Friday, June 04, 2010

Review: New Pornographers, Together

The New Pornographers

Together has been lauded as the triumphant return of the New Pornographers after the lull of 2007’s Challengers, but after a few listens, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit underwhelmed. Maybe it’s easy to expect too much of The New Pornographers, a band that has churned out several critically acclaimed albums in the past ten years and stars four very talented and individually successful musicians like A.C. Newman, Dan Bejard of Destroyer, Neko Case and Kathryn Calder. We expect chugging guitar riffs and infectious pop hooks sung in perfect male/female harmonies, so sugary that we can easily swallow down those abstruse lyrics. Most of all, we expect them to sound as fresh and energetic as they did when we first blasted Mass Romantic over our speakers ten years ago. Not that I should be projecting all my expectations on to you—maybe it’s just me holding on to the sounds of “Letter From An Occupant,” “Electric Vision” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno” a little too tightly. But it’s difficult to say exactly what’s missing on the new album. It’s more mid-tempo than earlier albums, but no more so than 2005’s Twin Cinemas. There are the high-energy numbers of old like “Crash Years,” “Up In The Dark” and “Your Hands (Together).” There are breezy hook-filled tracks like “Silver Jenny Dollar” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk.” So what’s the problem?
It seems like every track starts out full of potential, but gets itself wrapped around a hook too tightly. The songs build and build, but ultimately fizzle out instead of coming together in some big aural explosion. Songs like “Silver Jenny Dollar” start out as lush, classic pop numbers but end up getting stuck like broken records on repetitive choruses like “They holler silver Jenny dollar / la la la la / Silver Jenny dollar” with some sugary backing vocals, building up to nowhere. And no one likes a bridge to nowhere (okay, almost no one). The songs that tend towards the older power-pop, rocking guitar sound hit all the right notes but feel a little flat and calculated. The elements are there—the energy is not. “Up In the Dark” starts out with a promising riff over the persistent stomp of drums but gets tangled up in what’s fairly weak for one of A.C. Newman’s typical big choruses: “What’s love? What what turns up in the dark.”

That’s not to say the album is uniformly flat. There are elements that work here. Neko Case’s vocals provide much needed energy on the album’s standout track, “Crash Years,” which manages to blend the hooky power-pop sound of jangly guitars and harmonies with the newer orchestral sound of cellos and strings effectively. Although Case’s voice also shines on ballads like “My Shepherd,” she sounds best when her voice is used out of its natural element, notably her harmonies on Bejar's “Daughters of Sorrow.” Though as a whole Together may not be the best the New Pornographers have to offer, it does, in fact, sound more together. Bejar’s and Newman’s songs are more cohesive, and it seems the band is collectively aiming for a broader, more sweeping range of sound. While this manifests itself in duds like “Valkyrie At The Roller Disco,” there is also promise for this new sound that comes together in the aptly named closer, “We End Up Together.” After an album that remained pleasantly on cruise control for much of the first 38 minutes, “We End Up Together” builds slowly with a sense of purpose, starting with the lo-fi strums of Newman’s guitar, gradually adding harmonies, sparse electric guitar, a cutting cello line, organs and drums before building towards some semblance of a chorus. The song seems to catch its breath between the pounding drums and harmonies; it opens up with short interludes and fills the space back up again with soft, hazy vocals under strings that rouse nostalgia for nothing in particular—before launching wholeheartedly into the song once more. Even without the signature crunchy guitar lines and power-pop choruses, the song has a real energy that is missing for much of the album. For once, the listener is pulled along by the music instead of coasting along with it.

The formula that has made the New Pornographers a staple of indie pop and caught listeners’ ears in the days of Mass Romantic and Electric Version sounds a bit half-hearted and tired here, as do the lyrics, which have been a strength in the past. Overall, it’s filled with solid, well-crafted pop songs—it's even a pretty pleasant listen, but it's hard to listen without feeling just a little disappointed that it doesn’t fulfill the potential that we see glimmers of scattered across the album. Fusing their classic power-pop sound together with this new direction that we saw begin on Twin Cinema and continue on Challengers has plenty of promise but will require more fervor on the part of the band next time they come together.

Highlights: “Crash Years,” “We End Up Together”
Recommended Tracks: “If You Can’t See My Mirrors," "Moves"

-- Catherine DeGennaro

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