Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Pornographers

The phrase "indie-rock supergroup" is an oxymoron. How is a band that prides itself on independence and unique ideas supposed to be comprised of members of other like-minded groups? Out of that paradox steps Vancouver's The New Pornographers, and their fifth release, Together, available as of today.

First organized in 2000 by former Superconductor and Zumpano frontman Allan Carl (A.C.) Newman, the octet also includes current and former members of Destroyer (co-lead singer and guitarist Dan Bejar), the Immaculate Machine (Kathryn Calder, co-lead vocals, keyboards and accordian), The Evaporators (uber-multi-instrumentalist John Collins) and Limblifter (drummer Kurt Dahle and guitarist Todd Fancey). But Newman's real coup was luring accomplished solo singer/songwriter Neko Case into the fold. Simply put, Case is the best singer in rock music these days, with an immensely powerful set of pipes and the ability to rocket any song to the stratosphere. And yet, while Case's solo material is intelligent, genuine and emotionally powerful, she stays closer to the alt-country approach, which can limit the explosiveness of her vocal talent. Starting with the New Pornographers' first album, Mass Romantic in 2000, the project has allowed her to unleash blistering performances, such as "Letter from an Occupant," "All for Swinging You Around" and "The Bleeding Heart Show." Note how, in the latter of these selections, Case takes over focal duties from Newman at the song's midpoint and transforms the theretofore mid-tempo ballad into a melee with only a single line of lyrics ("we have arrived...too late, to play the Bleeding Heart Show").

It is along these lines that the group presents Together, not deviating from the general framework that has brought the band this far: craft irresistibly hooky power pop gems, introduce some George Martin-meets-David Gilmour studio wizardry, and spread the lead vocals among Bejar, Caldwell, Case and Newman. Not surprisingly, the collection's best tune is its first single, the Case-fronted, acoustic guitar-driven number, "The Crash Years." The track's chorus comes quickly and laden with vocal harmonies and monstrous hooks. In quintessential New Pornographers fashion, it'll have you whistling in no time, aided, of course, by a keyboard riff mimicking the famous whistling part in Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The ear candy is not spared elsewhere on the 13-song effort. Newman's opening number, "Moves," likewise features punchy keyboards and organs, along with crunching Sloan-style guitar riffs. And the group's communal songwriting approach has yet to find a gang vocal it can resist, as heard in "Your Hands (Together)" – a likely set opener on their forthcoming tour – and the Kathryn Caldwell-led "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk." Meanwhile, late-album offering "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" introduces a quirky sensibility befitting its offbeat title, featuring a banjo-and-piano accompaniment that's interestingly subdued for a New Pornographers production.

Still, while Together is generally an impressive collection of very listenable and foot-tapping numbers, its also not their pinnacle. Initially, it's not all that noticeably better than their previous recordings. There are no dominant performances like "Sing Me Spanish Techno" or "The New Face of Zero and One" from previous albums that could startle a new listener to the band with their sheer power. The band's lyrics seem to allude to this in "Your Hands (Together)," saying "you can only cover so much territory, of course." Moreover, my lowest degree of interest in the group has always been Bejar's vocals, which account for about a quarter of their total output. While he may a talented songwriter and a valued instrumentalist, I cannot abide the tenor of his voice, which could only be generously described as singing. This talk-to-beat style, with a Ziggy Stardust androgyny without Bowie's suaveness, appears on the Together tracks "Jenny Silver Dollar," "If You Can't See My Mirrors" and "Daughters of Sorrow." While these might be solid works of songwriting not out of step with the rest of the band's work – the latter of these featuring a nice They Might Be Giants-style horns – if the listener can't cozy-up to the singer's cadence and tone, it can be futile, as it is in my case.

Nonetheless, Together is a respectable effort from a set of performers that Newman can orchestrate into a cohesive sound, and which will produce a good handful of tracks that can be staples of their live shows.

Come for: "The Crash Years"
Stay for: "Your Hands (Together)"
You'll be surprised by: "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco"

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