Popular Music Review: The New Pornographers Celebrate ‘Together’
Joining snow blowers, the goaltending mask, peanut butter, and Pamela Anderson on the list of indispensable life-saving things from Canada, the New Pornographers have solidified their position on the charts with the release of their latest album.
As far as Indie-pop goes, you won’t find another band associated with the label “Supergroup” as often as the New Pornographers. They are deserving of the title, which was bestowed upon them first of all for consistently producing original, genre-defining albums, each one both melody- and content-rich; and secondly, because the band is formed by a dream team of successful solo artists.
Reviewed by Thomas Samph
Since the release of their first album, Mass Romantic in 2000, each subsequent New Pornographers release, Electric Version (2003), Twin Cinema (2005), and Challengers (2007), has climbed higher on the U.S. charts. This is an impressive feat, considering the band is composed of artists who manage thriving solo careers outside the band: the eponymous A. C. Newman and Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Dan Collins of Destroyer, Kathryn Calder of Immaculate Machine, Kurt Dahle of Limblifter, and film producer Blaine Thurier.
Like Captain Planet said, “By your powers combined . . .” (The New Pornographers materialize, center stage). Together delivers compelling stories put to catchy music, boasting all of the group’s trademark strengths: palpable emotion, dynamic interaction, and distinct characteristics of the voice and instrument parts. But this time around the effort falls short of its well-deserved reputation. Together is far from a fizzle; still, the album lacks the flare you expect from a “Supergroup.”
As a whole, the album is unmistakably New Pornographers. No one writes better male/female harmonies, gospel-like choruses, and irresistibly catchy tunes than these musicians, and they’ve brought that same defining style to Together.
The opening track, “Moves” lets A. C. Newman take the lead, with Cathryn Calder and Neko Case chiming in with echoing refrains. The call-and-return ends at the chorus where the vocalists lean into the words “Slow down baby,” repeating them like the flash of a strobe light; it’s rhythmic musical onomatopoeia.
Outside of preschools and comic books, literary devices like onomatopoeia don’t get much attention. They’re even more rare in the mainstream world of auto-tuned, speak-singing pop music. But the New Pornographers show us that catchy music doesn’t have to be cheaply fabricated. Something as simple as the repetition of a few syllables in the right place can make a song come to life like the flicker of a film projector warming up to speed.
The band uses other devices to capture listeners as well: unforgettable melodies. When Case takes the lead on “Crash Years,” singing over acoustic guitars, drums, tambourine, and cello, the highlight of the song is an ensemble of whistles following each chorus. The multi-dimensional harmonies, another staple of all New Pornographers albums, rival any Queen riff (sans Flanger effect, of course). The band continues to flaunt the ease with which they execute intricate four-part harmonies on “Your Hands (Together),” which unites the same strobe light syllabic repetition from “Moves” with the album’s theme of community.
With a theme as broad as that, it applies to the band on multiple grounds: the songs on the album deal with both loving and struggling relationships, the band members themselves come together from diverse backgrounds, and the continuity of the New Pornographers sound throughout its history has had little variation.
If there were one track taken from each New Pornographers album to summarize the band’s sound, “Silver Jenny Dollar,” would be the song to pick from Together. Dan Bejar takes the lead vocals with his unmistakable, nasal wailing backed by shimmering guitars and bold piano chords. The tone of the song is light and fun, and the vocals are layered and intricate. The lyrics to the song, as with most New Pornographers songs, are purposefully ambiguous. In a 2002 interview, A. C. Newman, the principal lyricist for the band, said, “Some of the lyrics have literal meaning. Some of them I just like the sound of. I’ve never cared about the meaning of lyrics, I’m more interested in the sound and the force that they have.” Whether the song has buried meaning or is merely frivolous, the lyrics make the stories they tell more intriguing; and to top it off, the words sound great in each tune.
Although the album undeniably has a New Pornographers sound, the differences between this album and previous undertakings are apparent from the beginning: grungy distortion from strings and guitars introduces the opening track, “Moves.” In the past, the band has always had an even lighter, more upbeat feel. Whether it is the addition of underlying strings to many tracks like “Crash Years,” “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” and “Moves,” or a different approach to songwriting, Together feels darker and heavier than previous albums.
However, to say that the New Pornographers sound a touch darker and heavier is like claiming a glass of water dropped in the ocean will make it not salty. The difference is hardly noticeable, and a New Pornographers album still means catchy whistling solos, gospel-choir-like harmonies, and intricate songwriting.
Even so, the album was missing a few touches that are normally expected from the New Pornographers. Together lacks the titanic swells, builds, and mood changes that have always been present on previous albums. “The Bleeding Heart Show,” from Twin Cinema is the epitome of everything New Pornographers: a gentle intro leads to a rocking climax full of layered harmonies, melodic “Oooh’s,” and sing-along “Hey la’s,” in telling a passionate story of complicated love. The songs on Together, on the other hand, have a few feeble builds and mood changes, but it seems that the band stopped short of letting it all out.
The final track on the album, “We End Up Together,” is the closest the band comes to reaching full potential. Admittedly, the New Pornographers did set the bar pretty high with songs like “The Bleeding Heart Show,” and “Letter From An Occupant,” on previous albums, but that’s no excuse to deliver second-rate goods just because you killed it the first time. It might be time to go back to the apple tree instead of digging around for leftovers at the bottom of the farm stand barrel.
Super powered? Yes. Super powers? Not quite. Still, like the New Pornographers’ previous albums, this is quintessential power pop coming from a talented band that knows how to make great music. Despite the album’s small shortcomings, Together still delivers a refreshing New Pornographers experience.