The New Pornographers
ike that proverbial poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the New Pornographers signify nothing. In blurbs of press in newspapers and magazines, you’ll inevitably find the words “Canadian indie-pop supergroup,” usually in the header. From there, I imagine it would be pretty easy to waste a few hundred words citing the members’ various projects, recounting the group’s origins, puzzling over the band’s provocative name, that sort of thing. This lazy approach, however, in no way serves to suggest the general, giddy awesomeness of the band’s actual recorded output.
The question of the moment—at least for those of us still listening to “Letter from an Occupant” on an almost-daily basis—is simply, and naturally: Does the third effort from the New Pornographers sound as great as the pair that preceded it? The short answer: no. Though lead-off single “Twin Cinema” is catchier than you might at first suspect, it sounds, frankly, a little lame alongside Mass Romantic and Electric Version’s title-track openers. “The Bleeding Heart Show,” one of the album’s highlights, eventually blasts off into the stratosphere, with “woo-woo”’s and “hey-la”’s, But it takes Carl Newman and company two and half-minutes (roughly six months in pop-years) to finally get there.
On the other hand, though I’m not typically a fan of delayed gratification, some dishes just don’t microwave well. ‘No’ doesn’t always mean ‘no.’ It’s never, ever a ‘yes’ in disguise, guys, but sometimes ‘different’ just means…well, ‘different.’ The Neko Case-fronted, country-tinged “These Are the Fables” is as gorgeous, in its way, as “Letter” or “The Laws Have Changed” are out-right ebullient. “Three or Four” barely contains a chorus to speak of, but it’s got moodiness for miles. Don’t worry too much, though. It’s followed by “Star Bodies,” classic New Porno power-pop in the same vein as Mass Romantic’s “Centre for Holy Wars” and the group’s cover of “Your Daddy Don’t Know.” Such moments are the exception on Twin Cinema, however, as evidenced by the next song, “Streets of Fire,” a Dan Bejar offering that sounds like Your Blues minus all that bawdy symphony business.
Newman, meanwhile, seems intent on relaying the message that his solo outing, last year’s comparatively down-tempo and melancholy The Slow Wonder, wasn’t just something he needed to get out of his system. Some of his strongest contributions here (the aforementioned “Bleeding Heart Show,” “The Bones of an Idol”) would’ve sounded comfortably at home on that album. Other tracks (“Falling through Your Clothes,” “Use It”) feel merely like leftovers from those sessions. (Prior to now, “filler” and “New Pornographers” were words I’d never dream of uttering in the same sentence.) Sometimes, though, he’s still happy enough with just being the Pop G-word we all know and love. “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” probably the best potential single on the record, is such an example. The finale, “Stacked Crooked,” is as dynamic a closer as “Breakin’ the Law” or “Miss Teen Wordpower.”
I’ve long poked fun at Roger Ebert’s review of Almost Famous, where he confesses to nearly hugging himself while watching the movie (not the most pleasant of mental images) but, frankly, I can almost relate to his impulse when it comes to the New Pornographers at their finest. When I first listened to Mass Romantic, I heard a band collectively going for broke, attempting to cram as many aural ideas as possible into the space of a pop song, without ever exhausting their resources. Knowing next to nothing of the group or its members (besides Neko), I kind of figured it would stand as a perfect one-off, the sort of album that kids would listen to twenty-five years down the road and wonder a) “Who the hell are these guys?” and b) “Why weren’t they, like, the hugest group in the world?”
Then Electric Version came out and I began to consider the possibility that, with all the right factors locking into place, maybe they would be, like, the hugest group in the world. Or, you know, at least as big as the White Stripes or something. It would be a joke to call an album as lush as Twin Cinema “lo-fi,” but it is a more subtle, reined-in New Pornographers, and maybe there's something to be said for that.
Reviewed by: Josh Timmermann
Reviewed on: 2005-08-24