The New Pornographers are supposedly comprised of some sort of “Canadian indie rock supergroup” (main songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Carl Newman of Zumpano, secondary songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Bejar of Destroyer, bass player John Collins of The Evaporators, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, drummer Kurt Dahle, and guitarist Todd Fancey), only most of the general public has never heard of most of those bands. So let’s concentrate on The New Pornographers, shall we? Anyway, I’ve been interested in checking out this band ever since my friend Chris Willie Williams raved about this album, and the lofty praise they’ve since received from many a mainstream critic seems justified as well. The band’s signature style consists of busy, bustling melodies that are singable yet surprisingly rocking, in large part due to their propulsive rhythm section. Multi-colored keyboard parts and high-pitched multi-part harmonies are other major components of the band’s sound, and lines like “so visualize success but don’t believe your eyes” are worth paying attention to as well, making this more than simply a ridiculously catchy pop album. Besides, not all of these songs are absurdly catchy - just most of them - especially the ones sung by sexy country chanteuse Neko Case (“Mass Romantic,” “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” “Letter From An Occupant”), who steals the show whenever she opens her mouth (note: she's also a well-respected solo artist, lending further credence to the “supergroup” label). Pity she doesn’t sing more often (though she sings harmonies elsewhere), as Newman/Bejar’s at-times annoyingly wimpy vocals and a sound that sometimes tries to do too much are this album’s admittedly minor weaknesses. Other personal favorites include “The Fake Headlines,” “To Wild Homes,” and “The Body Says No,” which show off the band’s choir of voices as well as their debt to The Beach Boys. The end of the album tails off somewhat after a superb start, but this was still a consistently stellar first album with some truly fantastic tunes that showed that it’s still possible to deliver upbeat pop songs with a bit of bite to them.
Electric Version (Matador ‘03) Rating: A
With a major buzz about them after the leftfield success of Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers delivered more of the same with Electric Version, which is fine by me. Though she’s less of an overall presence this time out, once again Neko Case steals the show whenever she appears, whether singing lead or co-lead ("The Laws Have Changed," "All For Swinging You Around," "Miss Teen Wordpower") or harmonies ("The Electric Version," “From Blown Speakers,” "The New Face Of Zero and One," “July Jones”). However, once again even the songs she doesn't appear on are uncommonly catchy as well, as the band's instantly appealing, multi-colored sound remains totally intact. Once again angular guitars, burbling keyboards, big propulsive beats, and creatively arranged male/female harmonies are thrown into a blender, and if anything there's even more going on during these songs this time around. Electric Version is crammed full of layers of sonic details, but by and large the band’s crafty attention to detail works in their favor, as it’s often a subtle detail or unexpected instrumental interjection that makes a song special, such as the gorgeously repeating keyboard riffs on "Loose Translation," the fragile, angelic vocals on "Testament To Youth In Verse," and the rip roaring glam guitar on the up-tempo “It’s Only Divine Right.” Really, if you liked the last album there's no reason you won't like this one as well, with its beefed up sound and even more hyperactive hooks upon hooks to dig into. Indeed, if anything this album is even more clever, quirky, and consistent than its predecessor, though perhaps its highlights don't stick out quite as clearly. Regardless of which one you prefer, both Mass Romantic and Electric Version are very good, extremely fun "feel good" albums that were easily among the best albums released in their respective years.
Twin Cinema (Matador ‘05) Rating: A
After two brilliantly bouncy, upbeat, and surprisingly rocking pop albums, the loose collective known as The New Pornographers, now nine members strong (new members include Nora O'Connor and Kathryn Calder), mess with the formula on album number three. As usual, A.C. Newman writes and sings lead the majority of the time, Dan Bejar writes and sings three songs ("Jackie, Dressed In Cobras," "Broken Beads," "Streets Of Fire") before disappearing into Destroyer (he no longer tours with the band), and solo star Neko Case absolutely dominates the proceedings the all too infrequent times she appears. But things are different this time, too. For example, only a few songs (the title track, "Use It," "Sing Me Spanish Techno," "Star Bodies") are as instantly hummable as, and are stylistically similar to, the first two albums, and Neko Case, whose previous lead vocals typically were on the band's most upbeat material, here sings two simple, melancholic ballads, "The Bones Of An Idol" and "These Are The Fables," both of which are excellent even if they’re not as instantly memorable as her previous showcase numbers. Overall, the album tries out more styles and moods, and though the songs aren't as immediately accessible or as instantly loveable as what we've come to expect, most of these songs also turn out to be catchier than I originally thought, whether it be through their trademark harmonized choruses or a chanted sing songy verse. From my perspective the beginning and end of the album are terrific, and the middle of the album strings together a bunch of songs that I've grown to appreciate over time, whether it be for the pounding drums, tinkling keyboards, and catchy harmonies on “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” the surging grooves and edgy guitar solos on "The Jessica Numbers," Newman's fragile falsetto and the group’s wondrous harmonies on "Sing Me Spanish Techno" (actually, these last two songs I've belatedly come to consider major album highlights, especially “Spanish Techno” which is now among my favorite New Pornos songs), the low-key, almost whispered layered harmonies on the amusing “Falling Through Your Clothes,” the hooky synths and "la la la"-like vocals on "Broken Beads," or the new wave vibe and creative vocal arrangements (as per usual) on “Three Or Four.” As for the beginning of the album, “Twin Cinema” gets the album off to an impressive start just like the prior two title tracks, "Use It" delivers the album's most oft-quoted sound bite ("two sips from the cup of human kindness, and I'm shit-faced") and another extremely catchy chorus, while "The Bleeding Heart Show" is a glorious anthem and the band's best song yet. It starts slow but boy does it pick up, and when the swelling chorus kicks in, with Neko of course leading the way it's one of those moments that simply makes me glad to be alive; it's that good. As for the end of the album, "Star Bodies" delivers a ridiculously catchy harmonized chorus along with propulsive rhythms (drummer Kurt Dahle remains the band's secret weapon), and Newman correctly calls Bejar's "Streets Of Fire" a "campfire sing along." An old Destroyer song re-recorded, it's a really good one, too, and though "Stacked Crooked" didn't seem like anything special to me at first, I soon realized that it's like several impressive songs rolled into one; plus it has mariachi horns! Again, the album on the whole requires more effort to appreciate than Mass Romantic or Electric Version, yet it could be argued that these more experimental, less formula driven songs are actually more interesting in the long run, and that the album has a range of emotions and an overall depth that the previous albums lacked. Indeed, this albums subtle charms reward repeat plays and an attention to detail, as The New Pornographers continue to confirm that they're one of the most creative collectives currently around. I just hope that the band can find time amid all their respective solo careers and side projects to keep things going, for The New Pornographers have something special going for them, and Twin Cinema is a special album, if in decidedly unexpected ways.
Challengers (Matador ‘07) Rating: B+
The band continues to tone things down, and much more so this time, though the end result is again extremely impressive, even if I'd rank Challengers below the band's three previous albums. This subdued, mature, mellower, more reflective album is what you'd call a "grower," and it isn't that different from what came before it. For one thing, as per usual Newman writes the majority of the songs and Bejar chimes in with three oddly endearing offerings ("Myriad Harbour," "Entering White Cecilia," "The Spirit Of Giving"). Also, like on Twin Cinema Neko Case sings a pair of pretty ballads (the title track, "Go Places") and provides essential harmonies elsewhere. Kathryn Calder also gets a rare lead vocal on the groovy "Failsafe," which is also notable for Dahle's trademark big beat and some tremolo guitar, while "Unguided" is the band's first truly epic length song at 6:33, and a soaring, grand highlight it is. What's mostly different about this album is that only two songs ("All The Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth," "Mutiny, I Promise You") recall the ultra-hooky, colorful, upbeat perkiness of early New Pornographers, and neither these songs or any of the others could be called an instant classic along the lines of "Letter From An Occupant," "The Laws Have Changed," or "The Bleeding Heart Show." What this album instead offers is consistent quality; even if I miss the band's joyous exuberance, there's no denying that tunes such as "Adventures In Solitude" and "The Spirit Of Giving" are awfully pretty, and the two songs that begin the album, the also pretty "My Rights Versus Yours" and the more upbeat "All The Old Showstoppers" (a Newman/Neko duet), both build nicely if unspectacularly. Then again, they’re both really good songs, and you can't expect spectacular every time. Challengers is a very good, consistently enjoyable collection, which is still pretty darn good for a group that's constantly being pulled in so many different directions. That said, maybe its members' busy schedules are starting to take a toll on the band, if ever so slightly.
Together (Matador ‘10) Rating: A-
The big guitars and brighter sounds are back after the comparatively subdued Challengers, as are the sing along choruses, plus Neko Case is back in a more prominent role. These are all good things, needless to say, and if the overall songwriting isn't quite as consistently strong as on their first three albums, this was still another very good album by one of the best bands of the past decade. As per usual, "Moves" starts the album with an impressive and in this case hard rocking offering (love the juxtaposition between the dirty riffs and sunny keyboards), while "Crash Years" is a hooky upbeat Neko song just like in the old days. "Your Hands (Together)," a Neko/Newman duet, has more heavy riffs and again shows what a first class drummer Kurt Dahle is, while "Silver Jenny Dollar" is a subtly catchy charmer from Bejar, who typically delivers quirky changes of pace rather than album highlights, which this song most assuredly is. Continuing, "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," another Neko showcase, has pretty verses and another surging chorus, while "My Shepard," also sung by Case, is a pretty if somewhat bland orchestral ballad. Anyway, enough of the song-for-song details, everything here is good (though the album is definitely frontloaded), or will likely at least grow on you in some way, even their most eccentric offerings like "A Bite Out Of My Bed," an odd marching band/Irish folk jig hybrid that somehow still works. The band can still rock convincingly and do pretty exceptionally well, sometimes during the same song, and Newman remains a terrific songwriter even if again I don't think that these songs are quite at the spectacular level of the band's initial trilogy; the best of the rest are probably "Up In The Dark" (more big riffs along with another surging harmonized chorus) and "We End Up Together" (an epic choral pop finale). Above all else the band's vocal arrangements approach sheer genius and always keep me coming back for more, as most of these densely packed songs get better the more time you spend with them, not uncommon for a New Pornographers album. Like Challengers this is a more mature sounding New Pornographers, for example there's more orchestration and elaborate instrumentation, but this time not at the expense of immediacy or excitement.
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