Breaking down the Polaris hopefuls
Grimes – Visions
Visions is the new record from 24 year-old Claire Boucher (a.k.a Grimes), a native of Vancouver who went to school at McGill in Montreal, QC. This is Boucher’s third album, and certainly her most critically acclaimed. Grimes recorded the Visions album using Apple’s GarageBand. This serves as a testament to the power of today’s technology: that an album recorded using a piece of free software and not a flashy, multi-million dollar studio, can be nominated for a prestigious prize such as the Polaris.
Her playful, chanty, hard to decipher falsetto makes a perfect companion to the electronic synth-pop basslines. The blend creates a very addictive atmosphere that makes it hard to stay still. Songs like “Oblivion” and “Nightmusic” change and shift in fascinating ways that show how flexible Grimes’ sound is.
The tracks are layered heavily. Boucher’s voice is sampled, looped and played on top of other samples in many new and innovative ways. Most of the songs have a very similar style, so one may find the tracks to bleed together and are hard to differentiate, especially if you aren’t following along with the tracklist. As an album, there doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching theme other than perhaps “it is party time, dance around”.
YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN – YT//ST
It’s is extremely difficult to describe Yamantaka//Sonic Titan — if their name doesn’t express that strangeness already. And it’s difficult to determine if that’s a good thing or a bad one. Definitely the most experimental album on the short-list this year, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan are bold, detailed and just, well, different. If you took MGMT and bred it with Animal Collective and Fang Island while raising it in Japan you kind of get this band — kind of.
Tracks such as “Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees”, arguably the strongest, are complex and multi-layered, that a multiple listens are sometimes required. The band also intend their shows to be an arts collective, with the live show becoming more of an opera or theatre performance. At times, it’s like that visual element needed to really enjoy the album, for it to be some sort of “experience” instead of just a song. These types of concept albums are sometimes good, but the listener needs to really be invested into the music to really enjoy it. It’s definitely not meant for casual listening.
Feist – Metals
Leslie Feist, a member of the recessed Canadian indie rock collective Broken Social Scene and a Nova Scotia native released her latest album, Metals in October of 2011. Feist’s hit single “1, 2, 3, 4” was famously featured in an Apple iPod nano commercial in 2007. Possibly raw from the media attention, and the cycle of touring behind The Reminder, Feist was “emotionally deaf”, and held no interest in playing music for two years. When she got back to the studio and released Metals, the result was a decidedly different sound and attitude.
The instrumentation on Metals differs from The Reminder in that there is a more complete string and brass section, creating a fuller, more orchestral sound. These instruments and percussion are played in a very commanding and dark manner, especially on songs like “Graveyard” and “Undiscovered First.” Feist’s guitar has also been fixed with more distortion and reverb at times, which adds a new dimension to her sound, unseen on The Reminder.
Of course, Feist’s voice is exceptional, and stays strong throughout the album. Tracks like “The Bad in Each Other” and “Anti-Pioneer “demonstrate just how powerful Feist’s voice can sound. Her impressive range and adjustable style present the many emotions found on this album with extreme purity and honesty.
Drake – Take Care
Clocking in at well over an hour, Drake’s Take Care is a clear improvement over 2010’s Thank Me Now. It is a cohesive body of work that demands attention from fans of rap and hip-hop, and general fans of masterful artists equally. Take Care explores themes such as a life in the spotlight, overnight success and friendship. With well over 75 names on the credits list, Drake clearly made Take Care a team effort. Feature spots supercede age and genre (eg. Chantel Kreviazuk, Jamie xx). Drake also finds plenty of time on the album for his crew from Young Money Entertainment and Cash Money Records, which serves as great promotion for their artists.
Since it’s release in November 2011, the album has become a cultural phenomenon not only in Drake’s beloved Toronto, but also worldwide. Maxims such as YOLO (You Only Live Once) and HYFR (Hell Ya, Fu*king Right) have become commonplace in the vocabulary of today’s young adults.
Musically speaking, Take Care demonstrates the same extreme versatility in Drake’s style as he displayed on Thank Me Now. Styles range from straight, strong hip-hop beats (“Headlines,” “We’ll Be Fine,” “Lord Knows”) to more vocally-focused tracks (“The Real Her,” “Doing it Wrong”). This blend of styles creates many monumental moments on the record that will keep you coming back for more.
Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City
The 26 year-old Rollie Pemberton has been very busy recently. Edmonton’s poet laureate, and a member of the National Parks Project, it took longer than expected for him to release his third album, Hope in Dirt City. Some may recognize Cadence Weapon from the Cineplex Backstage Pass pre-show interview which provided great exposure for the album. Pemberton describes “Dirt City” (his nickname for Edmonton), as a “self-deprecating rally cry”.
Pemberton gives a very honest effort to make his music sound like early rap or “proto-rap”. Live instrumentation on the album makes the overall product sound more organic, and less like similar rap albums in today’s day and age. Cadence Weapon’s vocals are the source of many of this albums flaws, but they are not without their merits. His verses sound monotonous and lack emotion. There are moments, however, that the rap style is shed and powerful, loud rock-style vocals come through like on “Conditioning” and “Jukebox”.
There is plenty to be excited for in the future from Cadence Weapon. The fusion between rock and rap styles is very interesting, as is his interest in sounding like older rap music and Stevie Wonder. Also, his versatile voice, once polished can become one of the more interesting and unique voices in the genre.
Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
The Montreal duo Handsome Furs consist of Dan Boeckner (of the now on-hiatus Wolf Parade) and his wife Alexei Perry. The band has now broken up, which makes Sound Kapital their final record as a band.
The Handsome Furs have changed their sound a considerable amount since their last album, giving the Perry’s keyboards control over Dan’s guitars. The industrial, grinding sound of the keyboards drive a lot of the rhythm. Often, there are no drums to be heard, and when they are, it is for the most part a looping drum beat. Boeckner’s guitars add texture and add variation to the keyboard’s tones.
Even for a duo, some of the songs seem thin. There are not enough voices or variation in tracks like “When I Get Back” or “What About Us.”
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Easily one of the most impressive albums on the short-list, Celebration Rock is energetic, lively and powerful. The raw noises of the guitar and the chanting vocals come together beautifully, making the listener move to the tunes involuntarily.
The BC natives have come a long way from their previous effort Post-Nothing. While their sound remains, the great aspect about Celebration Rock is that it’s simple enough for everyone to enjoy — remaining genuine and not super pretentious or overwhelming. Tracks such as “Fire’s Highway”, “The House That Heaven Built” and “Continuous Thunder” easily demonstrate the energy that the Japandroids have. It wouldn’t be a suprise if they win the top prize.
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
The Justin Vernon produced Voyageur is another one of the many female singers nominated for the Polaris this year, but unfortunately it fails to be as impressive as her counterparts. This is not to say the album is bad; the catchy chorus of the album’s opening song “Empty Threat” will resonate in your head all day.
One track that really stands out is “Change the Sheets” that clearly demonstrates that Edwards has versatility. In addition, Voyageur ends on a really strong note with “For the record”. While a very enjoyable album, the at-times conventional and “poppy” sounds of her songs don’t leave a big enough impression compared to the other artists on the short-list this year.
Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
The first LP by Cold Specks, who is also known under the pseudonym of Al Spx, is a brilliant feat. With her soothing, yet haunting vocals, and the album’s focus on simple and rhythmic guitar work, Cold Specks is easily one of the best albums in Canadian music this year. Her voice is so good that it by itself can carry the album.
With tracks such as “The City Lights Dim”, “Holland”, “Blank Maps”, Cold Specks exuberates considerable talent. The only point where the album falls somewhat short is that many of the guitar riffs sound similar, almost to the point where some of the songs don’t sound distinguishable until she starts singing. However, a minor issue that you might not even notice because you’ll undeniably be memorized by her voice.
Fucked Up! – David Comes to Life
David Comes to Life, from the 2009 Polaris winners, Fucked Up, is a well-thought out and their most mature album to date. To top The Chemistry of the Common Life could of seemed impossible for Fucked Up, but they came close in doing so. Incredibly close.
The album takes commitment and multiple listens to understand what Fucked Up are getting at. Clocking in at over 77 minutes, David Comes to Life — a four-act rock opera — is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious for its own good. By keeping with the same level of raw intensity heard their previous effort, Fucked Up’s latest album is definitely worth a listen — if you have the time.