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The New Pornographers – Together

on May 03, 2010, 8:01am
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When I first heard The New Pornographers, it was with no expectations. And if you’re in the enviable position of never having listened to this band, I have no doubt that you will really like their new record, Together. In fact, if you start there and go backwards, you are in for a real treat. In my case, I had never listened to Neko Case, had never been exposed to Destroyer, and didn’t even know that the developing  indie scene was established enough to have “supergroups” in the early 2000s. This is probably the ideal way to discover the band or a band like Broken Social Scene, listening to them like the band they are, not the band that features a more famous female singer.

And Mass Romantic spoke to me. Usually to fall in love with a group as deeply and completely as I did with The New Pornographers, there needs to be a lyrical connection to the poetry of the singer. Not the case with music of A.C. Newman (but strangely, the case with Destroyer, the band of The New Pornographers’ other singer/songwriter Dan Bejar). No, the love came from the all-hook melodies and catch phrases, the way each song could have eight different parts sung by three singers and all of them could get stuck in your head. It was a new kind of pop music, pop music that would never be popular but was more infectious than anything that was. If Mass Romantic were released today, The New Pornographers would be Vampire Weekend. But nearly 10 years ago, they were a mildly successful indie band who could barely come together for a single leg of a tour, with every album strongly rumored to be their last.

And the love only got better, with Electric Version, with The Slow Wonder, with Rubies, with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, with Twin Cinema, not to mention the entire Neko Case and Dan Bejar back catalogue. I even loved Challengers, which I contest is grossly under-appreciated. The thing is, Challengers was the first album they made where every song wasn’t good, so it was easy to dismiss, but the album has about six excellent songs on it, which is better than MGMT’s career. Challengers also was the moment where everyone realized that maybe the best songs A.C. Newman was going to write, he already had. And when you’ve loved a band from the beginning, is there a more terrible moment than when the term “past their prime” enters the discussion? At least later, when you realize it’s true, you know it’s over. But not knowing if you will ever hear great songs from a band again, well, that is a terrible place to be.

But aren’t we all there right now? While in 2010 we’re able to see the blossoming of Vampire Weekend and Beach House, and the apparent peak of LCD Soundsystem and The National (very open to debate), this year may be remembered as the time a number of great indie bands reached their “moment of truth,” like a Hemingway story. These are bands, regardless of the depth of their catalog, that at some point were positioned so that every release is considered the height of relevance and another piece of the rock ‘n roll canon. The Hold Steady…Spoon…Broken Social Scene…Wolf Parade … the list is probably different for everyone, but I definitely asked this question while listening to the latest Spoon and The Hold Steady albums: “Is this the decline?” They are beginning the Built to Spill/Modest Mouse portion of their career, where the albums are still worth hearing, but not with the same anticipation as before. At least with The New Pornographers, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

And Together is pretty damn mediocre, for a record from this band. But don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad record, and actually, by any normal measurement it is pretty good. A.C. Newman’s B-game is better than most artists’ A-Game, and I leave room that this may be a grower, as their last two albums and Newman’s Get Guilty solo record were. If any difference jumps out at me immediately, it is how American the album sounds. The opening notes of “Moves”, the album opener, could be the guitar contribution from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, and if they are not, well, they sure seem influenced by the lady. Perhaps Newman’s relocating to New York has influenced the sound and maybe there is a bigger difference between Canadian and American rock than we readily notice. Either way, the overall aesthetic  is consistent, more so than that of any of their other records, but whether that aesthetic is good is a different matter.

This sound continues on the first Bejar track, “Silver Jenny Dollar”, which like “Moves” is a fine song, but seems to emulate the breezy throwback sound She and Him are making popular. And though “Your Hands” packs the rock-and-roll punch, most of the other songs leave the listener wanting (but man, this song has really grown on me in the months since its release). The song “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” is so cutesy it’s almost twee, something the band never flirted with before, always keeping a careful balance between well-crafted duet singing and enough rock to keep you from puking. Maybe these are nitpicking criticisms, but the fact is they are hard songs to really have an opinion on. The songs are catchy enough while they are playing, but once they are over they leave your brain completely.

This album also lacks the killer ballad that had been a recent strength in A.C. Newman’s craft. “Valkyrie and the Roller Disco” is a pretty duet between Kathryn Calder and Newman (I think it is Calder?), but was I really supposed to see that Tom Cruise movie? I didn’t think that was going to come back to haunt me. Like, there are some movies, you just figure I’ll never see that and it’s no big deal because it has no social importance whatsoever. And now, this. “My Shepherd”, Case’s ballad, is a fine song, but it also sounds like it would be too much at home on one of Case’s own albums, which is a chief pleasure of The Pornos, hearing Bejar and Case make music they would never touch on one of their own records. Bejar, in particular, embraces this with his own songwriting, not giving the band his Destroyer scraps but rather his tracks that wouldn’t be good Destroyer songs. This includes album highlight, “If You Can’t See My Mirrors”, a song that is way too poppy for a Destroyer record, but shows the range of Bejar and why he is one of the most exciting songwriters living today. Bejar’s final offering “Daughter of Sorrow” would make a terrific album closer, like Challengers standout “The Spirit of Giving”, but instead we get a weaker Newman offering, the sentimental “We End Up Together”. It sounds like St. Vincent (like the album opener), giving the feeling of full circle when the journey around was not that fulfilling. And it’s about two minutes too long.

As if the all-star cast of the band wasn’t enough, the album features the aforementioned Clark, trumpet from Beirut’s Zach Condon, vocals from Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, and backing from The Dap Kings. This means pretty much nothing, with only Clark noticeable, but I could even be mistaken about that. My biggest gripe with Together, though, is that it just doesn’t hold up to the other work from the artists. Sure, it shows creative risks and I’ll be damned if writing this review hasn’t made me like the album more, but put it against any other work of these artists  and it just wouldn’t stick out of a lineup. So while The New Pornographers have crafted a decent and moderately enjoyable album, in the end I’m just left with the fear that the band’s relevance is fading and that I might not love another album from them again. And that pretty much blows.

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