The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema: New Porn Vs. Old Porn

2005_TheNewPornographers_TwinCinemaArtist: The New Pornographers
Album: Twin Cinema
Year: 2005
Grade: B+

In Brief: A wildly fun roller coaster ride of bizarre thoughts and part-manic, part-textured performances. Twin Cinema is The New Pornographers’ best work thus far.

Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart once famously said, “Rock & roll is the new pornography.” Contrary to the myth that often follows Canadian indie rock band The New Pornographers around, this is not the source of the band’s name. But it clearly shows a lack of understanding of the differences between pornography and rock & roll. Using Twin Cinema, The New Pornographers’ finest specimen of artistic output to date, as a template, I thought it might be interesting to explore the ways that “new porn” is distinct from “old porn”. This isn’t a serious study so much as it is an excuse for bad jokes, so if you’re not the type to find humor in naughty double entendres, you might want to withdraw early from reading this review.

The New Pornographers, a band established right around the tail end of the 90’s with their first output appearing as the album Mass Romantic right at the turn of the century, are a supergroup of sorts with the apparent intent of assaulting your ears with oblique lyrics, oddball melodies, and exuberant vocals that achieve catchiness by brute force even when a song is otherwise obscure. It’s a recipe that can border on irritating when the vocals are rougher around the edges (see some of their older work) or when the tempo or overall mood doesn’t seem to match the energy put into the song. But as the group has matured, they’ve also discovered a talent for lush, down-tempo moments that sidewind their way through unexpected twists and turns, morphing into a more post-modern take on the old power ballad. Sometimes, they’re primitive enough to go with the simple “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” of a pounding rhythm, a sweet guitar solo, and a chorus that stays in your head for hours, but then again, one would never accuse these folks of taking the obvious approach every time. Unlike their counterparts in “old porn”, The New Pornographers have more creative aspirations than just the same old bump and grind leading to the expected money shot each and every time. And while it’s perhaps true of some rock bands that their lyrics can be as redundant and predictable as the dialogue of your average X-rated film, The New Pornographers easily sidestep that trap by taking more of an interpretive approach that’s likely to leave you scratching your head several listens later. The aim might seem to be instant gratification at first, but there’s a need for discovery, for figuring things out, that keeps the listener coming back. If anything, the approach is more like the slow tease of erotica, rather than the straightforward indulgence of pedestrian porn. (You may ask, how do I know the difference? Excellent question. It’s because… oh my, what can that be over there behind you? Oh, so there’s nothing there? Never mind. I thought I saw something. What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, rock music.)

At the core of The New Pornographers lies a threesome of singer/songwriters, each with their own strengths and quirks, each bringing a different sort of personality to the songs that they assume the lead position on. Carl Newman, also known for his solo work as A. C. Newman, is the band’s lynchpin, his love of alliteration and joyous wordplay striking just the right balance between amusing and demented in songs that may never be straight-up humorous, but are often witty even in their more sensitive moments, not too far removed from some of the Barenaked Ladies‘ less novelty-oriented material. (I’ve said on many occasions that the two bands should tour together. Can you imagine how many hits the tour’s web pages would get from false positives on Google searches?) Dan Bejar, the more sinister, snake-tongued of the two male leads, is also known for his work with the band Destroyer. And Neko Case offers a feminine perspective (being an acclaimed solo songwriter in her own right, even if she doesn’t contribute as much lyrically to this band’s records), her golden voice making her the object of many a fan’s affections. (Interesting side note than links the worlds of new porn and old porn: Case was once offered the chance to pose for Playboy. She turned it down because she didn’t want to be known as that chick who posed for Playboy and, by the way, also made some records.) Rounding out the band are an excellent section of rhythm players and multi-instrumentalists, many of them also involved in other bands which blur the definition of “day job”. All of these elements conspire to create albums that can be long and meandering, yet never boring, and a flexible enough lineup to support the absence of one or two members on tour due to obligations with the numerous second careers that everyone’s juggling.

Now I’m relatively new to the band, only having discovered them last year after Newman’s Get Guilty and Case’s Middle Cyclone first tickled my ears, but I’ve been through their four albums thus far (Together‘s due out soon; I’m currently digesting it), and settled on Twin Cinema, their third disc, as their most accomplished so far and thus a good place to start for a virgin fan. Here you’ll find a few of the rough edges from their early days cleaned up without losing the free-wheeling attitude that sends so many of their songs barreling victoriously across the finish line. It’s also the point where experiments with tempo, time signature, and texture started to figure into the mix more prominently, with Twin Cinema still coming out as a mostly upbeat romp, but with a few intriguing detours into territory that I’m guessing wouldn’t have previously been considered the band’s style. At 14 tracks and 48 minutes, it’s a long enough album to get lost in, but a short enough one to avoid overstaying its welcome. And while most of the “classics” that carry the greatest legacy are front-loaded in the first half of this disc, there are plenty of intriguing, oddball moments toward the end that make me wonder if the band pulls ’em out just to have fun with ’em in a live setting in order to keep fans on their toes. It’s the kind of album where you can dig for obscure favorites and everybody who likes the band can come up with noticeably different songs to put at the top of their personal lists. I’m describing the diversity of it more than the actual sound because, while I can apply the generic “indie rock” tag to these guys, I don’t really know what influences to cite when describing their literate yet cheeky, electrified yet nuanced approach. You’ll get classic pop moments here, and you’ll get tracks that defy your expectations of song structure and what the proper “ingredients” of a rock song should be.

And here I’ve gotten through an entire paragraph without seizing the opportunity for any off-color jokes about porno moves. That simply won’t do, so I guess it’s time to penetrate more deeply into the album and see what pops up.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Twin Cinema
New Porn: Slamming drums and an atonal sequence of notes from the lead guitar lead things off in grand style, adding just enough quirkiness to an otherwise straightforward, full-throated romp. Carl Newman seems to be almost shouting the lyrics as the come stuttering out, with Neko Case excitedly chiming in behind him as he describes the wonder of sitting in some art house theater and watching a good indie film while plotting to take over the world. Or something. He doesn’t write his lyrics with the intent of them being anything close to clear, so the listener is free to imagine whatever meaning remotely makes sense to them. It’s a fun exercise in going almost completely off the rails, especially when a fantastically bizarre guitar solo chimes in during the middle eight.
Old Porn: Twins are popular in this type of cinema. (The identical ones more so than the fraternal.)

2. The Bones of an Idol
New Porn: This would the equivalent of cutting straight from the midst of the action to a non-sequitur scene purely made up of dialogue. In one of the album’s few missteps, Neko leads the band through a mid-tempo jaunt about a search for a has-been hero. It does its best to be intriguing with its insistent piano chords and woozy chord progression, but the pacing of the album really suffers for it. This would have fit better deeper in, perhaps toward the middle of the album. Or they could have saved it for Challengers, since it’s a better fit with that album’s less brash approach.
Old Porn: This generally involves one or more idols getting… well, you get the idea.

3. Use It
New Porn: WOOOHOOOOOO!!! It’s hard not to get all manic, jumping-up-and-down excited over this one, as it comes rumbling in on the addictive triple beat of Todd Fancey‘s guitars, Kurt Dahle‘s drums, and Kathryn Calder‘s piano. It’s a dense, fast blitz of a song that features some of Carl Newman’s most witty and wonderful rhymes, with the hands-down best line reading as follows: “Heads down, thumbs up/Two sips from the cup of human kindness, and I’m sh!t-faced/Just laid to waste.” (Swears are used sparingly by this band, but they make ’em count.) The song feels like a rallying call that wants to make you get up and do something, but then you realize you’re too drunk and you “can’t walk right”. Whatever it’s trying to tell me, I’m pretty sure it’s ingenious. (The music video certainly follows suit, with the band members all used as puppets, seen miming this ridiculously upbeat song in front of a bewildered crowd of kids, and doing their household chores and such while basically being limp rag dolls moved around by the shadowy figures behind them. It is perhaps the most awesomely silly moment in the band’s history of wacky music videos.)
Old Porn: There may be other reasons why the participants can’t walk right afterward.

4. The Bleeding Heart Show
New Porn: Now’s the point where it makes sense to slow down and do something a little less immediate and more dramatic. Though this one starts off all quiet and acoustic, you can tell it’s aiming for greatness as soon as those two thumps on a drum herald the arrival of the first verse. Newman starts this one off solo, but is soon joined by Case, the two singing in sweet tandem as this pity party sort of story about an abruptly ended romance begins to pick up steam. The song is unusual is that it goes through a verse, pre-chorus, and chorus without ever going back to repeat any part of itself, which has the effect of ensuring that the momentum builds unabated all the way through to the end. And despite the lack of repetition, it’s one of the easiest tunes to get stuck in your head and its wayward melody comes crashing into a delicious singalong, in which Neko’s throaty declaration: “We have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show” is overlaid by an irresistible chorus of “Hey la”s from nearly everyone else in the band. It’s a runaway freight train at that point. Pure brilliance.
Old Porn: Lots of body parts are shown. The heart generally isn’t one of them.

5. Jackie, Dressed in Cobras
New Porn: Dan Bejar can sometimes feel like a bit of a sideshow amidst all of the Newman/Case songs, but when he takes the spotlight, it’s generally fascinating in its own twisted way. Here, the band gallops forward with a wry, mysterious song about a woman who we first met in Mass Romantic‘s “Jackie”, who is now apparently crossing the country on “a train devouring the land” while flirting with cobras. Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense, but just listen to the bizarrely satisfying way that rhythm comes tumbling out, with all of its weird time signature shifts that the drums, guitars, and piano navigate perfectly. It’s the third fully brilliant number in a row, and it’s hard to be anything less than in love with Twin Cinema at this point despite not even being halfway through it.
Old Porn: Jackie isn’t dressed in anything. There are no cobras, but plenty of trouser snakes.

6. The Jessica Numbers
New Porn: Even though this one’s a group vocal effort, my mind tends to lump it in with the Dan Bejar songs, just due to the jerky rattle of its rhythm and the chopped up bits of guitar at the beginning that sound like they’re being run through a meat grinder. It’s ostensibly in 6/8 time, with plenty of sweet guitar licks to punctuate the circular melody, but plenty of little riffs where they skip beats or go off on some lyrical bunny trail for a few seconds just to mess with you, the listener. I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s about – it feels like a bunch of truncated lines of code to my ears. (Starkly poetic English code, but code nonetheless.)
Old Porn: Whoever just had a one-night stand with Jessica probably didn’t bother to get her numbers. There will be no second date.

7. These Are the Fables
New Porn: And now it’s time to do the Neko Case ballad thing the right way. Her lovely voice is well-suited to this low-key song, written just so that she can wrap herself around its wandering melody and its stories of fanciful characters that live just up the block. I’m almost expecting a Sesame Street sketch to be built around this one as she describes the dancing girls and sirens and soldiers and fallen angels and such living just up the block. (Or maybe Mister Rogers. Who are the people in your neighborhood?) I love the exuberant way that the rest of the band chimes in when she sings “These are the fables on MY STREET!” (Cue dramatic pause.) Then the song goes and throws you for a loop on the last refrain, taking a detour into sunny 60’s piano pop, for no reason other than because it’s fun. I’m guessing that was Newman’s doing.
Old Porn: The dancing girls are showing off their cans rather than kicking them.

8. Sing Me Spanish Techno
New Porn: You might grimace at the laughably ridiculous title, but fear not – this isn’t actually a techno song. It’s quite electrified, with a guitar riff that jumps from low to high and back again that will certainly burrow its way into your gray matter, and Newman’s sassy vocals, which once again lead us through a byzantine series of odd commands and pointless quests until we finally arrive at the conclusion that it’s all karmic payback for “listening too long to one song”. Maybe he’s talking about the after-effects of having too much to drink and reliving the long-gone glory days when the Macarena was popular, for all I know. But I wouldn’t blame you for listening too long to this song either way.
Old Porn: The music video’s got dudes dressed in drag! This is one case where old and new porn might not be that different, apart from the new porn being PG-rated.

9. Falling Through Your Clothes
New Porn: This oddball experiment is another one that might have fit better on Challengers, but this deep into the record, it’s nice to have these little signposts as breaks that help me to tell the more exuberant, poppy songs apart, since the lack of these mellower moments can make most of their earlier albums go by in a blur for me. Speaking of blurs, this song actually feels like a blur, since it’s got a heavily layered chorus that seems to loop little bits of the backing vocals for a slightly psychedelic effect. The melody and disjointed lyrics sort of resemble some of the quieter moments on Newman’s Get Guilty, now that I think about it (“Young Atlantis” in particular), but of course that’s all backwards, since this one happened first. The lyrics and their description of a personality (or perhaps a relationship) in flux are intriguing but once again impenetrable. I’m slightly bugged at the out-of-place use of “g*dd*mn”, but it’s not too big of a deal.
Old Porn: It’s more about falling out of your clothes rather than through them.

10. Broken Breads
New Porn: When Dan Bejar comes busting in very suddenly with another one of his rhythmically flexible mazes of sound, the drums punctuating all of the accented spots in his lyrics, it feels an awful lot like being punched in the face repeatedly. That doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. He describes a rather weird world of clowns and minstrels and wh*res – lots of wh*res, it seems – all playing their part in some sort of a bizarre gender war. The tone of it is dripping with bitterness, but I can’t quite do the math. It’s one of the album’s jumpiest songs, and that might subvert its hook slightly, but it’s still a good shot of energy where it’s needed as the back half of the album begins its sprint toward the finish line.
Old Porn: Boys and girls are encouraged to make love, not war. Though it’s still true that a man won’t come between a wh*re and her money.

11. Three or Four
New Porn: This would be the one song on Twin Cinema that I genuinely dislike, and probably my only real reason for not giving it five stars. It’s that irritating. It means well, using a highly processed delay effect on the rhythm guitar to form a loop that the keyboards and electric guitar do a repetitive dance around, but the sheer repetition of it, at its constipated, stuttering pace, makes it difficult to sit through. Neko doesn’t do a bad job on lead vocals here – I usually enjoy it when she gets to go for the throat on the band’s more aggressive songs. But any goodwill she builds up in the verse is dashes by an awful fart of a chorus where the group vocals singing “Three or four…” are cut off by a weak little yelp from Carl – “…out of us!” Over and over and FRIGGING OVER AGAIN. Then, just to add insult to injury, there’s a go-nowhere bridge that contains the band’s weakest vocal breakdown ever. This one should have been relegated to a bonus track on some international version released in a country that no one who likes this band will ever live in.
Old Porn: Quick math question: How many combinations of “three or four” men and/or women can possibly be made? Whatever the amount, it’s quite likely that they’ve all been attempted.

12. Star Bodies
New Porn: Picking up the pace again is another bouncy little song which I sometimes get confused with a few of the other rockers on the disc, but which I enjoy when I think about it. The vocal ping-pong between Carl and Neko is a lot of fun during the verses, and it’s a got a fun breakdown that repeats “Take me to where your sister lives”, on top of an already catchy chorus that proclaims “For you, there’s not any warning!” It’s whimsical, it’s sassy, it makes no gosh darn sense, but by this point, you probably expected that.
Old Porn: The song’s called “Star Bodies”. I got nothin’.

13. Streets of Fire
New Porn: The band is mostly stripped back to Dan Bejar’s voice, an acoustic guitar, and Kathryn’s accordion for an unplugged track that surprisingly packs a lot of power once the band fully gets into it. It’s actually a cover of a song by Destroyer, which might explain the more sinister lyrics. Bejar’s definitely got some demons to exorcise, given his pyromaniacal (I declare this to be a word) excitement over a drunk priest burning down a church. One can almost imagine him impishly jumping up and down with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork, crying “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet fire in the street!”
Old Porn: Frequent blood tests are advisable when participating in the making of new porn. Otherwise, your partner might end up with sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet fire somewhere else.

14. Stacked Crooked
New Porn: The previous track bleeds nicely into this one, as the whine of twin electric guitars gets us ramped up for a delightfully weird finale. The intro to this one is another one of those moments where you can tell the band is building toward something epic, and just in case there were any doubts, there’s that “two thumps on the drum” trick to bring “The Bleeding Heart Show” to mind again. This one might not be as obvious of a winner to some folks – it seems to be one of the least talked-about songs in their canon, but it’s actually my favorite New Pornos song. I’m in love with the way that the toms thump along to Carl’s off-kilter lyrics, the disgruntled moping about from the electric guitar, and the glorious trumpet interlude that breaks in just as the ladies chime in on backing vocals and the keyboards go into overdrive. This one sets you up for a zinger of a chorus only to dodge at the last second and fall back into another mysterious verse. When it finally gets to that chorus, it turns out to be a delightfully defiant moment worthy of a singalong: “Do not, do not deny me, deny my right to feel/Do not, do not deny me my Achilles heel/Do not, do not deny my attention to detail/Do not, do not deny me the clicking of the heels!” The way the melody turns on the word “heels” is brilliant, and the gradual fadeout with that grumbling guitar can sometimes leave me stuck singing this thing for a few more minutes before realizing that the album has ended.
Old Porn: “Stacked Crooked” is an apt description of an “augmented” porn star in her later years.

So, to summarize – perversely good pop hooks, throbbing organic rhythms, devious lyrical turns of phrase, and yet unlike the type of cinema the band’s named after, no explicit content. Don’t be afraid of The New Pornographers. Twin Cinema is the ideal place to start with this band, and you won’t have to show an ID to pick it up at the music store.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Twin Cinema $1.50
The Bones of an Idol $.50
Use It $2
The Bleeding Heart Show $2
Jackie, Dressed in Cobras $1.50
The Jessica Numbers $1
These Are the Fables $1.50
Sing Me Spanish Techno $1.50
Falling Through Your Clothes $1
Broken Breads $1
Three or Four -$.50
Star Bodies $1
Streets of Fire $1
Stacked Crooked $2
TOTAL: $17
(Compare to old porn, which will cost you considerably more per month or per minute, depending on what type you’re into.)

BAND MEMBERS:
Carl Newman: Lead and backing vocals, guitar, ebow, synthesizer, harmonica, pump organ, xylophone
Dan Bejar: Lead and backing vocals, guitar, synthesizer, melodeon
Neko Case: Lead and backing vocals
Kathryn Calder: Piano, backing vocals
John Collins: Bass, guitar, synthesizer, ebow, backing vocals
Kurt Dahle: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Todd Fancey: Guitar
Blaine Thurier: Synthesizer

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:


WEBSITE:
http://www.thenewpornographers.com

Originally published on Epinions.com.

4 thoughts on “The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema: New Porn Vs. Old Porn

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