Forgive me for playing the devil’s advocate, but I don’t know that The New Pornographers quite fit that mold.
Even so, the “super” superlative isn’t completely off-the-mark. At times, it feels as though keeping up with The New Pornographers is the power-pop equivalent of reading superhero comics in the mid-to-late 90’s, with The New Pornographers being more akin to the X-Men than the Justice League of America—a collection of notables who function best as a team rather than an on-again/off-again collaboration of better-known solo artists.
To this effect, there is a large cast of idiosyncratic characters with equally diverse origin stories (that is, previous bands), plus a host of spin-off series (both limited edition and otherwise) highlighting select members of said cast. Not to mention the frequent crossover events and guest appearances, all of which contribute to the nagging suspicion that the casual reader/listener is somehow missing something if s/he is not subscribed to every single X title and TNP-affiliated band under the sun. Honestly, nothing galls the diehard fan’s conscience quite like that tell-tale asterisk and its “As seen in Ancillary Comic Series #95” footnote. And, in the case of The New Pornographers, nothing fills the time between album releases and their associated tours quite like a bevy of active side-projects.
Just so: De facto frontman Carl “A.C.” Newman, leading lady Neko Case, and guitarist Todd Fancey all have eponymous solo acts. Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Dan Bejar divides his free time between not one but three separate bands—Destroyer, Swan Lake, and Hello, Blue Roses. Originally recruited by Uncle Newman as a TNP touring replacement for Case, keyboardist-vocalist Kathryn Calder still performs with her other band, Immaculate Machine. Ditto for bassist John Collins and his other band, The Evaporators. Hell, keyboardist Blaine Thurier spends his down time writing, producing, and directing independent films, including many of TNP’s music videos. Busy busy busy.
Needless to say, there’s not a whole lot of grass growing under The New Pornographers’ sixteen feet, and there are plenty of supplemental materials to provide added musical context for the curious and the completists. As a matter o’ fact, considering their past and present bands, the eight individual members of The New Pornographers are collectively responsible for creating well over fifty studio albums. Impressive, yeah, but sheer industriousness does not make The New Pornographers a supergroup.
It does, however, make them incredibly well-respected. Despite having yet to achieve full-on household name status (though, if Billboard ratings are to be believed, they are certainly on their way), The New Pornographers have all the collaborative draw of a major-league pop act. Upping the interconnective ante somewhat, The New Pornographers fifth full-length album, Together, includes guest performances by TNP associate-violinist Tara Szczygielski, veteran cellist Benjamin Kalb, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Beirut’s Zach Condon, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, and lauded Daptone horn-blowers Cochemea Gastelum, Neal Sugarman, and David Guy.
That’s a whole lot of bonus talent right there, and The New Pornographers are able to blend their guests’ added vocals and/or instrumentals into Together’s already dense soundscape without so much as batting an eyelash—not that this should be any great surprise, considering that The New Pornographers have been able to effortlessly blend the interweaving and turn-taking vocal leads of A.C. Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar for more than a decade. In a similar fashion, Kalb and Szcygielski’s strings sew themselves seamlessly into the forward motion of the lilting Newman-lead “Moves” and the acoustic twang of Case-centric strummer “Crash Years”, Kalb’s weighty arco mating nicely with Collins’s own bass notes and Dahle’s percussion while Szcygielski’s lighter bowed embellishments further polish the bright riffs of Newman, Fancey, and Bejar, with piano melodies and keyboard accents from Thurier and Calder besides. Somewhere in the mix, Will Sheff provides backing vocals (being unable to find his voice in the crowd of “Moves”, I’ll take the liner notes’ word for it).
Third in the lineup, premiere video-single “Your Hands (Together)” is a fantastic showcase of TNP’s power-pop goodness. Better yet, it serves as one hell of a shiny hook to lure newer listeners in: punchy guitar riffs by Newman, Fancey, et al, prominent duet vocals by Newman and Case (plus full-band backups), forceful rhythms from Collins and Dahle filling out the low end, and ever-present (if not always easily-distinguishable) keys and strings from Thurier, Calder, Kalb, and Szcygielski. Lend an ear or two to that one, and try to keep from nodding your head, tapping your fingers and toes, and performing synchronized martial arts kata to the pulsing drumbeat. Go on, try it—it can’t be done.
Dialing things back just a bit, “Silver Jenny Dollar” turns the mic over to the distinctive burbling of TNP cleanup hit-maker Dan Bejar for his go-to pop arrangement of brightly-strummed guitars, weighty bass lines, piano melodies, and earworm titular choruses, all fleshed out by the full force of the TNP ensemble. Next up, “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” doubles down on twee with wistful vox by Calder and Case, shiny guitar riffs and sunny synth effects offset by Collins’ and Dahle’s thumping low-end.
St. Vincent’s six-string chanteuse Annie Clark lends a buzzing central riff to the Case-lead and piano- and trumpet-aided “My Shepherd”, a somewhat sombre hymn to domestic intimacy and floundering romance that trails off into the roadway metaphors and jangling-to-fuzzed-out guitars of Bejar’s “If You Can’t See My Mirrors”.
“Up in the Dark” is a deceptively simple guitar-lead ditty that thrives on TNP’s unique variety of schmaltzy romantic pith—pith which can only work (and work this well) in lyric form: “What’s love,” croon Newman and Case, “but what turns up in the dark?” Though a bit of a double entendre, it’s hard to argue with their assertion that romance is at its best when somewhat unexpected.
By far the most laid-back and melancholic track on Together, the banjo-based “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” slowly bolsters Newman’s quiet, lovelorn words of encouragement with backing bass, reserved percussion, rambling piano, synth, and guitar, and echoing chorals from Case and Calder. It’s a sweetly sentimental tune, but it pales in comparison to the weighty drum-and-strum and blaring Daptone brass of “A Bite Out of My Bed”, Newman and Case’s triumphant power-pop take on “absence makes the heart grow fonder” dispelling whatever shyness and reticence crept up during “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco”.
Not to be outdone, Bejar comes out swinging with the full-band instrumental swells and rousing choral cries of “Daughters of Sorrow”, its wonderful cacophony of strings, horns, acoustic and affected-electric guitars, keys, percussion, and sundry whatall carrying the album straight through to the acoustic strums, drawn strings, vibraphone, electric blasts, and (as ever) group vocals of carpe diem finisher “We End Up Together”.
Though not by definition a supergroup, The New Pornographers’ collective ability to produce album after album of easily accessible and damnably infectious pop-rock tunes is nothing less than superhuman. If you haven’t yet gotten into TNP and all they have to offer—and there is a lot at that—then Together is as good a place as any to start. Just be sure to dig into their back catalogue while you’re at it.
Audio Reviews (May 15th, 2010)
Tags: audio, reviews, the new pornographers, together, matador