After reviewing Neko Case as part of the Great Broads series, I developed a noticeable hunger for some New Pornographers. They’d just come out with the “long-awaited” (record company hype) Brill Bruisers, and though I found their previous album, Together, a blah disappointment, I charitably gave it the label of “transitional album,” and anticipated something that would bring us to the destination of that transition.
I suppose it did, but the destination turned out to be the 1980’s, when overproduced and over-synthesized bands tried to navigate a midway point between disco and rock and wound up in no-man’s land. There’s nothing really offensive about Brill Bruisers, and there’s nothing that really grabs you. There’s just no oomph.
At their best, The New Pornographers combined the melodic genius of A. C. Newman and the one-of-a-kind vocals of Neko Case with the muscular rhythm section of John Collins and Kurt Dahle to produce a form of rock that was distinctly exhilarating. I was never quite sure how Dan Bejar fit into the mix, but A. C. Newman’s compositions were so strong that they more than compensated for that minor inconvenience. Their first four albums are all worth the price of admission and then some, and the arguments between fans as to which one is the best are the kind of pleasant arguments you have when all your options are better than good. I started my exploration of the band with Challengers (my personal favorite), but I can definitely see how others would prefer the freshness of Mass Romantic, the sheer excitement of Electric Version, or Twin Cinema, A. C. Newman’s melodic masterpiece. Hungry for melody in a synthetic beat-driven universe, I chose Twin Cinema for my next New Pornos review.
My emphasis on melody here lead the reader to assume that I think Twin Cinema lacks power. The title track is full of oomph, opening with sharp power chords, pounding drums and a whimsical riff that successfully disguises the simplicity of the D-G-C chord set. A. C. Newman launches into one of his more intense vocals, spitting out those lyrics with an almost frantic sense of urgency. As is usually the case with his lyrics, though, you have no idea what the hell has triggered such fierce passion. Fortunately, he leaves a few more crumbs on the trail than usual on this piece, and I think that what he’s protesting is our obsession with the thrill-driven manipulations common in modern filmmaking. He appears to loathe surround sound in particular (“no protecting from voices in the back of ya”) and in the second verse attacks the use of such techniques to make war seem heroic and euphoric, a particularly disgusting development when such films are directed by “noted” purveyors of the cinematic arts and screened at art-house festivals:
in torn seats are
lead the charging
of armies into war, yeah
lead the charge of
false and feature
picture the euphoria
flipping through the photos they send ya
going to 16th and Valencia
I’m guessing that the reference to 16th and Valencia is a link to The Roxie in San Francisco, “the oldest continuously operated cinema in the United States” and a classic art house theatre I visited several times in my youth (the “torn seats” would certainly back that claim). “Twin Cinema” combines power, dissonance and soft-loud dynamics to make it a compelling opener, and whether you like the song or not, you have to admit that everyone on the track is giving it all they’ve got.
In “The Bones of an Idol,” A. C. attacks modern forms of idolatry, exposing the tendency to idolize as the outcome of a lack of inner strength and our easy susceptibility to superficial stimulation:
We dig for the bones of an idol
When the will is gone
‘Cause something keeps turning us on
Neko Case takes the lead on this number, commanding full attention in the quiet opening verse and holding her own when Collins and Dahle enter to amp up the power. I love the slide guitar effects on this song, echoing the swooning feeling some people get in the presence of their heroes. I also love the build of the song, leading to the wordless climax in the fade where A. C. and Neko trade vocal lines. Twin Cinema generally contains songs with more complex structures, and what makes it all work is A. C. Newman’s gift for melodic flow.
“Use It” was one of the singles from Twin Cinema, and it didn’t take a genius to make that decision. What a great fucking song! The opening alone would place this song into the category of my all-time favorites, as it’s a mini-masterpiece all by itself: the countdown cues deep, satisfying bass and two-note guitar chords for two measures; the clean piano motif enters in the middle of the third; then you hear Kurt Dahle’s drums start in deep background at the start of the fifth measure, gathering volume and steam until it all comes together in a tight, headphone-filling sound that gives A. C. the perfect platform to deliver his pun-filled, street-wise lyrics:
The cat calls through the night
And two chicks in the parking lot
Crack wise on the price of fame
They stood to gain
The phonebook’s been ripped off
And two shapes in the dark
Across the way know the price of flight
Its weight and size
If you’ve got something
That sheds some light
Use it tonight, tonight
The shift to that last line is beautifully executed, with Neko adding the harmony on “use it tonight” as a quick cue for the band to ramp it up another notch. Based on video and lyrical evidence, A. C. apparently spent a lot of time drinking alone in bars during this period, and I appreciate his defiance of macho expectations by admitting he’s a lightweight: “Heads down thumbs up/Two sips from the cup of human kindness/And I’m shit faced, just laid to waste.” The song never flags in intensity or beauty; the rhythms are kick-ass solid and the melody strong and bright. “Use It” is a pristine example of great melodic rock, and it’s not even my favorite song on the album!
The mood shifts to wistful in the opening verses of “The Bleeding Heart Show,” a song with three separate musical sections, all of which flow together beautifully. Though the lyrics are fragments of thought and emotion, the musical experience is satisfyingly unified, building to the beautiful combination of voices raised in song over some phenomenal power drumming from Kurt Dahle on the long fade at the end. It’s followed by a Dan Behar number (skip), then the equally impenetrable “The Jessica Numbers,” where Dahle’s performance outshines the unusually choppy melody. Neko Case’s command of glissandi is on display in “These Are the Fables,” and though the lyrics never really come together into something resembling coherence, Neko can sing almost anything and make it sound like heaven.
My favorite track finally arrives in the form of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” an exuberant display of A. C. Newman’s melodic talents and New Porno power. The distorted, dissonant opening collapses into an intense, driving beat that establishes a foundation for the melodic patterns that will explore every nook and cranny of the key of A major before we’re through. The movement and sequences of major and complementary minor and sustained chords give A. C. a lot of room to maneuver, and he does so with exuberance and flair, using both his natural voice and falsetto to span the octaves. The power-driven melody and harmony of the verses collapses into the pathos-loaded melody of the chorus, mirroring the drunken mutterings of a man who has been “listening too long to one song.” When the music glides into the soaring bridge with its gorgeous melody and full harmonies, the effect is breathtaking. Like everyone else, I can get into dark and shitty moods, and there is no song I know that helps me shake those deep blues as effectively as “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” a melodic achievement that ranks with “Penny Lane” and some of Roy Wood’s best work. I only wish they would have celebrated the achievement with a better video:
“Falling Though Your Clothes” has A. C. experimenting with odd time signature combinations and truncated measures, but the glue that holds it together is another lovely melody, this one supported by a synth drone and mandolin splashes. It isn’t the kind of song designed to hit the top of the pop charts, but I love the energy and the spirit of experimentation behind it, and the harmonies here are among their best. Next comes a Dan Bejar number (skip), followed by “Three or Four,” a stutter-stop bash featuring a unison vocal of Neko and A. C. in falsetto that I find rather refreshing; it helps that the rhythmic support from Collins and Dahle is intense and spot-on.
Hold onto your seats for “Star Bodies,” an absolute killer song guaranteed to give you chills of delight and a buzz in your privates. A. C. and Neko’s shared vocal begins as a relatively light call-and-response that morphs into harmony as the verse proceeds. Meanwhile, that sneaky Kurt Dahle is up to something in the background: his rhythm is the steady beat of train picking up speed and you know he has to release the tension sooner or later. The explosion comes in the form of raised drum and bass volume on a double-time four-beat phrase synced to the perfect marriage of music and lyrics:
There’s a shake with the shock and a gift off with them
They carry the dust of the failing wisdom
Neko seals the deal with supporting harmonies on the chorus lines, and if the sound of that passage doesn’t lift your spirits, you’re either dead or a fundamentalist. Goddamn—that sequence almost brings me to tears of joy whenever I hear it, no matter how often I hear it. I’m listening to the song right now, shaking my ass off in my chair, keeping bass drum time with my right foot and smiling like I’ve just had one of the greatest orgasms in history. I love the crazy, joyous fade to this song, where various instruments are tossed into the mix in the sheer exuberance of the moment. Another masterpiece for A. C., and an incredibly supportive band performance.
I wish Twin Cinema had ended with “Star Bodies,” as the next cut is a Dan Bejar number (skip), which is followed by the curious “Stacked Crooked,” which combines touches of Arabian and mariachi in an experiment that doesn’t quite come off. The iTunes version features the bonus track “High Art, Local News” that makes for a much stronger closer: it’s a Dahle-driven melodic bash with strong rhythm guitar and variations that fit together very nicely.
Twin Cinema is certainly not the only New Porno album with melodic rock gems, but I find the three here to be exceptional examples of that dying art. I don’t know what the fuck it is with modern culture that leads people to prefer repetitive, noteless, synthetic and moronic music to the sound and feel of high-energy melodic rock, but whenever I listen to The New Pornographers during their relatively recent peak years, I find myself torn between the joy I feel and the frustration in being born too late.
I think I’ll play “Star Bodies” again and end this review on an upbeat note. Cheers!