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Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paasse for The Globe and Mai)
Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Kevin Van Paasse for The Globe and Mai)

Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week Add to ...

Bombino – Akhar Zaman (2016)

Three of my favourite concerts of the past decade took place at Montreal’s Club Balattou. It’s a cramped and sweaty place; mirrors on the walls, tiny stage in an awkward place on the floor. That doesn’t matter: Balattou’s got the je-ne-sais-quoi, the energy. In this particular case, the crampedness, awkwardness, tininess, sweatiness, the mirrors on the walls – all of it adds up to jubilation. Balattou can and will smear glitter across the inside of your night.

One of these favourite shows was a performance by Bombino. He’s a Tuareg guitarist, from Agadez in Niger, one of those guys whose guitar-playing sounds as if he’s manipulating a particularly melodious lightning-bolt. I interviewed him before the show, for a now-defunct magazine. “In music we express our problems and our lives,” Bombino explained through an interpreter. I didn’t fully appreciate the statement until I asked after the rest of his band. Were they taxi drivers or desert guides, as Bombino had been? No: They worked in the uranium mine.

Since then, Bombino has ascended to much larger stages. (His latest tour will take him through Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in March and April.) His bandmates have not, I hope, returned to the poison mine. He has recorded Azel, with Dirty Projectors’s Dave Longstreth. But whenever I listen to a song such as Akhar Zaman, filled with phosphorescing guitar and handclaps, perfect relentlessness, I have to remind myself of what’s at stake. Music’s an answer to many different questions; some of those questions we’ve fallen out of the habit of asking.

Charlotte Cornfield – Mercury (2016)

Appetite. It’s absent from the work of so many singer-songwriters, especially the younger ones. Too often the tone is chaste, even pious. All these ascetic poets, lonely and cautious and singing about the holes in their hearts. Surely they should sound hungrier. Surely those holes want filling.

Charlotte Cornfield has none of this trouble. Her songwriting is ravenous. Even here, in uneasy happiness, the 27-year-old sounds like she will wolf down her life as fast as she is able. The windfalls, the crises, the concerts, the chance encounters – she’ll sprint through them all, collecting burs. This is work in the tradition of Dylan or Townes Van Zandt, but Cornfield rightly cites newer artists such as Courtney Barnett, who treat their world-weary troubadouring with millennial wryness, a semicolon wink ;) “I only felt it for a while,” she admits, singing of a man who called her beautiful. “The same way I do putting my guitar in its case / coming off stage into the aisle. / I can’t remember / no I can’t recall / the way / that I unfurled.”

Cornfield’s also a drummer, and her singing reflects this sensibility. Her lyrics feel considered but not for too long: lines that occurred to her and then she sang away. This provides a song such as Mercury with space and looseness – as well as a certain number of blemishes. It’s a good fit for singer Tim Darcy, who guests on this song. His own band, the postpunk outfit Ought, makes similar use of nonchalance, something close to carelessness, to give their songs their engine.

Cornfield launches her new album, Future Snowbird, at Toronto’s Burdock Music Hall on March 11.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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