Roots music column, June 5   Leave a comment


Good day, roots music fans,

In this week’s column, I advance several area shows and festivals as well as highlight the five albums I am placing on my ballot for this years Polaris Music Prize: the latest from The Great Lake Swimmers, Maria Dunn, The Swiftys, The Wooden Telegraph, and Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko. More information about the Polaris Music Prize is available from http://www.polarismusicprize.ca/

Thanks for dropping by- Donald

(Written first week of June, 2009) This week I’ll be submitting my first ballot nominees for the Polaris Music Prize. Awarded annually, this prize amounts to $20 000 for the album deemed by a panel of Canadian music writers and broadcasters as ‘best’ of the (June to May) year, regardless of sales or genre.

I’m honoured to be among the jury members from across our country. While my rootsy nominees seldom make it to the ‘short list’ of finalists, I usually place a couple on the ‘long list’ of 40 nominees. So, here they are- the five albums I consider the ‘best albums of the year!’

 In no particular order-

 Great Lake Swimmers- Lost Channels (Nettwerk) Existing on the fringes of roots music, Tony Dekker’s Ontario-based Great Lake Swimmers are, in my opinion, a perfect listening choice for those tired of Blue Rodeo, ready for challenging sounds that bring to mind Bon Iver, The Black House, Blue Oyster Cult, and XTC. Lost Channels enraptured me from first listen, and Pulling on a Line may be the singular finest new song I’ve heard in six months.

 Woodland Telegraph- Sings Revival Hymns (Northern Folklore) Woodland Telegraph comes out of Lethbridge via Kananaskis Country, where Matthew Lovegrove spent the winter of 2007 writing the music that became Sings Revival Hymns; his intention was to re-create the Canadian Rockies and their history in song. Lovegrove’s deep, melodic voice takes some getting used to, but once one accepts it the magic flows from the speakers. The music is charged, and sweeps away musical inertia through challenging melodies and time signatures.

The Swiftys- Ridin’ High (Self-released) Not hearing new material for several years from The Swiftys, I had to reacquaint myself with Shawn Johnson and Co.’s approach to rootsy, country rock. Ridin’ High is a more engaged, mature collection of songs, not as immediately welcoming as their previous material but every bit as attractive. If these guys were from Austin, they might be just another band; since they are ours- well, at least western Canada’s- they ‘ride high’ in my esteem.

 Maria Dunn- The Peddler (Distant Whisper) I must stand behind Edmonton’s Maria Dunn and advocate one final time for The Peddler. An album of rare acuity, this disc is populated with characters historical and imagined. Joined by long-time collaborators Shannon Johnson and The McDades, Dunn’s sweet and gentle manner tempers the darkness that shades many of her songs. Her voice and phrasing, as well as her blending of Scots-Irish folk sounds, are immediately and appreciatively identifiable.

 Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko- Africa to Appalachia (Self-released) Released last summer, this one was almost forgotten, but the intense exploration of the Malian roots of the 5-string banjo will not be denied. Stone, Sissoko, and their collaborators successfully amalgamate African sounds- kora, percussion, ngoni, and vocals- with the fiddles and banjos of the Appalachia, producing a unification of rhythms that is lively, memorable, and awe-inspiring.

 As I am limited to five nominees, I couldn’t put forth terrific albums released by The United Steel Workers of Montreal (Three on the Tree), Rae Spoon (Superioeyouareinferior), David Baxter (Day & Age), Annabelle Chvostek (Resilience),  One Hundred Dollars (Forest of Tears), Romi Mayes (Achin’ in Yer Bones), and The Deep Dark Woods (Winter Hours,) all of whom released music worthy of mention and listening.

 (For the record, I ended up dropping Maria Dunn’s album-knowing full well it had no chance of making the long list- in favour of David Baxter. That didn’t work out either; as things progressed, only one of my five nominees made it to the long list of 40 albums- Lost Channels. In baseball, hitting .200 is called, I think The Mendoza Line. In nominating albums for the Polaris Prize, it means being out of touch with the ‘mainstream!’ Oh, well. Maybe next year I’ll be able to convince more writers and broadcasters from across Canada of the value held by roots performers. Or, at least, the ones I value! Donald)

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