The New Pornographers are a Canadian super-group, though given that they were culled from obscure rock outfits like Destroyer only an underground music connoisseur would be able to appreciate them as such.
One needn't have an encyclopedic knowledge or even a firm grasp of the disparate members' pasts in order to enjoy their work, however, and this is fortunate because the New Pornographers are one of the most axiomatically enjoyable indie acts to emerge in the new millennium.
The group specialize in extremely catchy, hook filled power pop, complete with irresistible distorted guitarwork and unforgettable vocal melodies. The band's music is highly accessible without becoming simple or primitive, and each song is profoundly entertaining without ever pandering to the group's prospective audience.
The songwriting responsibility is delegated to frontman Carl Newman and Dan Bejar, and the duo distinguish themselves as two of the top pop gurus in recent memory, effortlessly generating catchy melody after catchy melody. Not every song is perfect, as numbers like Jackie don't quite measure up to the album's peak material, but nevertheless each track has something to offer, and in the best tradition of pop legends like the Mael brothers little time ever passes without the arrival of a brilliant hook.
While Newman is the chief vocalist of the band, occasional Bad Seeds collaborator Neko Case takes the helm on two numbers which also happen to be two of the best tracks on the album. The title track is a pop anthem of the highest order, overflowing with hooks and boasting one of the greatest vocal melodies in the history of bubblegum pop, while Letter From An Occupant has an infectious refrain that will become irrevocably lodged in the listener's brain, and I can think of far worse fates than having that incredibly catchy opus looping in one's mental jukebox.
One needn't be distressed that these are the only tracks on which Case assumes the role of primary vocalist, however, as Newman acquits himself quite admirably in this department as well. His voice is perfectly suited to the material, and he knows precisely how to make the most out of each vocal hook (which is understandable given that he wrote most of them).
Highlights abound on the album, from the classic The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism (complete with the staggering, 'salvation holdout central' hook) to the hyper catchy The Body Says No. No song is bereft of hooks, and few hooks are anything less than brilliant, while the band even manages to infuse a measure of stylistic diversity into the mix while still preserving the group's signature sound, finding myriad compelling balances between the 'rock' and 'pop' aspects of their persona.
Despite hailing from a plethora of different indie ensembles the band members have a terrific, natural chemistry with one another, a fact that's all the more impressive given that this is their debut. Mass Romantic was recorded over a long time span, with session scheduling designed to accommodate the members' commitments to their other bands, but one would never suspect that after hearing the album as it always feels like a cohesive whole.
It's also clear that the members treated what is ostensibly a side-project with the utmost care and craftsmanship, as it never feels as if they're saving their peak ideas and efforts for their other work. The New Pornographers feel like a real band as opposed to a throwaway joke like The Traveling Wilburys or a way for rock stars to socialize and unwind like the Raconteurs or Postal Service. This isn't to denigrate those super-groups, as all three are quite worthwhile on their own terms; they simply never come across as self-contained rock bands, and thus, for example, no one perceives the Raconteurs as equals to The White Stripes. When it comes to The New Pornographers it truly seems as if they're as important (if not more so) as the members' other work, and the resultant product is one that easily surpasses the works of the aforementioned faux super-groups.
Thus Mass Romantic is simply an excellent pop album, bursting with creative hooks and irresistible melodies. There are no real misfires, merely cases where a song's hooks aren't quite as strong as another song's hooks. The album is simply incredibly enjoyable to listen to, and more than holds up to repeated listens without ever losing its pop magic. This is a more than auspicious debut; while one can attribute this to the fact that each member is really a seasoned indie rock veteran, it doesn't account for how deftly the band come together as a cohesive unit, producing a modern pop classic on their very first outing together.
Electric Version is essentially more of the same from the New Pornographers, but given the caliber of the Canadian super-group's debut that's hardly a bad thing. The band have a certain formula; they abstain from such lofty pursuits as concocting weighty, provocative premises for rock operas or concept albums, they're not virtuosos playing hour long solos to demonstrate their instrumental chops and they're not Dylanesque poets penning eloquent verse.
Instead the New Pornographers simply produce a parade of pop songs, and thus the quality of their work hinges exclusively on the merit of their songwriting with none of the aforementioned mitigating factors to influence the worthiness of the final product. Their songs have nothing to hide behind; depending on the competency of the songwriting they're either good or bad, with a finality to the verdict that's rare to find in this age where the boundless pretensions of even the most pedestrian of songwriters invariably confuse the issues of their ultimate assessments.
Fortunately on the New Pornographer's sophomore effort the impeccable songwriting of the band's debut remains largely intact, leading to another successful outing. The caliber of the songwriting isn't quite as strong on this go-round, as several songs are borderline filler and the highlights aren't quite as spectacular as the best cuts on the debut, but nevertheless Electric Version is quite an enjoyable listen in its own right, featuring catchy tunes in a similar vein as the band's material on Mass Romantic. Electric Version may come across as an inferior sequel but it makes the most of that rather unenviable position.
The album certainly has its share of stellar compositions, from the hyper catchy title track to the excellent From Blown Speakers (complete with yet another creative and memorable vocal melody) to the brilliant The End Of Medicine (which manages to transfigure what would normally be grating repetition into a brilliant vocal hook) to All For Swinging You Around (with its absolutely infectious refrain). Newman and Bejar are still in fine form as songwriters, with no less of a knack for conjuring captivating pop hooks at a moment's notice (though this acknowledgement may be compromising Bejar's status on the album as 'secret member').
The band are to be commended for avoiding a sophomore slump, instead playing to their strengths by repeating everything that worked on their debut; it may not be the most daring or original approach, but it proves to be quite effective nonetheless. Everything from the songwriting structure to Neko Case's vocal spotlights to the shifting styles are lifted directly from Mass Romantic, but this is simply the product of the New Pornographers deciding what brand of group they want to be. For an unpretentious, bubblegum pop outfit constant progression is wholly unnecessary, and Newman and company are sufficiently self-aware that they recognize this fact and build upon it. They may lack tricky time signatures, virtuoso instrumental chops and elusive, recondite meanings amidst their noisemaking, but they retain everything that made them one of the most promising new indie pop groups of the millennium.
Thus Electric Version is another huge success for the New Pornographers. It may not measure up to the band's debut but that doesn't change the fact that the album is a highly entertaining listen, with more catchy, unforgettable melodies on the same level as most immortal sixties pop bands. A group needn't always evince signs of change from album to album, nor would it be reasonable to expect a band's songwriting to constantly be in top form. For a group like the New Pornographers all that matters is that their album is enjoyable, and Electric Version certainly fits the bill.
If there was ever any ambiguity as to who the creative visionary of the New Pornographers is, then The Slow Wonder, Carl Newman's solo debut (for which he's adopted the A.C. Newman moniker), will quickly dispel it. This isn't to say that Newman's solo fare is in any way identical to or interchangeable with his group's material, but nevertheless the same intelligence, craftsmanship and sheer pop brilliance that animated his work with his Canadian super-group informs every second of his first foray into solo territory. The core of the New Pornographers' sound has unmistakably been translated into Newman's newfound solo context, and he handles it every bit as adeptly on his own as he had in the company of his frequent collaborators.
There are certainly some glaring disparities between Newman's solo work and New Pornographers output, however, most notably manifesting themselves in the form of his new emotional palette. New Pornographers material tends to be so slick, flippant and tongue-in-cheek that it's often emotionally distancing, functioning as pure entertainment bereft of any attempts to inspire an emotional reaction in the listener. There's nothing wrong with that, but nevertheless this dynamic limits the scope of the band's ambitions, directing all of their energy toward one goal while neglecting another.
Thanks to the comparatively restrained approach assumed on The Slow Wonder, Newman's solo debut is far easier to relate to, with moments like the achingly beautiful Come Crash bordering on catharsis. The album is hardly an intimate, emotionally transparent confessional-singer-songwriter affair; tear-jerking overly-sincere emotional manipulation of that nature is anathema to Newman, who even at his most direct moments retains a membrane of detached irony. Nevertheless The Slow Wonder does offer a spectrum of emotions conspicuously absent from his New Pornographers fare, and while this is neither inherently good nor bad it does offer an intriguing and effective new dimension to his work.
Most important, of course, is the caliber of Newman's songwriting while flying solo, and in this department he never disappoints. Each song features brilliant hooks and memorable melodies, and their more restrained nature if anything augments their potency. From the irresistible Most Of Us Prizefighters with its insanely catchy falsetto refrain to the deeply moving, previously mentioned Come Crash to the tender Drink To Me, Babe, Then to the bitter yet highly melodic The Town Halo, the album is not only brilliant but also amazingly consistent, with absolutely no weak links to be found in the track listing.
Newman not only deserves credit for his incomparable songwriting but also for his esoteric multi-instrumentalist performance on the album. In the best tradition of Paul McCartney on his self-titled debut, Newman plays everything from guitar to bass to melodion to recorder to even tambourine, turning in an impressive showing throughout this entire musically multifaceted showcase for his considerable skills. Unlike the erstwhile Beatle Newman does receive some help from time to time, but it's clear throughout that every note on the album has been fully scrutinized and approved by the New Pornographers' frontman.
Whereas Electric Version was largely a rehash of Mass Romantic, one of several reasons for its (subtle) inferiority to the New Pornographers' debut, on The Slow Wonder Newman has successfully produced an opus that is not only different from his past work but likewise wholly measures up to his peak material. Whether The Slow Wonder's emotional nature is superior to Mass Romantic's playful disingenuousness is completely subjective, as is the argument between the slick, calculated and controlled cacophony of the latter against the relatively sedate arrangements on the former, but what matters is that they both reach a rare height in pop perfection, boasting some of the best, catchiest songwriting of the new millennium. Both albums are modern day classics, and their differences are a testament to the versatility and genius of Newman himself.
Given its chronological status as the follow-up to Carl Newman's brilliant solo debut, the imminent arrival of Twin Cinema doubtless occasioned rampant speculation on the part of New Pornographers fans as to whether the band's latest venture would retain any of the changes made on The Slow Wonder or merely mark an abrupt return to the group's status quo.
While the answer is considerably more complex than a mere 'yes' or 'no,' for the most part Twin Cinema is a reversion to the band's norm; there are certainly numbers present that are far more emotional than the bulk of the New Pornographers' early work, but said emotion tends to be more a product of Neko Case's gorgeous vocals coupled with the occasional minimalistic, low-tempo groove rather than anything facilitated by a major departure in the songwriting department.
Thus a clear line of demarcation between Newman's solo and group work has been established, ergo the majority of the tracks on Twin Cinema are slick power pop anthems in the vein of the material on Mass Romantic and Electric Version. While a translation of 'A.C.' Newman's progression into a New Pornographers context would have been intriguing, I have absolutely no problem with a return to the band's fundamentals, and it's natural for the band to act as if The Slow Wonder had never been composed given that Newman went out of his way to differentiate the product from his collective efforts with his usual collaborators. Had Newman wanted his two enterprises to converge he could simply have released The Slow Wonder as a New Pornographers project; his decision not to makes it abundantly clear that, in his mind, he wished the album to remain independent from his other endeavors, affording him greater flexibility when he wished to operate in different styles.
This makes Twin Cinema the direct successor to 2003's Electric Version, and that's precisely the impression that the album makes upon the listener. Twin Cinema, much like its predecessor, offers an array of stunning pop gems with plentiful hooks and catchy, creative melodies. It does little to distinguish itself from previous New Pornographers efforts, but as has been proven by the band that's in no way a liability as long as the brilliant songwriting remains intact.
Like Electric Version the band's latest outing doesn't quite reach the level of their seminal debut, but given that caliber of that masterwork that's hardly a harsh critique; unforgettable melodies still abound, and as far as sheer enjoyment goes there's little in recent memory that lives up to this standard.
As was the case with both Mass Romantic and Electric Version, Twin Cinema opens with a stellar title track that instantly plunges the listener into pop nirvana. In this case the track in question is a bouncy pop rocker with a frantic pace and a constant onslaught of fluid, inventive hooks.
The second track, The Bones Of An Idol, suffers from a mild shortage in the hook department but is fully redeemed by Case's sensational singing; Newman seems to always intuit exactly which tracks he should delegate to his very talented vocal foil, and this awareness salvages what could have been a lesser moment on an otherwise brilliant album.
Other highlights include the infectious power pop of Use It, which is followed by the most emotional moment on the album, The Bleeding Heart Show, featuring elegant vocals courtesy of Ms. Case.
The Dejar penned Jackie, Dressed In Cobras is an eminently worthy contribution from the typically underexposed songwriter, while The Jessica Numbers is a rousing experience, a stirring epic (though not in length) complete with an anthemic vocal melody that ranks amongst the band's best.
There are plenty of other winners, from Case's third vocal spotlight These Are The Fables to the phenomenal Falling Through Your Clothes, but shortly after the album begins to go awry. No tracks could be construed as outright offensive; even mediocre may be too strong a term. Nevertheless there is a tangible drop in the quality department that prevents Twin Cinema from reaching the dizzying heights of the group's debut, leading to a disappointment, albeit a mild one.
Thus Twin Cinema is another excellent product from one of the finest indie pop groups in recent memory. While not quite on the same level as either Mass Romantic or The Slow Wonder, the album is still pop music of the highest order, a kind that grows increasingly rare as time passes. While some may protest that the band has yet to demonstrate any signs of progression, it can easily be countered that the band doesn't need to progress; they have a style that works, and there's no reason for them to stray from it. While The Slow Wonder may have spoiled some with its more personal, focused nature, this album can be appreciated on its own terms just as that CD was. What matters is that the New Pornographers have produced another stellar pop album, and regardless of any preexisting expectations that's certainly nothing to scoff at.
While the New Pornographers had honed their unique musical approach to near perfection, it was inevitable that the band would one day take their sound in new directions. While the announcement of such a change can prove exciting for a fan, as they wonder what new heights a group can attain once they've expanded their core style, it can just as easily fill one with trepidation as they contemplate the potential repercussions of exiting one's comfort zone.
On Challengers, both these fears and these hopes are validated. The group has changed, and in intriguing ways, but these new developments aren't always met with success; it's admirable that the New Pornographers have tried their hand at something different, but as is to be expected when one takes such a risk there are certainly misfires present.
Even when a group changes for the better, it generally takes time until these new directions are deftly implemented, resulting in a period of growing pains. Even when a band embraces the best possible course one can't expect them to instantly master it, and it's too soon to determine if the course that Challengers embarks upon is even advisable, let alone ideal.
The most prominent change on the album manifests itself in Carl Newman's musical philosophy. He's developed a certain fetish for complexity, twisting his compositions in unnatural ways to maximize the unorthodox character of his work. A change of this magnitude is laudable, bespeaking rather ambitions leanings; Newman is clearly attempting to produce more artistic, serious and challenging fare, and one must respect such a commendable re-envisioning of the band.
Newman's even gone so far as to greatly expand the band's arrangements, bringing in a plethora of instruments to create a considerably more sophisticated, elaborate and, most importantly, complex sound, abandoning the rather straightforward instrumental approach of the past.
This too is worthy of praise. Nevertheless, a persistent problem remains no matter how many layers Newman wants to add to his once humble power pop group, namely that not all these changes work.
In justifying these changes one could point to the fact that the brilliant The Slow Wonder excelled when it attempted to be at least somewhat more serious; however, Newman's solo debut was serious while remaining wholly accessible and immediately gratifying, never complicating matters with unconventional song structures or eccentric vocal patterns.
By adding all of this superfluous complexity to the sound Newman's managed to dilute the potency of the melodies, which are and always have been the greatest asset of the band. The melodies of the past were neither compromised nor cheapened by their direct approach, and this pretentious reworking simply distracts and detracts from the entertainment value of the album.
While this condemnation of the album's ambitions seems bereft of hope for the future of this direction, such is not the case, as in spite of these rather pronounced, glaring flaws the album still manages to be quite strong. While needlessly complex many of the hooks are still present and, in time, can be enjoyed and appreciated. While the album is, fittingly enough given its nomenclature, rather challenging, persistent effort can indeed yield rewards, and in the end this extra effort is well worth it.
This isn't always true, however. Tracks like the closer The Spirit Of Giving rank amongst the band's worst compositions, and there's certainly a measure of filler afflicting the track listing.
Most frustrating of all is the fact that some of the lesser tracks feature hooks that, had they received the old treatment from the band, would have been quite strong, only to have their potential dispelled by needlessly complex musical structures and aggravatingly tricky time signatures. As a lover of progressive rock I don't inherently object to complexity in rock music; I merely object when said complexity corrupts or obstructs the entertainment value of otherwise well crafted music.
It's telling that one of the album's best cuts, Mutiny, I Promise You, is the most firmly entrenched in the band's old style. Supremely catchy and memorable, it reminds the listener of what the group is capable of when they abstain from extraneous bouts of misguided artsiness.
As far as the new style goes, it proves to be relatively successful in cases like the catchy My Rights Versus Yours and, even more so, the stellar All The Old Showstoppers. Myriad Harbour is one of the obligatory Dejar penned numbers and, while it too conforms to the new complex paradigm is still quite enjoyable, particularly with its signature-New Pornographers chorus that preserves everything that's right with the group.
All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth is also decent enough, as is the strange Entering White Cecilia. Neither presents the band in top form, but nevertheless they still betrays signs of the group's considerable merit.
Thus Challengers is a flawed but still quite good product. There's no telling if this new direction will continue, let alone succeed, but given the risk that the band took in adopting this new style it's remarkable that the album turned out as well as it did. While a frustrating listen the album is still eminently enjoyable, and it's certainly interesting to witness a group in such a state of flux. Hopefully the group will arrive at their destination with their strengths intact, but the band is sufficiently strong that, in the long run, they're apt to succeed whichever course they take.
On his sophomore solo effort, A.C. Newman continues the one-man orchestra approach he'd honed on The Slow Wonder, albeit with the occasional interjection of a session musician or guest background vocalist. This preserves something of the homebrewed charm cultivated on his debut, though ultimately the final product isn't quite as personal or intimate as his first solo outing, a fact that can be attributed to a mild dose of ironic detachment that, while not quite as prevalent as in Newman's work with The New Pornographers, still constitutes a thin membrane of hip aloofness coating the material that can certainly prove emotionally distancing.
While some of The New Pornographers' smugness may have seeped into Get Guilty, Newman is careful to keep his solo releases and band content safely quarantined from one another in several crucial departments, a compartmentalization that thankfully prevents the erstwhile Carl from importing Challengers' brand of irksome extraneous complexity into the proceedings. It's a relief that Newman doesn't feel compelled to afflict all of his compositions with his newfound misguided ambitions, as this enables Get Guilty to emerge from his musical vision unscathed by needlessly twisted melodies and superfluous tricky time signatures.
The reality of the situation is that, at this point, Newman's solo work tends to surpass his New Pornographers output in the quality department. He's hardly hording all of his best material for his solo releases and certainly isn't neglecting his band responsibilities, but nevertheless Newman's non-group projects feel tighter and more focused, resulting in more cohesive and complete albums.
Doubtlessly in many respects this is a product of Newman's absolute dominance over all the material on his solo albums, an environment wherein he's at liberty to scrutinize and control every note, lyric and studio flourish. While Newman's always been at the helm of The New Pornographers in the creative department, he was still forced to allocate a measure of control to his (likewise gifted) band-mates, and while they hardly sabotaged the content their input may have detracted from the cohesiveness that's inherent to the work of a solitary performer. Furthermore, as an innate side-effect of a band effort Newman's collaborators contributed to overly slick, complex and impersonal arrangements. While said arrangements certainly fit in the context of The New Pornographers' oeuvre, this flashier, more elaborate musical approach would doubtlessly be massively incongruous and inappropriate in the context of Newman's solo work, clearly ill-suited to fulfilling the more human artistic vision that he brings to his non-band outings.
Furthermore, while Neko Case's vocal showcases were undeniable highlights of The New Pornographers' work, having Newman as the principal vocalist on each track lends a healthy consistency to the proceedings; I would never want her to stop singing on full band affairs, but Newman's monopoly on vocals is an integral part of albums like Get Guilty and The Slow Wonder, and is ultimately a major asset.
While New Pornographers albums are never lacking when it comes to quality melodies, Newman does some of his best work on his solo releases, and in the long run it appears that his particular brand of songwriting is more conducive to the comparatively restrained style practiced on the likes of The Slow Wonder. Newman's always had a strong facility for generating exceptional pop hooks in any context, but he may very well be at his best when he's writing for a single performer.
Get Guilty makes quite a case for that assertion, as it's filled with catchy melodies and irresistible hooks; needless to say they closely resemble the stellar tunes that one will invariably encounter on any New Pornographers release, but the more humble arrangements featured on Newman's solo work makes the material all the more potent.
For me, the zenith of the album arrives on track five in the form of the hyper-catchy, bouncy pop of Submarines Of Stockholm, complete with infectious sing-along verses and a charming chorus of la-la-la's that manages to evade sounding silly or childish.
This is only one of many highlights, however, as the explosive pop-rocker The Collected Works is a superb adrenaline rush, The Heartbreak Rides is pop of the highest order and All Of My Days And All Of My Days Off is a fitting (vaguely Beatle-esque) closer.
Get Guilty is an essential purchase for any fan of either The New Pornographers or A.C. Newman's solo career. While it's true that it's not especially far removed from Newman's band work, Get Guilty still manages to carve out a very real identity for itself, and ultimately it truly never could have worked as anything other than an A.C. Newman solo venture.
With its plethora of session-musicians and intricate orchestral arrangements, Together stands in stark contrast to the one-man-band approach of A.C. Newman's solo career. Thus the dividing lines between Newman's solo and group fare have finally been established and fully clarified, enabling each to build their own identity and focus on their particular strengths.
One would naturally assume that, with its elaborate orchestration and intersection of countless instruments vying for musical supremacy, Together would resemble the band's previous effort, Challengers, a flawed product marred by needless complexity and unnecessarily twisted and contorted melodies. Fortunately, this is not the case, as this time around the complex arrangements are adroitly integrated into the music without compromising the accessibility or catchiness of the melodies. Rather, on Together the orchestration serves the melodies instead of diluting, complicating or supplanting them, and the result is the best of both worlds: the rich and elegant orchestral arrangements of Challengers and the melodic immediacy and potency of classic New Pornographers albums.
The benefits of this equation are apparent from the very beginning of the album. The first four tracks are all glorious pop concoctions written by a true master of the form. From the lush string arrangements of the opener Moves to the infectious vocal melodies of the Neko Case-sung Crash Years to the unforgettable refrain of Your Hands (Together) to the irresistible charm of Silver Jenny Dollar, this initial quartet represents pop music of the highest order.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album simply can't hope to live up to the standards set by these timeless pop masterpieces. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk and the closer We End Up Together are likewise superb pop anthems, if not quite up to the level of the opening four. Elsewhere tracks like My Shepherd and Valkyrie In The Roller Disco are merely pretty but bland, though admittedly the former provides the necessary hooks when it really counts, and Case's impeccable vocals manage to salvage what otherwise had the potential to be unmitigated disasters.
If You Can't See My Mirrors is pleasant, inoffensive filler, but filler nonetheless. Worse is Daughters Of Sorrow, an ill-advised attempt to be charmingly old-fashioned that simply comes across as a cheap, somewhat grating novelty. Up In The Dark, however, is quite solid, as is the superior A Bite Out Of My Bed.
While the album is indeed a departure from the structurally adventurous indie-pop of Challengers, this doesn't mean that it's a total reversion to the bubblegum-pop of albums like Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema. Instead, Together comes off as sixties-tinged pop music, never nostalgic or transparently retro yet clearly influenced by that seminal era of rock music. Such elements had always been present on New Pornographers albums, but they're far more prevalent on Together, and they clearly suit the band quite well.
Thus Together is a return to form after the decent but disappointing Challengers. While the filler does detract from the overall experience, even the weaker tracks feature enchanting harmonies and clever arrangements, rendering them far more palatable, and sometimes unreservedly enjoyable, listens. Together may not represent the pinnacle of the band's abilities, but it's still supremely entertaining pop music penned by one of the premier songwriters on the contemporary indie pop scene. While Together's arrangements and orchestration may invite comparisons to the likes of ELO, The New Pornographers have fully established their own identity, occupying a unique niche in the pantheon of modern pop.