Polaris: Canada’s best album
On Monday night, artists, industry employees and press came together at the Masonic Temple in Toronto to celebrate the essence and diversity of Canadian music at the Polaris Music Prize gala.
The star-studded event in Canadian music marked the announcement of the prize’s winner, from the nominated group of 10 Canadian-made albums, selected purely on artistic merit.
At 12:15 a.m., the night ended with hosts CBC radio personality Grant Lawrence and MusicMusic VJ Sarah Taylor pronouncing the winning album as The Chemistry of Common Life from Fucked Up, Toronto-based hardcore-punk band and self-proclaimed dark horse on the shortlist.
“We got here today and we got frisked so many times coming in and out. And I thought ‘Oh man, I’m going to get frisked for nothing, but then I got a free iPod.’ But this is so much better than an iPod,” frontman Damian Abraham joked after kissing fellow band members and host Lawrence on the mouth in excitement.
In a press conference held immediately after the announcement, Abraham explained that the band had a pool, in which they were betting who would win the prize. All but bassist Sandy Miranda selected artists that weren’t Fucked Up.
For Abraham, winning the prize was a huge step towards the acceptance of Canadian hardcore music.
“For the longest time, I really felt like we were outside the Canadian music scene but if we are, we won the biggest prize,” he said to the crowd.
Before the gala began, Abrham told The Cord in an interview that in previous years the prize has championed bands far from the mainstream, and therein is its value.
“I think this award historically has awarded weird records and I think the danger is that any award can be codified and my big fear is that that happens. But I think so far they’ve awarded really different records and I hope they continue doing that because let’s face it, Canadian music isn’t all Avril Lavigne and Nickelback,” he stated.
And award an extremely different and controversial record Polaris did. As the only hardcore album on the docket, Fucked Up had also received criticism for its use of profanity in its band name, much like Polaris 2008’s shortlisted electronic group Holy Fuck.
“We have received a lot of negative feedback, but we’re not the band that shouldn’t be expecting this stuff. So I can’t get mad because it’s like ‘Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t be on TV and I’m fat too,’” so I’m not mad about it,” laughed Abraham.
“If anything, I’m just grateful that we’re here because it’s a freak accident. Somewhere some band that sounds kind of like the Arcade Fire is really bummed out because we took their spot.”
Bigger than ever before, this year’s Polaris awards show was the first to be broadcasted online by MuchMusic; it brought together the very best music the country has to offer but managed to deliver it in a relaxed and humble way.
With a series of short performances from each nominated artist prior to the grand announcement, the night illustrated the fantastic artistic variety and quality Canadian musicians are capable of.
Starting the night off was well-known Toronto-based indie band Metric. Their Polaris supporter, radio broadcaster Alan Cross, introduced the band; each band at the event was also introduced by an individual who defended them in the music contest.
While the band was reduced to vocalist Emily Haines on piano and guitarist James Shaw on acoustic guitar, their performance was nothing short of beautiful.
Playing fan-favourites “Help, I’m Alive” and “Gimme Sympathy” from their nominated album Fantasies, the two delivered a soulful, pure set – Haines’ voice sounding crystal-clear and beautiful.
In an interview with The Cord before the show, Metric explained that while many have said that their new album sounds softer and more romantic, they believe these labels are at times arbitrary.
“When we put this record out, people in the press would often be like, ‘So this is your hardest, most aggressive record’ and other people would be like, ‘So this is your darkest, softest, cleanest record,’ so I don’t know,” laughed Shaw.
Following Metric were the subdued folk artists Great Lake Swimmers. The band played their best songs from nominated album Lost Channels, the ever-catchy “Pulling on a Line” and “Still”.
Francophone indie-rockers Malajube then took the stage, playing funky tune “Porté Disparu” from their shortlisted album Labyrinthes; the band gave a multi-layered performance, engaging the audience from start to finish.
The most unique performance of the night, however, belonged to 2007 Polaris winner and singer-songwriter Patrick Watson who followed Malajube.
At first it was confusing, as music could be heard even though the stage was completely empty. But Watson and his band – including CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi on a standing marching drum – soon emerged, walking through the lower floor of the theatre, attired in tree-like contraptions composed of speakers and glowing lights.
A fascinating and bizarre experience, the echoing reverberation produced by the speakers of guitar mixed with Watson’s chilling vocals provided an unforgettable performance.
Undoubtedly though, the set that captured the hearts of audience members was that of Somalian-born hip-hop artist K’NAAN.
His appeal was perfectly stated in Ghomeshi’s introduction to the performance, who called K’NAAN the quintessential Canadian role model, stating, “K’NAAN’s music speaks to something that should be heard by the entire world.”
Starting his performance with the track “Wavin’ Flag”, the rapper had the audience swaying and singing along to the inspiring anthem. He then played the best song on his shortlisted album Troubadour “Take a Minute”, proving the most magical moment of the night from the shortlist’s only hip-hop artist.
One of two rappers – the other being Shad – ever shortlisted for Polaris, K’NAAN spoke to The Cord before the gala about Canadian hip-hop, explaining that while it many artists have forged their own unique sounds, its identity is confusing.
“With Canada being so diverse with places like Toronto, obviously something special is going to come out,” he noted.
“But when you think of Canadian hip-hop and you think of someone like Drake who’s basically running American hip-hop, the line becomes very blurred.”
Following a tough act was veteran Canadian song-writer Joel Plaskett. While his three-disc album Three hits lulls at times because of its sheer length, Plaskett’s genuine, soulful performance of “Heartless, Heartless, Heartless” and “Deny, Deny, Deny” showed that his album holds some expertly-written tracks.
Always a consummate musician and gentleman, Plaskett explained that having the ability to experience the other Polaris-shortlisted artists’ music is a special experience.
“There are lots of friends here and there’s a sense of community but at the same time there are a lot of people here I’ve never met because they’re doing their own thing. So it’s nice to get together for this event and see how people are satisfying their own ambitions,” he continued.
Following Plaskett was Albertan indie-artist Chad VanGaalen, with a simultaneously strange and haunting performance from his shortlisted album Soft Airplanes.
Playing the catchy track “Poisonous Heads” and the beautiful, soft ballad “Rabid Bits of Time”, VanGaalen’s musicality was apparent through his onstage improvisation; however, at times, his shaky voice and wobbly guitars did not suit the live set, losing some of the clean, tight appeal he has on his album.
Alternative country act Elliot Brood then followed, proving their unparalleled ability to entertain the audience and their pleasant humility, giving shout-outs to every single short-listed artist.
Mixing banjos with strong raspy vocals in the songs “Without again” and “Write it All Down For You” from shortlisted album Mountain Meadows, Elliot Brood also passed out pans and wooden spoons for audience members to play along with during their performance.
While Newfoundland-based band Hey Rosetta! followed with only one song “Tired Eyes” from their shortlisted album Into Your Lungs, it was gorgeous and powerful, starting off with slow, somber piano and eventually reaching a melodic climax. Vocalist Tim Baker’s soulful cries were not only beautiful; they carried the first several minutes of the song completely.
Ending off the night were Polaris winners Fucked Up, who performed with indie solo artist Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett on violin – a strange, but suited mix.
Performing “Son the Father”, Fucked Up delivered a solid, high energy performance; Abraham’s vocals balancing well with the melodic guitars and Pallett’s violin.
The set took a strange turn, however, when Abraham put his belt around his head, causing his pants to fall down; needless to say, the performance rounded off the night on a light note.
Overall, the Polaris gala allowed those in attendance to witness an immensely impressive compilation of talent and musicality. Even more so, the event showed the distinct nature of the Canadian music scene.
Perhaps it was the food fight that ensued between all of the shortlisted bands, or the sight of various artists including Pallett, K’NAAN and Watson chatting outside the venue outside after the show was over; either way, the artists were not only down-to-earth but they seemed to be focused on having fun, something you’ll rarely see at an awards show.