It is getting to that time of the year when I must finalize my Polaris Music Prize Top 5 albums of the year. For those who are unfamiliar with the Polaris Music Prize, its mission statement reads thusly:
“A not-for-profit organization that honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music. Polaris recognizes and markets albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history. it is adjudicated by selected music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers.”
I am one of those fortunate to be entrusted with considering Canadian albums released between the beginning of June and the end of May. See previous winners here. It is a good to great experience, and I’ve been involved (I think) going on six years now. I was invited onto the jury as a roots music writer, and that is a position I continue to take seriously; at this point, it doesn’t quite matter to me if the Metric album is better than the Suuns or Metz albums (and who knew Belinda was still recording- “Subway Dances,” anyone?). I believe my mandate is to advocate for the roots albums, and try to bring them to the fore of consideration.
Regrettably, I haven’t been terribly successful. From where I sit, the popularity of indie-rock, arty-minimalists, dance and dirge, and just plain flighty shite (and don’t even get me started on eastern bias) is just too widespread for the (very) few of us who seem to listen to anything vaguely folky, country, rootsy, or (heavens) ‘grassy to ‘break through.’ And that is okay- when you have more than 200 writers considering and arguing over music, something has to be lost in the din. Usually, that is roots music. Again, from where I am sitting: I’m guessing the advocates of modern thrash metal and jazz are at least thinking similar thoughts this month.
I wasn’t terribly active on the Polaris jurors’ discussion forum this past year, largely due to pressures associated with life and work. I advocated for a few albums, but don’t really expect my words to influence anyone else on the jury. There was no shortage of quality roots albums released over the past year, and I am fighting with myself over which album to slide into the #1 slot.
My initial Polaris ballot is what I am considering today. I need to vote #1 to #5 (and the results are tabulated with positional weighting) early next month for my favourite albums of the past year. After everyone’s initial ballots are tabulated, a Long List of 40 make the cut for additional consideration, and that is when I’ll worry about the Metz, Metric, and Suuns albums. For now, I need to consider the roots, and nothing but the roots.
I regret that I didn’t purchase J.R. Shore’s third album State Theatre until a couple weeks ago. I’ve spent considerable time with it since, and it is definitely going on my top 5 ballot. But, does it end up at #1? Do I ‘throw’ my support behind an album that I know has absolutely no chance of making the Long List, or do I consider an album that may actually have a fighting chance? That album would be Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s epic Psychedelic Pill, an absolutely monumental release- one that has mesmerized me since first listen. Their Americana album, a recording that I found pedestrian and inconsequential, is also up for consideration and seems to have received wider acclaim than Psychedelic Pill.
I would hate for vote splitting to cost Neil a placing with Psychedelic Pill, especially if my weighted vote could have made a difference, but am having some trouble placing it ahead of State Theatre, the album I came here today to write about.
I had heard a few songs from J. R. Shore’s State Theatre on the radio, but those slivers didn’t prepare me for the intense experience of listening to the album as a whole. Shore is from Alberta, and there are three undeniable truths when it comes to this province: 1. highway lane change signals (and roadside urination) are completely discretionary; 2. if you’re under 60 years old and have never supported a Conservative, you’ve never voted for the ruling party; and 3. we know how to churn out singer-songwriters. We take credit for Ian Tyson, and have listened to, praised, and had life-altering moments wtih everyone from Leeroy Stagger, Maria Dunn, and Steve Coffey, through to Ruth Purves Smith, Ralph Boyd Johnson, and John Wort Hannam, not to mention his Corbness. And a couple of those artists will be in my Top 5, not that they stand a chance of breaking through to the Long List.
State Theatre is a two-disc package, the second of which is an e.p. of covers, including requisite readings of Neil Young (“For the Turnstiles”) and The Band (“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”), along with honourary Canadian Tom Russell (Shore messes with the rhythm of “Blue Wing” to make it his own, and I’m not yet sold on his interpretation but I’m getting used to it), Gram, The Dead, Prine, and such. Of the eight covers, the only one that I can’t recommend is an unnecessary stab at “Redneck Mother,” a song that went stale somewhere around 1977.
The original songs on disc one make State Theatre Polaris-worthy. Like ‘great’ artists, Shore isn’t satisfied being any one thing: a poet, a critic, a historian, a songwriter, a guitar player on a stool. He is backed by a full band, often playing history drenched rock n roll as if they were booked from 1968, and perhaps they were- I don’t know them. (The keyboard player is named Garth, but he isn’t Hudson). Some songs are piano-based, others guitar; some gentle and meandering, others raucous and concise.
The subject matter is as diverse, from a Negro Leagues ball player (“Charlie Grant”) and “Poundmaker” to more recent stories of an everyday woman who found herself a focus of attention (“Addie Polk”) to an indulged artist (“Dash Snow”), industrial deaths made all the more relevant given world events (“146”) and a trans-Atlantic journey of wandering (“MS St. Louis”).
Shore’s songs unfold like so many blankets of sound and lyric- you can roll in them, they comfort you, and when they get too heavy, you can toss them off and bask in their residual warmth. As with John Wort Hannam, Si Kahn, and John McCutcheon, there is greatness here, and if he slides into Randy Newman’s shoes a bit too easily, who am I to begrudge a man his influences?
For those reasons, and more, J. R. Shore is making it tough on me. I haven’t spent as much time with this album as I have other albums this year, but I think State Theatre transcends the country, and his genre, whatever it is.
Other albums that I want to be in my Top 5 are Maria Dunn’s magnificent if narrowly-focused Piece by Piece, John Wort Hannam’s Brambles and Thorns, John Reischman’s Walk Along John, and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. If you are keeping score, along with Psychedelic Pill, that makes six albums, and I haven’t even mentioned Cara Luft’s wonderful little album Darlingford, Daniel Romano’s polarizing Come Cry With Me and Linda McRae’s beautiful Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts. Or Ralph Boyd Johnson’s heartfelt 1723 9 Street SW. Of all of those albums only three- Young, Romano, and Lund- have a hope of making the Long List. However, I believe they are all worthy. If you haven’t heard them, do some exploring.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald