There’s much being made about two of the 2010 Polaris shortlisted albums being in a language other than English, and whether that will hurt the chances of either LP winning. Truthfully, language has little to do whether Karkwa or Radio Radio win it; it’s what they and the other 8 artists do with language and music that matters. And what Karkwa do with language and music is pure magic. I’ve come to realize that knowing what the lyrics mean has very little impact on whether you like the music or not. Even a meticulously executed translation wouldn’t be able to convey the subtleties and details inherent in the song’s native language, so why bother? Musical alchemy needs no translation.
If you had to do a “recommended-if-you-like” comparison for Karkwa, the obvious choices might be Radiohead and Sigur Rós. They all share a cinematic style of song arrangement and composition that’s orchestral, intricate and layered. “Dors dans mon sang” (loose translation: “sleep in my blood”) is a perfect examples of the Sigur Rós similarities, while “La piqûre” (“The puncture”) bends and plays with sounds in much the same way The Bends did. They also share a strong similarity with fellow Montrealers Patrick Watson (Patrick Watson the man actually made a guest appearance on Karkwa’s last record). Don’t shortchange Karkwa by labeling them the francophone version of any band–Canadian, Icelandic, or English. It will only take one listen to Les Chemins De Verre to realize that these guys are distinct musicians, developing a class and categorization all their own.
There’s a dreamlike quality to the songs on Les Chemins De Verre, a delicateness that can be shattered as easily as its titular glass paths. As songs like “28 jours” build to their crescendo, you can feel the tension swell almost to the point of breaking, but Karkwa have an incredible knack for preciseness of playing on this record; they have complete control. It is a very deliberate record, one imagine that started out as improvisations in the studio, evolving over time and practice. Les Chemins De Verre has a uniformity of sound, but there is enough variation to make each track distinguishable from the next. The folky opening vibe of “Marie tu pleures”, for example, bursts into the same deep booming melodrama found on opening track “Le pyromane”, but you’d never confuse the two for each other. The finished product is a set of 12 fully-realized and complete songs. Nothing is left unreconciled or incomplete.
Les Chemins De Verre‘s last song is titled “Le vrai bonheur”, “true happiness” according to my trusted translator, and I couldn’t think of a better title or way to describe the pleasure of listening to this record. Maybe I’m a snob for not paying closer attention to the francophone records released this year; maybe Les Chemins De Verre was a casualty of having too many albums to listen to and not enough time to do it. All I know now is, things would have been a lot different on my first and second Polaris ballots if I had heard this record before having to fill them in. Of all the records nominated this year, Les Chemins De Verre is the one I was least familiar with on the day the shortlist was announced, and it’s the one that I couldn’t possibly live without today.
Les Chemins De Verre was released March 30, 2010 by Audiogram.
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