The New Pornographers Albums
The New Pornographers are one of the best supergroups of all time. That might be because of many factors, including the fact that the main songwriter (Carl Newman) has no other main distractions and mainly writes for this band. Looking back at many of the supposedly great supergroups that get credit for bringing members of other bands together (Bad Company, Flying Burrito Brothers, Traveling Wilburys, Audioslave, among many others) this band excels where many others failed. None of that is too important, what matters is when these people come together something magical happens: incredible music is made. Pop music that is catchy, but complicated enough to warrant more repeated listens than any band around in the 00’s. Carl Newman and Dan Bejar might write the songs, but Neko Case’s voice adds that magical element to everything that truly launches the band into one of the greatest ever, with a consistent roster for over fifteen years. Whenever there is a New Porno’s song heard, joy is to be found, because you know you are in for a rare kind of amplified pop music.
Carl Newman – Vocals, Guitar
Neko Case – Vocals
Dan Bejar – Vocals
John Collins – Bass
Kurt Dahle – Drums
Blaine Thurier – Keyboards
Todd Fancey – Guitar
Kathryn Calder – Piano (2005- current)
Electric Light Orchestra, The Undertones, The Beatles, Robyn Hitchcock, Fleetwood Mac, The Smithereens, The Chills, Badfinger
2000 – (5 / 5) – Mass Romantic
2003 – (5 / 5)+ – Electric Version
2004 – (4.5 / 5) – Twin Cinema
2007 – (3 / 5)– Challengers
2010 – (4 / 5)– Together
2014 – (4.5 / 5) – Brill Bruisers
Mass Romantic – (5 / 5)
Sometimes albums just come along and blow you away, and this is one of those albums. Confidence is the word: “Mass Romantic” the first track off the record, blasts the listener away with its opening guitar chord chug, announcing the arrival of one of rock music’s most forceful bands. When Neko Case’s voice comes in, everyone immediately starts paying attention, even if the lyrics don’t make any literal sense. There is a complex tone to this record, one not easily heard at first, but with repeated listens songs like “Centre for Holy Wars”, “The Body Says No”, and “The Mary Martin Show” drift by weaving melodies of intricacy and become very listenable. The album opens with a beautiful one-two-three punch with songs are catchy right away like the pumping “Mass Romantic”, the crescendo of “The Fake Headlines”, and the giddiness of “The Slow Decent into Alcoholism” (the happiness song about being an alcoholic ever written). Dan Bejar ads a much needed change of pace with his winding tale “Jackie” with it’s lovely harmonies in the middle of “are you gonna stop the sunshine?” as harmonies is one thing this band perfects to a “t”.
Neko Case’s vocal showcase, other than the show stopping title track, is “Letter From an Occupant”. This song is truly one of the best pop songs ever recorded, and the vocal bridge where Case wails “Where have all the sensations gone!” repeatedly are out of this world! Not slowing down the onslaught of catchy tunes on the second half: “To Wild Homes” which sees Newman and Bejar collaborating on a song together and sharing lead vocals while turn the songs structure no its head; “Mary Martain Show” adds depth and pathos to the melodic center; “The Body Says No” concentrates on time signature shifts and makes a jab at progressive pop-rock; closer “Breakin the Law” is also an odd way to close such an intriguing energy filled album, with some kind of little kid sounding cheering going on towards the end (including the line “lair liar / everything is on fire”), though the song does win you over in the end. Two of the albums tracks do not work as well: “Mystery Hours” is a mess of overdubbed keyboards and guitars that goes nowhere, while “Execution Day” is very similar in that it proves that you have to make a song interesting as well as complex. Despite these little flaws though, the album is a astonishing debut and has ten great songs that could be in any playing order and still be enjoyable; imagine that, a debut that already plays like a collection of top ten singles.
Electric Version – (5 / 5)+
Now here we go, this is one of the contenders for best pop album ever. I can’t think of a more entertaining album from back to front then this one, nor can I think of one more accessible to people of any age: children, parents, friends, grandparents, they will all love it! That is no small feat on its own, but in reality, there are just no bad songs on Electric Version. Complexity? Check – “Testament to Youth and Verse” ends with a vocal chime-imitating section; “The New Face of Zero and One” has twists and turns that make no sense musically, but somehow works brilliantly; “From Blown Speakers” evolves into a singalong chorus that is great and chant-worthy once you learn it. Diversity? Check again – “July Jones” is the best pop-reggae you’ve ever heard; “It’s Only Divine Right” borders on metallic hard rock; “Loose Translation” is borderline adult contemporary, but in a good way a la early 80’s Sting.
The music changes singers, styles, and forms through the whole album to make it a perfect listening experience; it helps that all of the band members work together so well also. Remember, just because it sounds poppy and looks easy, does not mean it is so. The influences are all over the place too, from Liz Phair (end of “Testament”), countless New Zealand lo-fi pop bands (“The End of Medicine”), and Neko Case continues to be the secret weapon by making “All for Swinging You Around” and “Miss Teen Wordpower” both memorable and enthralling! None of the vocal solos or guitar breaks distract form the music though because it all is blended together in new ways that take from older influences. The is an air that something new is happening even though the melodies are timeless and hark back to centuries of tradition. Dan Bejar plays up his Lee Ranaldo stance in the band by penning his three best tunes ever in the emotional roller coaster “Testament to Youth in Verse” and the teenage lament “Ballad of a Comeback Kid”. “The Laws Have Changed” is the stand out single with that perfectly delivered Neko Case chorus, but Electric Version is more important than all of that “singles” talk: a perfect album. That will inscribe its place in history books forever.
Twin Cinema – (4.5 / 5)
There is a going trend in good pop bands. The first album has some fabulous songs, but usually is not perfect and kind of inconsistent. The second album is the catchiest, and the most consistent one, and usually very poppy. The third album is darker and more experimental. Look at bands like, The Undertones, Big Star, and now the New Pornographers, and one will see the pattern. For some reason, this band is finally got the fame they deserved on this record both commercially and critically, but this is a very strange album. Darker than usual, more toned down, but that the same time….angrier? This is a good album, and the band really challenges their sound in a good way here, by enhancing the rhythm section and expanding into more keyboards with the addition of Kathryn Calder on backing vocals and piano.
Newman and Bejar are a great team, and Neko Case is one of the all time great vocalists, so the songs are always interesting even when they are more difficult in structure. This new more challenging sound helps make some all-time classic New Pornos songs: the genius and jerky “The Jessica Numbers” and pounding “Use It” have drum intros that establishes Kurt Dahle as a force to be reckoned with; Bejar does a reprise on his favorite ex-girlfriend in the breath taking “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” which is perhaps the most fun song on the record; “Sing Me Spanish Techno” is the greatest New Pornographers song, perfectly showcasing their quirky nonsensical lyrics with an exhilarating melody that has the power to move mountains. It should be said, and I don’t know how much more proof people need, but Carl Newman is just one of the best songwriters who has ever lived. I think if people didn’t get distracted by his numerous aliases- Zumpano, A.C. Newman, and this band of course- he should be more respected. Not to be overshadowed, the mini singles “Twin Cinema”, “Star Bodies” (how exactly is this drum part performed?) and “Three or Four” are other pop nuggets that may be over shadowed on the record with some true classics, but compared other pop bands of the era they still exceed expectations.
Some production touches, that work on the before mentioned songs, are unnecessary on the songs that are not structurally sound like the too repetitive “Falling Through Your Clothes” and “Stacked Crooked”, while other songs like “These are the Fables” and “Streets of Fire”, despite the desperate tricks, don’t quite work, making this the band’s least consistent album so far. The album has too many songs too and is a tad overlong at 48 minutes; they could have easily cut a couple of tracks. And you know, there are not any showcases for Neko Case on here, the closest being “Bones of an Idol” which pales in comparison to “Letters from an Occupant” or “Miss Teen Wordpower”. Not quite as timeless like their other albums, Twin Cinema still won over plenty of new fans and came to be a zeitgeist of sorts of the indie music scene of the 2000’s. Given that it contains 3 or 4 of the band’s greatest tunes, it’s worth a 4 ½ star rating for sure.
Challengers – (3 / 5)
The weakest New Pornos album to date is not a failure by any means, though it does point to a couple of weaknesses in the group. The band has never sounded slow, plodding, or uninterested in the songs they are performing before but one does come away from this album with that feeling. Songs such as “Unglued”, “Entering White Ceceilia” and “Spirit of Giving” are the least interesting tunes the band has attempted, coming off as rather lifeless by their very entertaining standards. Every single tune on refuses to approach the breakneck pace of the first three New Pornos records, and its not a bad idea. Still, the record is unique for examining the hidden cervices of the group and some great songs are produced in the martial hyms of Neko Case’s “Go Places”, Carl Newman’s “All the Old Show Stoppers”, and the somewhat lively “Mutiny I Promised You” which asks the question “What’s the weight of the world worth to you kid?”. “Adventures I Solitude” and “Failsafe” also show moments of grandeur, but in summary the album is rather turgid and uninteresting. Not awful, but a dead end that might have been more successful as a five or six song EP.
Greatest Songs: Go Places, All the Old Show Stoppers, Mutiny I Promised You
Together – (4 / 5)
A comeback of sorts after the slow burning Challengers, there are several songs here that catch the attention like the old days (mainly in the first half). “Crash Years” is the typical Neko Case slow burner, with a chorus of only whistles; “Sweet Talk Sweet Talk” may be the best melodic tune, with typical lyrics that make little sense but SOUND beautiful when sang by the quadruple harmonies of the band; “Silver Jenny Dollar” is one of Dan Bejar’s most simplistic folk tunes, but honestly one of his best and breeziest; “Up in the Dark” has a jumpy time signature but is achingly beautiful and could have easily been a top ten single in a parallel universe where good music was actually on the radio. Opener “Moves” has a strange stuttering chorus, but still sets the jolly tone for the record. The band’s major instrumentalists sound very unified and together (sic) which displays tightness but also decreases the spontaneity found on Twin Cinema.
The thing is, they are not the band they used to be, and they have evolved for better or worse. When this happens, expectations are high especially for this supergroup who have three great songwriters in their own right, and the second half simply falters on a couple of fronts. “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” and “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” are lame by Newman and Bejar’s often thrilling standards for pop music, and closer “We End Up Together” has the usual trouble the these guys do with album closers. Case’s showcase “My Shepard” is pleasant enough but not up to past standards. “Bite Out of My Bed” and “Daughters of Sorrow” are luckily some overlooked gems on the record, and have enough twists and turns in them to keep them relevant; the former being one of my favorite songs the band ever did. A mean version of myself would say they need to wait until they have material as good as their first 3 records to release something at all, but I’m a nice version of myself and I still enjoy this album very much. If this is how New Pornos do “transitional record”, it is better than most!
Greatest Songs: Sweet Talk Sweet Talk, Bite Out of My Bed, Silver Jenny Dollar, Up in the Dark
Brill Bruisers – (4.5 / 5)
The New Pornos definitely needed a comeback album, and 2014’s Brill Bruisers busts right out of the gate as just that. It’s not that Challengers or Together were bad, quite the opposite on the latter actually, but the kind of energy the band was known for has been largely missing since 2005’s Twin Cinema. BB gives us that energy, and the overall sheen and production quality is changed enough from the old mold to sound fresh. There were times that the fist two records, as magical as the were, had rather shabby production for music with high aspirations, but no longer! A.C. Newman says his influences were ELO and Xanadu on the record, hence the overuse of keyboards, and it brings a liveliness to the entire album (quite interesting to see on the live tour as well, as there is a dueling keyboard aspect).
However, none of this would mean anything if the songs were not good, and in the rainbow colored “Brill Bruisers”, the haunting synths of “Backstairs”, and the jovial pop of “Wide Eyes” especially, this is a minor masterwork of power pop, heavily recalling the unity and bombast of Twin Cinema! The first half of the record is exceptionally strong, as each song has an entertaining melody or…five. “Champions of Red Wine” “War on the East Coast” have that laid back indie rock chug that the band has perfected, with seductive lead vocals by Neko Case and Dan Bejar respectively. “Fantasy Fools” and “Dancehall Domine” may be the underrated rockers of the albums, both are fantastic singles that stack up with the band’s impressive pop discography (they have truly out beat Electric Light Orchestra at their own game at this point!). Though the last part of the record does have some clunkers (“Spider”, “You Tell ME Where”) and the band has trouble ending an album as strong as they start it, Hopefully they can keep the high level of ingenuity and consistency at this pace in the future.
Best Songs: Backstairs, Brill Bruisers, Fantasy Fools, Wide Eyes