The New Pornographers – Together: Newer Porn Vs. Old Porn

2010_TheNewPornographers_TogetherArtist: The New Pornographers
Album: Together
Year: 2010
Grade: B-

In Brief: Twin Cinema‘s still their high-water mark. I see Together as kind of a synthesis between that and the more experimental Challengers, with hints of the old days thrown in.

After a three-year gap since their last album, Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers are back with a brand new disc simply titled Together. It’s fitting for me as a relatively new fan: I discovered the group by way of a few members’ solo projects, and while I went back and explored their past collaborations, this is my first time hearing the group together in the here and now, making the kind of music that is being shaped today by their experiences both as a collective and as individuals over the past few years. It’s also excellent timing for me as a critic, since the incredibly lame joke that became the foundation for my entire review of Twin Cinema just a few months back paid off in surprisingly large dividends (by Epinions standards anyhow – and yes, I know how Google works and intentionally exploited it, so there!) So along with a dozen new songs from these weirdos, you get another round of bad puns from me as I bring you the second part in my ill-advised “New Porn Vs. Old Porn” series.

When we last left the New Pornos (in a lost chapter of my series that has yet to be written), they had just turned out Challengers, a surprisingly subdued and pensive record that subverted the in-your-face expectations generated by their first three albums, playing around with acoustic, folksy instrumentation a bit more and scaling back the brash indie pop tendencies that they had initially used to make a name for themselves. There were pros and cons to that approach – some longtime fans were disappointed, while some newer fans, who might have had a tougher time telling songs apart when they went full-throttle on most of their previous releases, appreciated the diversity. For a record largely comprised of attempts to not sound like their old selves too much, it played surprisingly well. Still, Challengers was the kind of departure that made me figure they’d probably come back around to what they knew best on the next album – and Together proves that assumption to be mostly true. While there are sparser moments here, a bit of ornamental instrumentation here, and the occasional head-scratching detour that leaves you wondering what the hell they were thinking, most of Together still keeps the mood upbeat and punchy, with wry turns of phrase that sound sassy even though the meaning behind them might turn out to be rather obscure upon closer examination. Through their use of enthusiastic, sing-along choruses and big, bold-faced rhythms and riffs, this group is surprisingly accessible despite being almost impossible to fully understand.

When trying to map out an album by the New Pornos in my head, I find it easiest to break it down by who sings lead on each song. A. C. Newman serves as the de facto band leader, taking the mic on the majority of the tracks, and so an album’s generally going to succeed or fail based on how much inspiration he had in the writing sessions for it. Here, he comes up slightly short of my usual expectations despite (or perhaps due to) being fresh off of the brilliant solo album Get Guilty, which is how he first got my attention last year. Where it works, he generally has help from the other vocalists. Neko Case proves to be a powerhouse as usual whenever she takes the lead on a Newman-penned song (she seems to save her own material for her solo work), while Kathryn Calder, Newman’s long-lost niece (no, really!) and Case’s stand-in for live shows, holds her own admirably, proving that her status as the band’s secret weapon on Challengers was no fluke. Rounding out the lineup of lead vocalists is Dan Bejar, who really feels like the odd man out this time around, since he’s got only three songs and only one of them really connects with me. He’s got the kind of sneery voice that you’ll either love or hate, and while I don’t have a problem with it at all, I really feel like his songwriting on this album isn’t anywhere near the caliber of past tracks like “Myriad Harbour” or “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” where his odd words really packed a punch.

Being that this album is entitled Together, though, its greatest strength seems to be the moments where these disparate forces (and also the band’s less talked-about but still talented rhythm section and a few multi-instrumentalists who tag along) join together in unison for an action-packed blend of quirky, organic pop goodness. This is one of those albums where you’ll know a great chorus almost immediately when you hear it (and probably find that the lion’s share of those great choruses are front-loaded into the album’s first half). It’s not as consistent a record as Twin Cinema, nor are its diversions as compelling as those on Challengers. Sometimes Together actually reminds me of the band’s early days – since I have about the same ratio of “This is awesome!” to “So what?” as I flip through the track listing as I do when listening to Mass Romantic. But Kathryn wasn’t around by then, so this album gets +1 over that one in the vocal department.

As with my review of Twin Cinema, dumb jokes will abound as I contrast the songs’ attitude and lyrical content with that of adult films. If you find this joke to be in poor taste, then consider this fair warning. (You can decide whether what lies ahead is for mature or immature audiences only.)

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Moves
New Porn:
And we lead off with… an angry cello? Or a fuzzy electric guitar? Hard to tell, but there’s some lovely synthesis of bouncy pop/rock instrumentation and strings in this head-bobbing mid-tempo number. Newman’s in good form here, with his fragmented, mystifying lyrics jumping around because his normal cheeky tone and the little bits of falsetto that he likes to work in. This jerky collage of sound hits its stride at the stuttering chorus, with its insistent command: “Slo-o-o-ow do-o-o-own, la-a-a-a-di-i-i-ies.” He’s apparently ticked that someone’s stolen his “moves” from him, and that’s about as far as I can get interpretation-wise. It’s fun stuff all the way through until the last echoes of that letter “o” in the fadeout.
Old Porn: See the series of Saturday Night Live sketches in which Grady Wilson advertises a series of home videos designed to help teach you some moves.

2. Crash Years
New Porn:
We switch more of an up-tempo mood here as Neko takes the mic, and once again the cellos and electric guitars are trading riffs back and forth. I love this pretty much right off the bat, and the deal is only sweetened by some cheery whistling and Neko’s usual sassiness. In terms of songs where she’s clearly the voice in charge, I have to say that I mostly found the Neko songs to be a distraction on the last two albums – not necessarily bad but definitely breaking up the flow of things. Here, she finally gets to take on something more upbeat after not being much of a presence on most such songs, and it reminds me of the Neko I loved on the band’s earlier records. The lyrics appear to compare a slow, difficult, and painful period of life with the aftermath of a car crash, which affects not only the vehicle occupants who were directly involved, but also backs up traffic for miles as people gawk and struggle to merge into the few available lanes left. (That’s my interpretation, anyway, and I’m just glad to have one at all for a change.) This one was a good follow-up single choice – it’s not as brash and in-your-face as the old stuff, but it’s a good balance between the band’s knack for constructing catchy pop hooks in weird ways, and the slightly more subdued, cerebral approach of their more recent work. I can’t make any sense of the music video with its overhead-cam pedestrian choreography, but I won’t hold that against the song.
Old Porn: See the movie Crash. No, not the one that won the Oscar. The other one with James Spader and the people with the freaky car accident fetish.

3. Your Hands (Together)
New Porn:
And… ACTION! The guitar riff that jumps out to smack you upside the head and then immediately retreat into the bushes before you can figure out what the hell happened is an instant winner of a hook. This song has a “rolling feel” to it with a bass line much like that of “Use It”, and that puts the song in company while ensuring that it leaves its own stamp on the world with its rough ride of start-stop riffing and exuberant vocals sung almost entirely in unison. You’ll have “Put, put, put your hands together!” stuck in your head for weeks, and then when that chorus starts to roll furiously like a runaway train (yeah, the main hook isn’t even part of the chorus – that illustrates how awesomely memorable the whole song is), and Neko’s out front again with another one of her best performances, as the rapid-fire lyrics positively drip with snark. Everyone involved sounds like they’re having a total blast here, and then when you watch the ninja choreography (no, seriously!) in the video directed by group member Blaine Thurier, it just launches the whole thing into the realm of awesome over-the-top-ness.
Old Porn: Put, put, put your hips together.

4. Silver Jenny Dollar
New Porn:
I just don’t get Dan Bejar on this album. Like, at all. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the first of three songs that he has to offer on this disc, which is a fairly straightforward (for him, anyway) and sunny pop/rock song, all lit up with its confident lead riff, an easygoing acoustic guitar strumming away, and a bit of Kathryn’s pounding piano for good measure. Since Bejar has an obsession with naming women in his songs (see his former favorite subjects Jackie and Contessa), I can’t figure out why in the world “Jenny” in this song is being described as a monetary unit. The line “It’s true, to love her is all I can do/In a world that’s beaten everything black and blue” might offer a hint – the description seems complimentary, as if to say she’s the real deal and others are a dime a dozen. “Cartilage and sinew was the name of her act” offers another clue that leans toward this interpretation. But since interpreting Bejar’s lyrics is an awful lot like trying to solve a 1,000 piece puzzle with approximately 60% of the pieces missing, borders included, I won’t belabor the point.
Old Porn: Susan B. Anthony would likely not have appreciated being used as payment for this.

5. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
New Porn:
It tickles me pink to finally hear Kathryn Calder get the lead vocal on a decent song. (“Failsafe” on Challengers was okay, but it kind of fizzled out – her most notable moments were the bridges of a couple Newman songs.) Bouncy piano and hand claps rule the day here, along with some fun lyrics that make liberal use of the word “Byzantine”, as if to lampshade the point that the band’s lyrics often are Byzantine. And when the guitars get hot and heavy, this thing actually comes close to rocking out, as much as that’s possible in poppy 6/8 time anyway. (I’d feel dumb if it was actually Neko singing lead on this one, since it is hard to tell the difference, but Neko’s voice tends to be a bit more brassy while Kathryn’s has a slightly more sweet and innocent tone to it. Either way, it’s lovely.)
Old Porn: Probably shouldn’t be used as an example of how to sweet-talk a woman. (Unless you like being slapped. I mean on the face.)

6. My Shepherd
New Porn:
This one of those songs that sneaks up on you – it’s lush and sparse at first with its wandering piano melody and that little bit of grumbling guitar that keeps repeating, but you can probably tell from the way the drums break into the emptiness that there’s some energy waiting to be unleashed here. You might perhaps expect another “Bleeding Heart Show”, and while I wouldn’t quite describe the music that way because it doesn’t have quite the same amount of runaway force, the emotional impact is similar. The lyrics – which are expertly rendered by Neko – walk a fine line between devotional and just plain creepy. This is best exemplified in the open-ended chorus: “You’re my lord, you’re my shepherd/Careful kid, no one gets hurt/You made me.” There’s also a pretty good zinger leading up to it, as she remarks, “If I’m honest, you come to mind/But baby, I’m not.” So there’s clearly some resentment here – the song could deal with being let down by a religious figure, or perhaps with a relationship wrongly put on a pedestal as if it were one’s savior. Lots of food for thought here, and just when you think it’s going to end peacefully, it comes crashing back in with a brief, but epic coda, exclaiming “Try to fail!” again and again.
Old Porn: Any puns I could come up with here are likely to earn me a ticket to “the special hell”.

7. If You Can’t See My Mirrors
New Porn:
Hey look, it’s Sideshow Dan! (I call him that because he seems to have little do with the proceedings when he isn’t singing lead.) Here he’s cooked up an absolutely breezy acoustic pop melody, with the female vocals that support him nailing it perfectly as they chime in at the conclusion of his verses. This would be one of my favorites if his lyrics didn’t ruin it for me, since he bitterly repeats the line “P*ssed-up Sunday morning” one too many times for it to be effective. He seems to be mourning someone who had to leave – either the band or a relationship, depending on how you manipulate the few words he’s given us, and he’s either drunk or angry (or urinating?) as a result of it. I haven’t the foggiest clue what any of this has to do with being able to see someone in your mirror. Not that I expect the song to explain itself, but all of these little nitpicks combined tend to disengage me from an otherwise pleasant song.
Old Porn: Objects in mirror are – quite alarmingly – the same size as they appear.

8. Up in the Dark
New Porn:
Another attempt at an acoustic pop gem, albeit a much more quirky one, shows up here, as the drums and guitars hammer out an off-beat march in 6/4, which frames another quintessential Newman melody, meandering all around while the ladies chime in right behind him. (Think “The Jessica Numbers” without all the hairpin turns in the rhythm.) Some of Blaine Thurier’s synth effects are added to the mix just to further emphasize the weirdness, but behind the circus of sound is a pretty clear question: “What’s love, but what turns up in the dark?” You can go a lot of places with such a question. It could be a cynical assumption that love is really just about sex, or about secrets kept, or even about vague particulars that don’t make much sense once we bring them to light and try to understand them. Maybe it’s just something you stumble across? I like the open-endedness of this statement, and the way that the song’s suspicious lyrics lead up to it.
Old Porn: Nobody does it in the dark, and I mean nobody. (Except perhaps for celebrities who don’t know they’re being taped.)

9. Valkyrie in the Roller Disco
New Porn:
You’d expect instant awesomeness from a song with a title such as this. You’d be wrong. This is the one song that seems to get maligned in nearly every review of the album that I’ve read, and while it’s somewhat deserving of criticism for bringing the album to a screeching halt for an off-kilter folk ballad that leads to no climax and doesn’t quite get weird enough to justify its premise, it’s also an interesting sonic concoction when isolated from its surroundings. At first it’s just Newman’s vocals on top of a slowly plucked banjo and acoustic guitar, then the piano and synth join in and the song finds its own distinct pace and texture. It seems to be an encouragement to a unique, wallflower type of individual to be proud of themselves and not to “leave with the lights up”, as Newman and the ladies promise her she’s “a gold mine”. No matter how awful others may think this person is, she wins big points just for being unique. Wish I could describe the song in this manner, but I’ll at least give it some marginal credit for trying.
Old Porn: This song title could work as the title of a porno movie, but it’d probably be prepended with something like “Cute Co-Ed Cheerleaders Volume XXIII”.

10. A Bite Out of My Bed
New Porn:
I want to like this song, with its psuedo-horn section and its stuttering acoustic guitar. But Newman is at his most self-consciously awkward here, apparently describing a lover who just did the walk of shame and hopped on a plane with the following line: “Someone took a bite out of my bed – you.” I kind of get the emptiness he’s trying to express, but the metaphor is just plain clumsy, and the further description of the relationship as “Jane meets John Doe” makes the whole thing sound like an ill-advised attempt to get a song on the soundtrack for Up in the Air. Most insufferable is the chorus, in which Newman seems to think switching up the time signature and then bringing it awkwardly crashing back into 4/4 for the next verse is a good idea. Did I mention that this song was awkward? Writing about it sure is.
Old Porn: (I swear they come up with at least one song title per album where the pun practically writes itself.)

11. Daughters of Sorrow
New Porn:
Bejar’s attempting some sort of a weird indie white-boy soul thing here with the pounding drums and horn blasts that lead off this odd, swaying number. Remember my earlier analogy about trying to solve a puzzle with 60% of the pieces missing? Make that like 90% here, since he starts strong with “You are the daughters of sorrow/And somehow I just know/I’m gonna have to hang around you”, but then fails to follow it up with anything resembling coherency. The second verse is scattered, and the third merely repeats a fraction of the first, as if he no longer even knows whatever it is that he somehow just knew. You can throw in as many giddy “Bum bum bah bah bah”s in there as you want, and sure, they sound deliciously ironic with Bejar’s forked tongue singing them. But the end result is an unfinished fragment that feels stretched into a full-length song with the hopes that we wouldn’t notice. Compare to nearly any of Bejar’s songs from the last two albums, where it’s clearer that he’s got a better grasp on how to articulate whatever weird ideas came to his mind.
Old Porn: You know somebody out there in the world must have attempted “emo porn” by now. This would be a good title for such a film.

12. We End Up Together
New Porn:
This one starts off sounding like it’s going to suck for the same reason as some of my least favorites from the band’s early days – Newman’s voice. It’s little more than a tired squawk over an uninspired guitar strum at first. Thankfully, things pick up considerably and the song turns into a robust semi-epic worthy of its closing position on the album. That’s not to say everything goes perfectly from here on out, but I’m glad to hear Kathryn and Neko join in behind their bandleader, and once the drums and guitars are in full motion, there’s no stopping it. It feels like a drawn-out “Crash Years”, actually, since the strings have a similar habit of filling in the gap between the lyrics and/or guitar parts. There’s some sort of familial relationship being described here, as Newman repeatedly references a person he calls “Little Brother”, as if egging him on to speak his mind and do whatever “damage” he needs to do. It could have to do with a girl this little brother met, and big brother’s trying to get him to go for it, but the timing isn’t right. The song goes through a series of twists and turns before arriving at a somewhat silly class, as all vocalists present chime in with “Ma ma ma ma!”, which is probably supposed to just be nonsense syllables used for the purpose of being catchy, but since they’re saying “Mama”, I have to wonder if there’s any hidden meaning there (or whether I want to pursue that line of thinking any further). Newman makes a slight misstep in putting his lone voice out there to tack on the words “We end up together” at the end of this last, exuberant chorus, which isn’t annoying as other songs where he’s tried the tactic of leaving himself hanging (see “Three or Four”, the bane of my existence on Twin Cinema). Goofy as it all may be, it’s indicative of the band’s personality, and an appropriate way to finish off a record that is all about togetherness and the lack thereof.
Old Porn: We still end up together – and one of us ends up end up.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Moves $1
Crash Years $1.50
Your Hands (Together) $2
Silver Jenny Dollar $1
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk $1.50
My Shepherd $1.50
If You Can’t See My Mirrors $.50
Up in the Dark $1
Valkyrie in the Roller Disco $.50
A Bite Out of My Bed $0
Daughters of Sorrow $.50
We End Up Together $1
TOTAL: $12

Sure, it’s a mixed bag, but compare to old porn, which is almost always the same thing over and over and over and over…

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, lead and 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 – Together: Newer Porn Vs. Old Porn

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