage about.
Canada.com, Exclaim, Torontoist, Rolling Stone, Spinner, and The Globe & Mail were all on hand to cover the proceedings, and The Grid has documented the evening in animated .gif form.
Photos from the evening are below, and if you needed a refresher as to the what of the shortlist, I’ve got that too.
Photos: The Polaris Music Prize 2012 Gala @ The Masonic Temple – September 24, 2012
Cadence Weapon / Hope In Dirt City (Upper Class Recordings)
MP3: Cadence Weapon – “Conditioning
Cold Specks / I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (Arts & Crafts)
Video: Cold Specks – “Blank Maps”
Drake / Take Care (Universal Republic)
Video: Drake – “Marvin’s Room”
Kathleen Edwards / Voyageur (Maple Music)
MP3: Kathleen Edwards – “Change The Sheets”
Feist / Metals (Arts & Crafts)
Video: Feist – “The Bad In Each Other”
Fucked Up / David Comes To Life (Matador)
MP3: Fucked Up – “The Other Shoe”
Grimes / Visions (Artbus)
MP3: Grimes – “Oblivion”
Handsome Furs / Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)
MP3: Handsome Furs – “Repatriated”
Japandroids / Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
MP3: Japandroids – “Younger Us”
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan / YT//ST (Psychic Handshake)
Video: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – “Hoshi Neko”
BlogTO grabbed a pre-gala interview with Fucked Up.
DIY has a chat with Grimes.
Spinner talked to Yamantaka//Sonic Titan about the whirlwind of acclaim that brought them from obscurity to the Polaris shortlist, and Pitchfork points to a stream of the band covering David Bowie as a bonus track attached to a new compilation from Paper Bag Records. As part of their 10th anniversary celebrations (which kick off Thursday night at The Great Hall for three evenings and at which new signees Yamantaka//Sonic Titan play Friday), they’ve assembled a tribute album to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars – itself turning 40 this year – and it’s available for free download. And while this comp would be noteworthy fun simply for existing, it’s actually really good. Like REALLY good. Listen to it while you read this piece at The National Post about the decade of Paper Bag.
Stream: Yamantaka//Sonic Titan – “John, I’m Only Dancing”
Crystal Castles have released a new video from their still-untitled third album, due out sometime in November. And speaking of November, their November
3 4 show at The Kool Haus is now happening on November 4 3; all tickets are still valid for the new date. And I’ve probably not helped the confusion at all. Sorries. Update 2: Pitchfork reports the album will be called (III) and will be out November 5.
Video: Crystal Castles – “Plague”
Spin has premiered a new video from Caribou extra-electronic side-project Daphni whose debut album Jialong arrives October 16.
Video: Daphni – “Pairs”
Rolling Stone has premiered the first video from Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s new album Psychedelic Pill, and no – they’re still clearly not allotting much budget to their videos in Neil’s camp. We won’t be seeing anything of the calibre of “Wonderin’” anytime soon. The album is out October 30 and they’re at the Air Canada Centre on 19.
Video: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Walk Like A Giant”