Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My unofficial 2011 Polaris Prize ballot

I'm not Canadian, but I play one on teevee. And I sure do love the Canadian indie rock. Everyone knows that. This week will be a fun one for lovers of independent Canadian music because the long list for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize will be announced.

The Polaris Prize, named for the North Star, is an award given annually (since 2006) for the best full-length Canadian album, based "solely on artistic merit, without regard to genre, sales history or label affiliation". For an album to be eligible, it must have been released (digitally or otherwise) between June 1 of the previous year and May 31 of the award year.

The grand prize this year is $30,000 cash. That's a bump from the previous grand prize of $20,000. In addition, the "short list" finalists will each get $2,000 cash.

This year's jury consists of 227 music fans who regularly review Canadian music. They're mostly bloggers and independent music journalists, with a few mainstream music journalists in there for good measure. They each nominate five records. From that, there's a compiled "long list" of 40 finalists. That list will be released on Thursday June 16. The same jury will cull that list down to 10, and that "short list" will be released on Wednesday July 6. There's a big gala on Monday September 19, at which all of the shortlisted bands will perform. At the end of it all, the winner gets a giant check for $30k.

I'll get to what my ballot would look like in a bit, but first, a little more about the jury. Here's the list of jurors this year. You can see that there's a wide range of accreditation, ranging from bloggers to MTV-types, commercial radio stations of varying format, and jurors from every province. By rule, these jurors cannot have any direct relation with a band or label on their ballot, but I've learned that at least one juror has nominated his own band.

I like that the list of jurors isn't kept secret. I also like that they're not prohibited from publishing their ballots to the public. Some of them have done just that.

Reading some of these official ballots and some "unofficial" ballots from other bloggers has been fun. I've been exposed to some stuff that I otherwise wouldn't have known. At least one went from "I've never heard of them" to "that's on my Polaris ballot if I'm a juror" with the blink of an eye.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my five picks:

  • Kathryn Calder -- Are You My Mother?. (released digitally on June 29, 2010 and physically in August). The New Pornographer from Victoria, BC took time off from her two bands Immaculate Machine and the Pornos to work on this record, and she did well with it. I rated it my seventh favourite Canadian record of the calendar year 2010, and in retrospect, I was selling it short. Unlike some of the records on that 2010 retrospective, it took a while for me to get into that record. I said then, and I'll say the same thing now, that I like it more and more each time I listen to it. These songs are really well-crafted, honest songs by a woman who's too young to have already had such a prolific career. These days, I'm partial to the song "If You Only Knew", which could easily pass for one of The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs.
    I think this has a very good chance of making the long list, a slim chance of making the short list, and virtually no chance of winning the grand prize.

  • Rah Rah -- Breaking Hearts (released June 1, 2010) I have to admit that I had never heard of this band until I started to sniff around, looking for mentions of Polaris ballots. A few official and unofficial ballots mentioned them, so I thought I would check it out. More often than not, this sort of endeavor ends up bearing no palatable fruit, but I liked what I found in this case. This is the second record from the Regina, SK group which has at least six and possibly as many as eight members. They switch up their instruments a lot, which seems to be en vogue again, like it was in 1995. Because of this, and because they share the vocals, their songs don't all sound the same. On several tracks, particularly "Arrow" and "Ghosts", they remind me of a young Broken Social Scene. Remember what BSS was like when they still remembered that making records is fun? On "Henry", I'm reminded of Funeral-era Arcade Fire. That's probably just because of the backing vocals. On some other tracks, they remind me of The Rosebuds. On others, particularly "Parkade", they remind me of some cross between Sharon Van Etten and Wye Oak. These are just things that my unsophisticated ears hear. Other listeners might get different things entirely. No matter what, I've discovered that this band has fun. In this video for "Henry", the band members are on stage and they're also featured as patrons of the bar/piñata party.

    It might be the case that this is just a flavor o' the week, but right now I'm really digging it, so it's making the cut.

    It should make the long list with a great chance of making the short list. I don't see it as a serious contender for the grand prize.

  • Speaking of Arcade Fire, the Montréal band and their record, The Suburbs need no synopsis. It's really good, and it was released on August 2, 2010. It's already won the 2011 Juno Award, the 2011 Grammy for best album and a couple of other awards. This might make them "too big" for most jurors to comfortably vote for them; it's generally understood that the Polaris Prize is for the "little guys". Despite winning those big prizes, they're still "little guys". They're still on an independent record label. Although they are a headlining act on a bunch of festival shows, it's not like they're filling soccer stadiums on their own.
    I think some voters will have trepidation about voting for them, but I still think it's a lock for the short list and I think it has a very good chance of winning the grand prize.

  • The Rural Alberta Advantage -- Departing (released on March 1, 2011) This three-piece has been one of my favorite new bands of the past three years, ever since their debut record Hometowns put me on my ass in 2009. Originally from small towns in Alberta, they're presently situated in an artsy neighborhood of Toronto. They've earned comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, primarily because Nils Edenloff sings like Jeff Mangum. The core of the band is drummer Paul Banwatt, who plays busy, heavy, energetic, almost jazz/big band-like beats. I've heard somebody compare him to Gene Krupa, but I think that might be taking it too far. Anyway, it's a great record, and they put on a really good live show.
    This video for the song "Stamp" is a really good example of Banwatt's skill, but I'll also recommend the official video for the same song

    The Rural Alberta Advantage - Stamp from Saddle Creek on Vimeo.

    I'll be surprised if this album doesn't end up on the short list, and I'll only give it a small chance of winning the grand prize.

  • Braids -- Native Speaker (released on January 18,2011). This four-piece from Montréal originated from Calgary, where they were high school buds. There, they were called The Neighbourhood Council and they released an ep called Set Pieces. They achieved great success with that, then moved to T-dot so three of them could go to McGill University. This is a phenomenal record whose best classification might be "synth-dream-pop". When it first came out, I was instantly blown away, and I was quick to compare it to the Stridulum II album by Zola Jesus, which was one of my favorites from 2010. There's a lot of layering and looping and stuff like that, so there's going to be comparisons to Animal Collective. Either way, I like it a lot. Here they are, playing "Lemonade", one of my favorite songs on the seven-song record:

    Braids Live at Sonic Boom Records from NOW Magazine on Vimeo.

    I think this should easily make the short list, and has a realistic chance of winning the grand prize.
I'll give honourable mention to Carriage by Forest City Lovers (released June 22/29, 2010). I love this Toronto band, but it just didn't make the top five. Also, The Five Ghosts by Montréal's Stars (released June 21, 2010). Same thing. I love this album. Both it and Carriage made the cut on an earlier version of my unofficial ballot, but after much shuffling and hair-pulling, I had to leave them out. I won't be surprised to see them both on the long list, but I will be surprised (personal feelings aside) if either ends up on the short list.

If you've got an unofficial (or even an official) Polaris ballot of your own, I'd like to see it. Leave it in the comments or leave a link to your blog.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

In which Bono becomes "the huggable hitchhiking dick" (as told by Dr Seuss)

I know some wickedly hilarious people, and this week they really showed their stuff.  I'm a part of an email music discussion group.  Mostly we write about the stuff that's playing in heavy rotation at our houses and why everyone else should be listening to our favorite records.  It's been really great.  I've learned about dozens of new bands that I would have never known about, but which I've grown to love.  Sometimes we write about other media, but it's mostly brand new music.  This story isn't about new music at all.  And like a lot of my recent posts, it requires a bit of backstory that you'll have to swim through.  Trust me.  The payoff is worth it. 

This email group is comprised of roughly 30 people, only four of whom I know in real life.  I've learned, though, that some of these people are pretty funny.

A few months ago, somebody started a thread titled "Bono is a dick".  That thread was inspired by a video over at the Onion's AV Club page, in which a panel of guys talk about Rockumentaries that make their subjects look like dicks.  Of course, they discuss Phil Joanou's "Rattle and Hum", which documented U2 during their tour in support of the The Joshua Tree album.  Indeed, the whole band come off like jackasses in the movie, and none more so than Bono.  Although our discussion went into other documentaries and rock-star dicks, it focused almost entirely on Bono.  At some point, the founder of our email club chimed in:

I still like the band just fine. But, yes, Bono is a dick. Such a lovable dick, though! I just want to hug him sometimes.

This was the genesis of the zinger : "Go hug a dick!", used whenever someone is being an asshole.  Also, since then, Bono been re-named "the Huggable Dick"

Just a couple of days ago, a strange story came out of Vancouver.   U2 were in Western Canada, and after a show in Winnipeg, they went on to Edmonton.  For some reason, they decided to set up camp in Vancouver.  It doesn't make any sense, but that's how the story goes.  Bono and his "assistant" went out for a walk and it started to rain.  The next part requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief...  Having no other option, Bono decided to hitchhike.  He didn't call The Edge.  He didn't call one of the thousands of tour workers.  He didn't seek shelter.  He decided to hitchhike.  According to the story, he was picked up by Edmonton Oilers star Gilbert Brule, who was driving to a park to take a walk with his dog and his girlfriend.  It was evidently raining too hard for Bono to take a walk, but not hard enough for Brule to cancel his.  Anyway, if you suspend the multiple layers of disbelief and accept the fact that Brule gave Bono a ride, we can move on.  I, myself, think the story is a little fishy.  That's a different story altogether, though.

Warm and dry inside Brule's truck, Bono pretended to know the first thing about hockey, pretended to love the city of Vancouver, and offered Brule and his gal tickets and backstage passes to the show in Edmonton.
We don't have pictures of Brule and Bono together, but there's a Youtube clip of Bono retelling the story to the Edmonton crowd.  He says that he's Brule,  Larry Mullin Jr is Mark Messier, Adam Clayton is Grant Fuhr and The Edge is Wayne Gretzky.  It's a little painful, as Bono very nearly goes into full-on Bono mode, but here's one of many videos of him talking about it on stage:

This made the rounds in my music discussion email group, and before too long, we started to riff on how the incident could be made into three different made-for-basic-cable movies, and then, for some bizarre reason, a porn-on-demand movie.  Some of these were hysterical:

Oxygen network version:
Bono and Gilbert are at first polite, but taciturn.  As the ride wears on, they both begin to open up, and they find deep communion (and a good cry) as they discuss their relationships with their fathers.

Lifetime network version:
Bono and Gilbert are at first polite, but taciturn.  As the ride wears on, they both begin to open up, and they realize that Gilbert is Bono's long-lost son!

Spike network version:
Bono and Gilbert call each other dickheads, but say little else.  As the ride wears on, a team of buxom assassins in tight t-shirts driving various souped-up cars roll onto the highway behind them, thus beginning a frenetically-edited chase and gun battle, interrupted by the assassins stopping to wash their cars in their tight t-shirts.  As the chase wears on, both Gilbert and Bono begin to open up, and they call each other dickheads, but with a catch in their throat.  They've achieved a kind of communion.

Hung Studs On-demand version:
Bono and Gilbert are at first polite, but their hands wander.  As the ride wears on, hot bareback positions of every conceivable, and a few inconceivable, nature are engaged.  They've achieved a kind of fluid-drenched communion.

Before too long, we started to invent Hollywood versions of the story.  As directed by David Lynch:

Brule and his girlfriend pick up Bono and his assistant on the side of the road.  They drive for hours talking about the smell of rain, oddities of local cuisine and Vishnu.  Much to their shock (and ours) when Brule and his girlfriend pull up to Bono’s hotel and turn around to say goodbye to their passengers they discover they were driving around talking to a potted geranium and shop vac the whole time.
Or were they?

I wrote a pretty long synopsis of how the story would be told by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Too long for this post (but I'll post it if anyone is dying to read it).  I thought it was pretty great.  Until Pat Angello (my one-time collaborator on a panel of hockey bloggers during the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs ) brought the thunder with a Dr Seuss version.  This is well worth the price of admission, so grab your spouse and kids, gather around the warm glow of your computer screen and enjoy:

"It's a beautiful day!" The great Bono exclaimed.
"On a stroll I will go before it does rain."

So along with his tidy assistant in tow
The huggable dick donned his shades and said, "GO!"

They walked and they walked, for minutes that day,
Until they were far from the ol' Horseshoe Bay.

The clouds turned gray, the thunder then CrAcKeD!
Bono's lip quivered, "we can't make it back!

"The rain will come soon," he cried in a tizzy.
"And moisture will make my sweet locks go all frizzy!"

The assistant so wanted to calm the dick down
But hopeless and stranded, he only could frown.

Then off in the distance, a set of lights - they did come.
The great Bono thought fast, and he stuck out his thumb!

As the car halted, the dick, he did pray.
Then a voice from the car shouted, "need a lift, eh?"

The assistant and Bono jumped in the back seat
And were welcomed by a furry young pooch at their feet.

The driver asked, "Where ya headed to, guys?"
Then peered in the mirror deep in Bono's eyes.

"My stars, you are Bono - the huggable dick!
I'll take you wherever! Wherever, and quick!"

Bono said, "Thank you for saving my life.
And my hair, my hair thanks you. Thank you and your wife*!

"It's back to Horseshoe Bay we must go.
For tonight, I will perform a most glorious show!

"Tonight. Tonight. Will you come see me play?
You will, I say, you WILL see me play! TODAY!"

The driver said, "Sure, we can come without pup.
For I no longer chase the great Lord Stanley's Cup."

"My God," shouted Bono. "Pro hockey you play?"
"Why, yes. For the Oilers. I'm Gilbert Brule."

Both men were starstruck, as the bromance did brew.
Then Bono exclaimed, "I know what I'll do!

"I'll get you back stage. Back stage at my show.
There you can hang with me and my bro's.

"We'll talk about music and hockey and life.
And rain forests, slaughtered seals, whales cut open by knife.

"The starving Cambodians with their cute little pot bellies.
Then defiantly gorge on peanut butter and jellies!"

Brule was excited to go to the show.
"You bet we can go. We will go, dontchaknow."

The huggable dick was very pleased they accepted.
He doesn't do well whenever rejected.

Later that night, Bono interrupted the show.
To tell the great story, of his savior and bro.

Up on the stage, with a teary eyed swallow.
The band then broke into their hit, "I Will Follow."

The whole stadium danced and sang all the day.
As the huggable dick fought off thoughts that he's gay.

Feel free to read this to your kids tonight.

*"girlfriend" didn't rhyme or flow.

I wish I could take credit for that, but I can't. I only hope that people outside of that email circle enjoy the joke as much as I do.