In review: The Polaris Music Prize shortlist

It’s that time of the year. In less
than two weeks, the winner of the
Polaris Music Prize for excellence
in Canadian music will be announced
at Toronto’s Masonic Temple
on September 21. The award, which
was established in 2006, has seen
winners Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson
and Caribou claim the $20,000 grand
prize. To help guide you through the 10
nominated albums, here’s a critical review
of each musical offering.

Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplanes

3.5/4

Soft Airplanes is a truly standout album
on the Polaris shortlist. Combining
strange, reverberating vocals with a
lush backdrop of lulling acoustic guitar
and instruments ranging from
synth to trumpet, Chad VanGaalen
has managed to create an album
that is soulful, sweet and undeniably
bizarre.

On the first track, VanGaalen
shows his diverse vocal talent with the
song “Bones of Man”, using a rougher
sound to complement the cool, mellow
guitar and retro sound.

Throughout the album, the Albertan
singer continues to show his
versatility, producing “TMNT Mask”,
a catchy synth-centred song reminiscent
of 80s’ techno; following it with
“Molten Light”, a disturbing acoustic
tune like a lush version of Devendra
Banhart.

While the album ends on a strange
note – with “Frozen Energon”, a song
that is quite frankly creepy – Soft Airplanes
produces many memorable
songs, with its eclectic instrumental
palette and VanGaalen’s ringing
vocals.

Listen to: “Bones of Man”, “TMNT
Mask”, “Rabid Bits of Time”

Elliot Brood – Mountain Meadows

2.5/4

Alternative country band Elliot Brood,
with Bryan Adams reminiscent vocals
and seamless combination of banjo
and guitar, have given their second
full-length album all the right sound
but not enough power.

Listening to the album, the word
“nice” comes to mind for almost every
song, with only few songs managing
to be memorable.

“Write it all down for You” and
“Without Again” give the album a
needed thrust of upbeat energy and
movement. Songs like “31 Years” and
“Notes” are like country lullabies accompanied
by vocalist Mark Sasso’s
soothing, sombre voice.

Overall, the album drags on too
long with unnecessary tracks like “The
Spring Floods” and “Chuckwagon”,
two primarily instrumental tracks full
of stomping and clanging that interrupt
the flow of the album.

“The Body” – which has the potential
to be the best song on the album
– transforms halfway through into
a female vocalist humming to what
sounds like cars driving through a
tunnel.

While the band’s back-road, rolling
sound has the potential to make
a great album, Mountain Meadows is
a convoluted mess with great songs
somewhere in the middle.

Listen to: “Without Again”, “Notes”,
“31 years”

Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life

1.5/4

Fucked Up’s second full-length album
The Chemistry of Common Life packs
in quite a punch. But while its rough
growling vocals and layered ringing
guitar-work have all the ingredients to
make it a standout post-hardcore album,
it falls short.

Often, the overbearing vocals clash
with the harmonic, clanging guitars,
overwhelming them completely and
creating an imbalance that is unpleasant
to listen to.

While spacey songs reminiscent
of Red Sparowes like “Golden Seal”
and “Looking for God” give the album
a well needed mellow-down,
the rest of the album is peppered with
mish-mash tracks that seem to drown
themselves in noise like “Magic Word”
and “Twice Born”.

Songs like “Royal Swan” and “Black
Albino Bones” do offer nice melodic
vocal lines mixed in with the overbearing
harsh vocals – but not enough
to redeem the rest of the album.

Listen to: “Royal Swan”, “Looking for
God”, “Days of Last”

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels

2/4

Lost Channels, Great Lake Swimmers’
fourth full-length album, is a quintessential
Canadian folk album, albeit
lacking the quality vocals and variety
to make it a good one.

When listening to Great Lake
Swimmers’ latest musical offering,
one phrase came to mind – do
not listen to while operating heavy
machinery.

In particular, songs like “Concrete
Heart” and “Stealing Tomorrow” leave
one wondering where three minutes
of his or her life went, with no memorable
quality or excitement to help get
through their duration.

While gentle, stumbling folk tunes
can be enjoyable, Great Lake Swimmers
takes this to a new level, coupling
catatonic too-soft vocals with
repetitive guitar and country twang.
“Pulling on a Line”, “Still” and “River’s
Edge” offer relief from the mundane
nature of Lost Channels, providing the
kind of folk song one could remember
and sing along to.

But overall, the album muffles itself
with its own soft acoustic guitar
and dull vocals, leaving it perfectly
forgettable.

Listen to: “Pulling on a Line”, “Still”,
“River’s Edge”

Hey Rosetta! – Into Your Lungs

3.5/4

Into Your Lungs is an album full of surprises.
Each song transforms and
grows with crescendos, decrescendos
and drastic tempo changes, stunning
you with the end result.

While each song is over four minutes
long, Hey Rosetta! utilizes the
album’s duration wisely with impressive
instrumental arrangements and
powerful vocals that shrink and grow
to fill the time.

“Tired Eyes”, for instance, one of
the best songs on the album, begins
with faded piano chords accompanied
by emotional vocals, which reach their
pinnacle when vocalist Tim Baker delivers
a truly touching and strong display
of his seasoned pipes.

A funky baseline and sunny guitars
then creep in and the song gains energy
with ringing violin. Songs like “I’ve
Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time”
also show the lyrical talent of Hey
Rosetta!, with lyrics that are nothing
short of absolutely charming.

While not every song packs the
same poignant power of “We Made
a Pact” or “Black Heart”, the album is
solid from start to finish, making it
a strong second album for the Newfoundland-
based band.

Listen to: “I’ve Been Asleep for a Long,
Long Time”, “We Made a Pact”, “Black
Heart”

Joel Plaskett – Three

1.5/4

If you have better things to do, I suggest
not listening to Joel Plaskett’s
new album Three. Jamming in over 100
minutes of music into three albums,
Plaskett has managed to create an
epic release that quite frankly was not
necessary.

While many songs stand out as
good tracks, most on the three discs
fall into the realm of repetitive country/
folk music.

Disc one is evidently the strongest
of the three, with songs like Plaskett’s
catchy single “Through & Through
& Through” and the winding, deep
sound of “Drifters Raus”.

Mellowing out completely, disc two
starts off with “Safe in Your Arms”,
a relaxed, soft song with gentle duet
vocals. The second disc continues
on that theme, using light East coast
sounds in “Sailor Eyes” and acoustic
country guitar in songs like “Down,
Down, Down.”

Resolving the difference between
disc one and two is disc three, acting
as a middle ground between the two,
incorporating the catchy, percussion
heavy track “Rewind, Rewind,
Rewind” and softer songs like “Lazy
Bones”.

Finishing off the album is aptly
named “On & On & On”, summarizing
the release’s inherent problem.

While nobody’s denying Plaskett
has enough vocal dexterity, song-writing
talent and versatile guitar skills to
carry a superb album, he does not do it
with Three.

Listen to: “Through & Through &
Through”, “Sailor Eyes”, “Precious,
Precious, Precious”

K’naan – Troubadour

4/4

Choosing just one thing about this album
that stands out above the rest is
impossible; K’naan has managed to
create a musical offering that is enjoyable
from start to finish.

Combining rap, pop and even
rock, K’naan uses his poetic talent to
tell us stories about life in his native
Somalia, painting pictures that are
unforgettable.

“And when I try to sleep I see coffins
closing,” he raps in the haunting
song “Somalia,” letting us peer into
the experiences of those living in wartorn
African countries – in perfect
musical style.

In fact, the album doesn’t miss
a beat, although the second half after
the sweet, inspiring track “Wavin’
Flag” is definitely stronger.

The album ranges from catchy and
funky tunes like “Bang Bang” and
“ABCs” to those that will just etch
themselves into your mind like “Take
a Minute.”

Troubadour, with its storytelling
style and ability to make hip-hop approachable
to even the most weary listener,
makes you want to listen to the
album again and again.

Listen to: “Take a Minute”, “Dreamer”,
“Wavin’ Flag”

Malajube – Labyrinthes

2/4

With the release of Malajube’s engaging
album Trompe-l’oeil in 2006 (which
was shortlisted for Polaris as well),
expectations were high for the band’s
newest offering Labyrinthes.

But while Malajube’s layered French
vocals are as beautifully lulling as ever,
still managing to create a charming album,
Labyrinthes ultimately dies away
into the forgettable.

While Trompe-l’oeil had standout hits
like high-energy “Fille a plumes” and
soft “Casse-cou”, Labyrinthes is missing
any such tracks.

The eclectic album features a variety
of enjoyable songs ranging from
the likeable elevator music of “Casablanca”
to the cool evil-sounding tune
“Cristobald” and the diverse range of
sounds found in “333” to the lulling,
smooth up-and-down scales of
“Hérésie”.

Ultimately, Labyrinthes has no “je
ne sais quoi” to make it memorable
beyond the French rockers’ unique
sound.

Listen to: “Porté disparu”, “333”,
“Hérésie”

Metric – Fantasies

3/4

Metric’s fourth full-length album Fantasies
shows a different side of the alternative
musicians –lighter and more
mature.

A huge departure from previous
songs like “Monster Hospital” and
“Dead Disco”, which packed more
punch, energy and groove, Fantasies is
a mellowed-out, romantic version of
Metric that is a welcome change.

While the album holds some catchy
tunes like “Help, I’m Alive” and
“Gimme Sympathy”, Fantasies also offers
softer, more subdued songs like
“Twilight Galaxy” and “Blindness”
that highlight Emily Haines’ infectious
voice with a more synth-centred
sound and starry-eyed lyrics.

While die-hard Metric fans might
find themselves disappointed with
Fantasies – comparing it to the group’s
more varied Polaris short-listed 2005
album Live It Out – the new release is a
tender and soulful offering that is sure
to top your 2009 playlist.

Listen to: “Blindness”, “Collect Call”,
“Gimme Sympathy”

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms

3.5/4

It’s obvious that Patrick Watson,
previous Polaris winner in 2007
with Close to Paradise, isn’t fooling
around.

His new album Wooden Arms shows
that he’s creating music more unique
than ever. Tranquil and powerful from
the start, Wooden Arms peaks early with
the harp-filled, light track “Fireweed”
and the album’s best song “Beijing”,
which uses expertly crafted movement
and growth to create a powerful
piece that at times makes you feel
like there’s a full-size orchestra in the
room with you.

By peppering the album with
unique, haunting songs like the creepy
organ-grinder tune “Traveling Salesman”
and the strange, depressing
piano groove of “Down at the Beach”,
Watson manages to make even the
strangest crash-and-bangs beautiful.

But while Watson’s chilling voice
and heavy arrangements speak to his
immense musicality, the album at
times borders on dense and is hard
to enjoy all at once because of each
song’s complexity.

Listen to: “Beijing”, “Bird in a Small
Cage”, “Where the Wild Things Are”

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