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!
A few years back, I was standing in a dark and dingy night spot, somewhere in vicinity of Wrigley Field, angrily sipping an overpriced triple vodka on the rocks, very pissed off that they’d banned indoor smoking in Chicago, the birthplace of the smoke-filled rooms that gave birth to several of our nation’s leaders.
Fucking Americans have no sense of tradition!
The reason for my visit to the nanny state of Illinois was to attend a boring training seminar that my boss had been pushing on me for some time. The prospect of five days of entrapment in a lifeless hotel conference room full of drones mouthing platitudes and talking about things no one with an active brain could possibly give a shit about didn’t exactly tickle my fancy, so I kept putting it off. He brought it up again in one of our completely useless weekly conversations called “one-on-ones” and I promised him I’d look into it first thing.
Okay, so it turned out to be the sixth thing, but I did look into it. I saw that the next available date for the conference involved a trip to Chicago, so I immediately checked out who was playing in Chicago that week to see if it was worth the trip.
The New Pornographers! Windy City, here I come!
I already had the first three albums from these occasional collaborators, and I’d just bought a copy of their latest, Challengers. I admired A. C. Newman for his exceptional melodic talent, Neko Case for her strong, liquid voice and the rhythm section of John Collins and Kurt Dahle for their powerful rhythmic support. Each of their first three albums had featured at least one of the best melodic rock songs I’d ever heard: “Letters from an Occupant,” “Mass Romantic” and “The Laws Have Changed.” I knew that since they were based in Vancouver that I didn’t really have to travel that far to see them, but I’d never been to Chicago and my employer was going to send me on their dime. This was a no-brainer, even for a blonde!
As it turned out, the show wasn’t until Thursday night, so by the time I arrived at the club I was seriously drained from four long days spent with really boring people talking in buzzwords I didn’t want to understand, making lame inside jokes about shit that didn’t matter. I knew they were bullshit, they knew they were bullshit, but that shared knowledge did not motivate them to drop the façade and get real for a single moment.
So, I arrive at the club with the sour afterburn of pointless networking in my brain, find out there’s nowhere to sit, so I have to find a place to stand where my relatively limited height might give me a chance of actually seeing the fucking band, which means I can’t give up my spot to go outside and have a cigarette, so I have to stand through a noisy, interminable set from the shit warmup band, during which I have to tell a dozen guys who stop to admire my tits to fuck off, and I have to nurse my vodka because I can’t go to the bar to get a refill and I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask one of these creepy loser guys to buy me a drink because he’ll probably think that small favor will earn him a shot at my pussy and there’s no fucking way that’s going to happen, and goddammit, The New Pornographers had better be fucking great tonight!
When they finally hit the stage, it didn’t look good. Wearing a cheap, faded white top with her hair pinned back with plastic K-mart hair clips, Neko Case looked like she’d just gotten off her day job cleaning toilets and didn’t have time to change. The other band members seemed shy, awkward and devoid of energy. I took a deep breath to try to prevent my soul from sinking into the depths of despair.
Then, wham! Opening with “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” a song that requires every single person to be on point from the get-go, The New Pornographers made every little molecule of bad energy vanish in about twenty seconds. Neko and Kathryn Calder hit their harmonic spots perfectly on the third line and from that moment forward I was completely enthralled by the incredible sound and energy coming from that stage. It turned out to be the best show I would see that year, compensating in full for the pain I had to endure to see it.
New Pornographers fans seemed to resist Challengers at first. This happens any time a band seeks to expand their field of operations. Challengers seemed relatively subdued in comparison to Twin Cinema, their previous album, which was in fact a pretty impressive piece of work. Comparing the two now with the benefit of longer perspective, it’s pretty clear to me that Challengers is not only superior to Twin Cinema, it’s the best album they ever made: a rich, melodic and exciting album with stronger unity despite the greater variation in sound.
Twin Cinema opens with a wild guitar riff; Challengers opens in relative stillness: single strummed chords from a mandolin, French horn echoing the theme and A. C. Newman gently carrying the melody of “My Rights Versus Yours.” The women enter at the end of the verse with sweet and gentle oohs that are spot on. Percussion and bass arrive in the second verse, and the song doesn’t kick into a higher gear until the end of that verse. From there it’s a glorious mix of melody and harmony with strong support from the rhythm section; the song flows so easily and naturally you wish it would go on forever. An unusual opening indeed, but an exceptionally beautiful one.
The absolutely remarkable “All the Old Showstoppers” also begins in relative quiet, with crunchy guitar turned down low, a short piano pattern and a restrained lead vocal from A. C. with a touch of harmony over the bouncy rhythmic pattern that will eventually dominate the song. This quiet ends suddenly in drum-pounding orchestral burst, to return to that bouncy, lilting rhythm that is incredibly infectious and becomes stronger and stronger as the song proceeds. The fills and touches in this song are absolutely marvelous: the perfect guitar fill here, the perfect background vocals there, and always the fabulous bass and drum combination of Collins and Dahle. I’ve read descriptions of A. C. Newman’s lyrics as “Dada-esque,” meaning they usually make little apparent sense. While that is certainly true in “All the Old Showstoppers,” somehow you can’t help singing this song and its mysterious lyrics with real feeling. A. C. Newman not only has a gift for melody, but he is also extraordinarily sensitive to the melody contained in the sound of the words; many of his lyrical choices seem to be made more on the basis of how they sound in the context of the music rather than what they might or might not mean. Since McCartney did just that with the line “The movement you need is on your shoulders” in “Hey, Jude,” we can say definitively that this atypical approach to lyrics is supported by precedent.
“Challengers” comes next, giving Neko Case a chance to show her stuff on a more reflective piece than the power pop tunes she’d been assigned previously. A lovely song with the usual gorgeous harmonies and soft mandolin supporting a restrained but strong lead vocal, it’s more than worthy of its position as the title track of the album.
Next is one of Dan Bejar’s songs, “Myriad Harbour.” Although this qualifies as one of his better efforts, the truth is that there are certain voices I cannot abide and Dan Bejar’s is one of them (along with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Ozzy Osbourne). Luckily for me, “Myriad Harbour” is followed by the aforementioned “All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” providing ample assurance to those fans wondering about the comparative quiet of the album that The New Pornographers could still rock with the best of them.
Kathryn Calder gets a rare shot at a lead vocal in “Failsafe,” supported by Neko Case’s harmonies. Her more breathy voice works exceptionally well on this very sexy song that relies more heavily on electronics than any other song on the album. Next up is “Unguided,” a pleasant little song, but one of the weaker tracks on the album, as is Dan Bejar’s “Entering White Cecilia.” That’s not the case with “Go Places,” another reflective Neko Case performance that’s one of my favorite songs on Challengers, featuring a line I could use as one of my personal mottoes, “Yes, the heart should always go one step too far.”
After two softer songs, the band kicks into high gear with the spirited, “Mutiny I Promised You,” colored by flute, a superb bass part and a driving, confident drum backing. This is another one of my favorites where the enigmatic lyrics work because of the way they enhance the flow of the music. It’s followed by the quieter “Adventures in Solitude,” a sweet song sung in largely in two-part harmony marked by A. C. Newman oscillating between falsetto and his normal voice in the quiet passages; the strings are particularly lovely in this song, particularly during the whirling passage of complex harmonies towards the end of the song. This is the way my iTunes playlist for Challengers ends; in the real-world version, it ends with Dan Bejar’s “The Spirit of Giving,” a song I uncheck in iTunes for reasons mentioned above. Sorry!
I hadn’t heard Challengers for quite a while before writing this review, and I have to say, it’s even better than I remembered it to be. A. C. Newman has such a way with melody and the feel of a song that I consider him one of the top songwriters today despite his curious lyrics. Few bands have ever done vocals as well as The New Pornographers, both in terms of arrangement and execution. I am always knocked out by that rhythm section, which is certainly the most underrated aspect of this remarkable group of musicians. Challengers is an exceptional album that will last for the ages.
If you’d like to get a quick idea of this band’s range, ability to kick ass and have a fabulous time doing so, watch their version of “Your Daddy Don’t Know” a hit song released by the band Toronto in 1982 (which date will explain the costumes the band dons in the film). It’s a gas, gas, gas!