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Karkwa in concert
Karkwa in concert

Analysis

Pourquoi Karkwa Add to ...

Karkwa, pourquoi? An obscure (to English Canada) art-rock band from Montreal has won the 2010 Polaris Music Prize, presented with fanfare, slight shock and an oversized novelty cheque Monday evening at a Toronto gala. Head-scratching, hand-wringing and "who-saw-that-coming?" is to commence. But really, the decision was not only predictable, it was, some might say, nearly pre-determined.

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What I did say in print prior to the final voting was this: "The 11-member jury is stocked with people named Marc, François, André and Philippe. Does the sublime French-singing Karkwa have a chance? Oui."

My voice in the wilderness was not alone. Last week, well-established radio guy Alan Cross blogged this about Karkwa and its album Les Chemins de Verre: "I have to admit that I'd never heard of this band before they made the long list. This is a good record; of that there is no doubt. Here's where the bilingual-ness of the jury may be important. Can you appreciate an entire album if you don't speak the language? And is it time a Québécois release won? Maybe."

There are more than 200 Polaris jurists and millions of music fans in Canada, but the ultimate determination for the $20,000 national prize is made by a yearly rotating cast of 11 voters, chosen in a highly deliberate fashion. As brief performances by each of the 10 short-listed nominees took place at a gala held at the Masonic Temple on Monday, inside the building's regal private chambers the hashing-out took place. Eleven jurists argued, defended and pondered - picking this year's musical pope in the process.

After more than two hours of deliberation, a puff of white smoke, in the form of an electronic missive by jurist Jian Ghomeshi, signalled that a winner had been selected. "The jury has made its decision," tweeted the host of CBC Radio One's Q. "This was near impossible."

The process is near impossible by design. The final jurists are selected purposefully by Polaris director Steve Jordan to create as much debate and championing as possible. The idea is that each of 10 nominated albums has unofficial representation in the final picking. As such, Jordan, known as "Swiss" in Polaris circles for his unwavering neutrality, wields terrific king-making powers.

And so, it just might be that what Karkwa had in final jurists Marc Xavier Leblanc, François Marchand, André Peloquin and Philippe Rezzonico was it's own bloc Québécois.

Was Les Chemins de Verre (The Glass Paths) the year's superior album in Canada? With its grand scope, eloquent melodies, pristine sound and well-wrought emotion, the disc's case is as good or better than the others. It's a stunningly beautiful work, recorded by the quintet in part at the inspirational Paris studio La Frette.

Despite the record's clear artistic merit, the water-cooler scuttlebutt among the tastemakers is that the album was an off-the-wall choice for the prize.

Polaris indulges in image-shaping - playing up its unpredictability as if it where a virtue while self-fashioning its maverick label. It's been that way from the beginning, in 2005, when the bizarre choice of Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds left onlookers bewildered. Last year's selection of Fucked Up's screaming, hardcore-rocking The Chemistry of Modern Life had more than a few skeptics thinking, "wow, that's bleeped up."

The rapper Shad was the sexy choice for this year's Polaris. And, in what can only be described as a sort of lifetime achievement recognition, the cosmic-country Sadies gained late pundit support. But Karkwa's Les Chemins de Verre, no matter what the spin, wasn't a bolt from the blue. Au contraire.

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