The New Pornographers
May 4, 2010
We Are Together, by Rick Moody
For what purpose the popular song? Does the popular song have a purpose? Is it just a sequence of auditory gestures, desperate acts, adrift in the bigger broader silence of an unforgiving cultural landscape? In what follows, we will assume that the purpose of the popular song is to unite warring disputants and to repair the manifold puncture wounds of life, so that life is revealed, again, as less accursed than it appears. And let's assume that we go on listening to the popular song, which in the vast majority of its iterations is a failure, because we are chronic in our need for this rehabilitation of our puncture-wounded selves. Take any fine example, take "All You Need Is Love," by the Beatles, or "Walk Away, Renee," by the Left Banke, or "Tears of a Clown," by Smokey Robinson. Try listening to these songs. Almost immediately, your suppurations begin to clot.
Into this tryingly difficult history of the popular song stride The New Pornographers, into a period in which it has to be acknowledged that the medium is mostly dead, is passed, is no longer a uniting force, but, more frequently, a medium of division, one entirely controlled by the Ownership Society and made profitable according to shareholders who don't give a fuck if your puncture wounds are healed over as long as the product ships. The New Pornographers, stunningly, do not seem to understand that the popular song is dead, is passed, and The New Pornographers, despite their complete and nearly monastic understanding of the Secret Knowledge of the popular song, will themselves into being, characterized by a uniform devotion to the great history that precedes them by only a couple of decades, and their coming into being in a somewhat unlikely place, Vancouver, not previously noted for a unvarying profusion of rock genius, is particular not only for uniformity of purpose but because they manage, in this uniformity, to bring a considerable cast of local adepts all as one into the tent. The cast of adepts is now well known, but includes at least two startlingly good songwriters, three spectacularly good singers, one of the very best drummers in all of contemporary music, an in-house filmmaker; and that is merely to scratch the surface on the question of bench strength, the shocking amount of bench strength in a band in which everyone seems to be able to produce quality audio emanations from any instrument and to sing, and in which the studio is an instrument as it is in few bands.
Their first album is great, and is power pop, power pop, and more power pop, their second album (Electric Version) refines the form and tinkers, with more studio brilliance on display, the third, viz., Twin Cinema, is an artier thing and a proggier thing, revealing a breadth of confidence, and a breadth of confidences, both senses, and a command of lyrical nuance and anthemic talents that display themselves in unusual spots, in songs that don't begin anthemically, but which then reveal urgencies; Challengers, the fourth, has some quieter annunciations on it, seems to come from a place of adulthood, from a recognition that urgency can be in the theme, and the affirmation of the song is not in the lyric necessarily, but in the commitment, in the commitment to the sonnet-like cadences of the popular song, and the title song herein, "Challengers," a miniature about a romantic entanglement that literally walks past the narrator, takes us far beyond the adolescences of the popular song into the adult spot where really great songwriters begin to ply their craft.
Which brings us to the ineradicable present, which is the moment when The New Pornographers have already done everything they can do, in some senses; they have had songs in films and on television, they have toured the world, they are respected and covered and well reviewed and lionized, and everyone in the band has a justifiably earned reputation for excellence and admirability, chief among them A. C. Newman, first among equals with respect to these musical bulletins, Neko Case, the singer who never met a line of lyrics that she could not in same way make indelible, and Dan Bejar, the stealth member and interpretation-resistant Mandarin troubadour.
There are no more interesting rock and roll bands, you know, there are opiate-addicted white boys who cannot play very well and who are unwilling to turn down the amplifiers so as to be heard, and there are machines and auto-tuned fembots, and there are hip hoppers with public-relations simulated gangster simulations, and there are working-class guys with a lot of tattoos who can play really, really fast. But there are no more interesting rock and roll bands, and there are no longer songs that make you want to get out of bed. Still, The New Pornographers are unable not to behave like underdogs of yearning, like a united front of yearning, and they are also unable, it seems, to resist the challenge to make a perfect album, a form so dead that it is on its seventh wave of maggotry, and so they have an eye on history, and they do love a windmill, they love to charge, and they do not know how to do otherwise now, which means that theirs is a contagious form of yearning, and if in part their longing is postmodern, which is to say that they often writes songs that are about other songs ("Crash Years," e.g., is about "You" by George Harrison, and "Moves" is, in part, about "25 or 6 to 4," by the beleaguered Chicago), they are not able to treat the form simply as a kind of commentary (which has caused others fatefully to go awry), but also as a surgical intervention for puncture-wounded civilians everywhere, as a joy delivery-system, and in this joy-delivery system there are new and interesting twists, for those who are curious about what the ineradicable contemporary moment sounds like, sound-wise, and the twists on this new album, have to do with strings, really, and with a sort of chamber pop orientation, lots of cello, that is, of a sort that calls to mind the amazing Sister Lovers LP by Big Star, around whose open wounds A. C. Newman has orbited in the past but more fearfully than now.
Fewer keyboard flourishes, and fewer things that sound like they necessitated a good computer programmer, and more things that sound like A. C. Newman and the rest of the band playing in a room. This is probably an illusion, this playing together, but it is an illusion with a purpose, because there are at least two songs on this album that use togetherness as the assembling cement, the epoxy of their composition. The first of these is a big rock song, "Your Hands (Together)," and as you would expect the putting of hands together also occasions a silver bullet, of the mortally inflicting variety, which is the paradoxical sort of thematic approach that we would expect from songwriters who are no longer young, and who are willing to write a couplet that answers the question "What's love?" with the response: "What turns up in the dark." All of this is perforation for the tearing away of the final track, "We Get Together," in which the hook, the title, is at the very end, buried in the mix, and the whole is about familial dynamics, much in the way that "Oh, Sister," from Bob Dylan's Desire is about familial dynamics, which is to say not at all, and more about the injunction to "do damage" than it is about familiar unity, "I'm for damage, sweet damage," Newman and Case sing, and the cellos come back around, with their genteel bolshevism, with a hint of the early Electric Light Orchestra, and Carl goes in and out of his falsetto as he does when he's winding up like a violent debater, and they hold back on the drumming, which is what they do, until it's absolutely necessary, and that is a big advantage when the drummer is this great, and then we come to the out chorus, in which Case seems to be singing "ma ma ma ma," as if to mislead you into thinking that the song, is about familial dynamics, and Newman sings "we end up together," and then there is guitar feedback. End credits.
What does he mean about ending up together? What would it mean for a popular song, while clearly supporting an aesthetic palette devoted to "sweet damage," nonetheless to support the idea of ending up together? Is it, paradoxically, about the kind of romantic failure that makes for all the best popular songs? Is it a recognition that the only unifying that can come from the contemporary popular song is the kind of togetherness that recognizes the truth of human life, namely that all is apartness, and all is lonesomeness, and this even if the principle songwriter in the band is recently married, and, by all evidence, reasonably content? Yes, it's all about the ship going down, and the rats leaping from the sinking vessel, the vessel of the popular song, and there is nothing to do but to celebrate a recognition of this rats-going-down business, and, nonetheless, to view the articulation of same as a joy and a responsibility, such that the best joy-delivery system is the song itself, so that the medium is dead and yet is being used to celebrate its death, and it's in our mutual recognition of apartness that we are most together. (The band setting is no different, in this way, from quotidian human life. It is a triumph over the entropic energy that would drive it, the band, apart.)
This is an eschatological approach, and, indeed, some of what you are hearing on Together, by the New Pornographers, is a band of ghosts who are mining their fin de siÃ¨cle imagery for all its worth, even though we are at the beginning of a century. They are from Vancouver (mostly), they still believe that they have something to say, they are adults, they don't use drum machines, they are not emcees. What could they possibly have going for them? Everything they stand for is over, they are the last iteration, they are the bitter end, the sweet aftertaste of something intoxicating. And yet they believe in doing it, still, together. We are so much the better for it
August 21, 2007
A.C. Newman - Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Wurlitzer, Casio, Mandolin, Percussion, Bass, Melodion
John Collins - Bass, Baritone Guitar, Glockenspiel, Mandolin, Guitars, Casio, Tambourine
Kurt Dahle - Drums, Vocals, Percussion
Blaine Thurier - Fender Rhodes, Sampler
Todd Fancey - Guitars, Banjo, Mandolin
Dan Bejar - Vocals, Shakers, Guitars, Piano
Neko Case - Vocals
Kathryn Calder - Vocals, Piano, Wurlitzer
A.C. ("Carl") Newman, for all the good-times vibe of his band The New Pornographers, likes his alone time. Last year he disappeared from Vancouver without a word, reappearing four months later in Brooklyn, where he has stayed ever since. He resurfaced with a mystery scar, an extra blush to one cheek, and an armload of songs which tell tales of his last two years.
Challengers continues along the lines of 2005's Twin Cinema, whose "relative melancholy makes it the band's best album yet" [Blender]; indeed, the first track, "My Rights Vs. Yours," is almost a cross between that album's beloved "Use It" and "The Bleeding Heart Show". Dialing back the frantic, these are songs with dynamics and epic sweep. While it's still a "top-down summer power-pop classic" (or any variation thereof that the band's enjoyed over the last several years), this is something more personal, more lasting.
Recorded for the first time largely outside John Collins' Vancouver JC/DC Studio, Challengers is their most organic-sounding record, reflecting a conscious decision to use less "beepy synth" and almost entirely "real" instruments (in addition to those listed above, they recruited an entire string section, plus harp, flute, and more). And Newman is slightly more scrutable this time around; his lyrics still ring with wry perception and political metaphor, but betray some of the magnanimity that comes with new love "our arms fill with miracles", he writes in "Go Places," his most beautiful love song since "My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism."
My Rights Versus Yours: "This is a stream of consciousness story-of-my-life type of song. 1st appearance of french horn on a New Ps album, and only 30 seconds into the album! Ends with a nod to Jeff Lynne with the vocoded vocals."
All The Old Showstoppers: "This one has the string breaks that are a direct nod to Roy Wood's brilliantly primitive string work with The Move."
Challengers: "This one has a fairly convoluted subtext. At its surface it's a love song about finding new love out of nowhere and trying to play it cool, do the right thing. My version of '24 Hours To Tulsa'. When I wrote the lyrics I thought of the Camus quote from the liner notes to a Scott Walker album: 'A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to discover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.'"
Myriad Harbour: "Dan's New York song. When I got the demo from him, I thought he purposely wrote a New York song because I had just moved to NY. Probably not, though. In this song, Dan urges me to 'look up for once and see just how the sun sets in the sky.' Two songs later, I sing that 'there is something unguided in the sky tonight.' Coincidence?"
All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth: "I really liked the title. I thought it was very long and pretentious, not befitting a 3-minute rock song. This song is pretty much our take on an early Roxy Music/Sparks pastiche, with a little Shocking Blue thrown in. A sort of throwback to early New Ps."
Unguided: "My first true epic at over 6:30 in length. This is MY New York song, though no one can tell. It is all about August 2005, everything up in the air, it was very hot, and I was camping out in NY for a week. The big bridge at the end, 'why wait for the weakened state to lie next to the weaker sex?', has nothing to do with the rest of the song, just a good line/universal truth. Kathryn is embarrassed that she had to sing it, yet only she could nail it the way it had to be nailed."
Failsafe: "This is the first Kathryn lead vocal. I liked the idea of using a tremelo guitar to propel the song, where that becomes the beat as much as the drums."
Entering White Cecilia: "I believe Dan is singing about entering a girl named Cecilia, who is either white or dressed in white, or both. Like all of Dan's work, it is overtly sexual."
Go Places: "This is my version of 'Maybe I'm Amazed' crossed with 'She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune', at least in my head that's what I hear. I know it's still oblique, but to me it is a straight up love song. Bonus points to rock critics who can name two versions of 'She Sang Hymns'. Without Googling."
Mutiny, I Promise You: " I think this has the most Bacharach/Webb/Wilson in it, in terms of structure and time signature, all the added half-bars in the progression. We rocked it up quite a bit, but slowed down and with a few other changes, it could go on a 5th Dimension album. That's hubris, I know. The organ sound reminds me of the organ on 'Ambition' by Subway Sect, which I think is a good thing."
Adventures In Solitude: "This is a sad song, but filled with a kind of hope. Basically a double lead shared by Carl and Kathryn. With its strings, harp, banjo, and mandolin, it officially counts as a 'musical departure'."
The Spirit Of Giving: "This is a sad Dan song with less hope and more nonsequiturs. Or maybe it's a happy song?"
The New Pornographers formed in 1997, almost immediately recorded the classic "Letter From An Occupant," and it was on. Their three full-lengths (as well as Newman's 2004 solo debut The Slow Wonder) received wild critical and public acclaim, and they continue to enjoy bigger (and taller and smarter) audiences.
Partial credits (complete credits available on request):
* All Songs By A.C. Newman except tracks 4, 8, and 12 by Daniel Bejar
* Produced by Phil Palazzolo, John Collins, and A.C. Newman; drums produced by Kurt Dahle
* Primarily recorded at:
Seaside Lounge (Brooklyn, NY) with Phil Palazzolo
JC/DC (Vancouver, BC) with Dave Carswell
Greenhouse Studios (Vancouver, BC) with Howard Redekopp
August 23, 2005
A.C. Newman - vocals, guitar, ebow, synthesizer, harmonica, pump organ, xylophone
John Collins - bass, guitar, synthesizer, ebow, vocals
Kurt Dahle - drums, percussion, vocals
Blaine Thurier - synthesizer
Todd Fancey - guitar
Dan Bejar - vocals, guitar, synthesizer, melodion
Neko Case - vocals
Kathryn Calder - vocals, piano
Nora O'Connor - vocals
The New Pornographers are a Vancouver group made up of A.C. Newman and a group of ridiculously talented people he feels are uniquely equipped to realize his musical ambitions. They formed in 1997, almost immediately recorded the classic "Letter From An Occupant," and it was on. Their 2000 debut 'Mass Romantic' and 2003's 'Electric Version' (as well as Newman's 2004 solo debut 'The Slow Wonder') enjoyed wild critical and public acclaim, and brought a lot of joy to the world.
'Twin Cinema' is doubly impressive, offering both baby-blanket familiarity and jarring growth. Here they're not automatically going for the steamroller singalong or (to quote New Pornographers buff Rob Halford) "all guns blazing", but pushing themselves further. Fans of 'Mass Romantic's' kinkiness will find immediate appeal, as will those partial to 'Electric Version's' drive. Yet the songs on 'Twin Cinema' veer away from sugar and kitsch toward something a bit more personal. Newman has absorbed not just the mechanics of classic songwriting, but the heart, while indulging his admiration of demented current bands like Fiery Furnaces and Frog Eyes.
"We consciously wanted to change it up a little," says Newman. "Retain what made the first two albums great, but move in new directions. I wanted it to be more sweeping and sprawling, to have the songs move dynamically, both internally and from song to song. We wanted to see if we could make a record that isn't referred to as 'the windows down, car-stereo-blasting summer album of the year', if only once."
As usual, Newman is victim to his own record collection. "Various unintentional influences have crept into our work, some of which are quickly removed: The Moody Blues, Tubeway Army, Wings, always Wings, never The Beatles, Eno of course, you can't play ebow without sounding like Eno, Modern English, middle period post-Gabriel Genesis, The Stranglers, 10cc..." His voice trailed off, the unspoken words clearly etched on his kindly face. A tinge of guilt edged its way into Grant's annoyance. Not long after moving to Blue Plains, he'd heard about Cara's "spells" from Carl and several of the other townsfolk. He couldn't ignore his medical interest in her ailment, but that didn't have a blasted thing to do with wanting to buy her dinner.
'Twin Cinema' also features the recording debut of Kathryn Calder, the newest in Newman's arsenal of ecstatic female vocalists (and pianist, in Kathryn's case)...and also Newman's long-lost niece. He explains, "About seven years ago I found out I had a long-lost sister, who had two kids. I knew Kathryn became a musician, but only recently friends saw her band play and raved to me about her talent. I thought, 'You can't have your niece in your band! It's just not done!' It turns out that it is done."
Dan Bejar, a non-touring member of the group but their only other songwriter, offers maybe his best NPs contributions to date. "Streets Of Fire" has a vaguely disturbing vibe accentuated by the band's attempt at a Manson Family-style chorus. "Broken Breads" pushes the band into their strangest time signature yet (which is saying something). And the wild-eyed crowdpleaser "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras" (a sequel of sorts to 'Mass Romantic's' "Jackie") features a guitar intro by Newman where he channels Alabama legends Sex Clark Five. Bejar (also known as Merge recording artist Destroyer) plays many of the instruments on his songs, as opposed to the other records where he just sang.
As for what Newman's on about, here goes:
"Twin Cinema": Newman updated this Electric Version-era tune with new lyrics referencing his part-time home San Francisco, hoping that "San Franciscans will hoot and holler at the '16th and Valencia' line when we play it live."
"The Bones Of An Idol": This song originated as a result of a studio accident, in which MIDI drum sounds were replaced with piano notes. Newman started writing the song using the dissonant piano music as the bed, but when they didn't mesh, he dropped the original music and "started going in a pseudo John Cale-Eno direction, with the insistent piano and the man chorus at the end, though we later chickened out and added ladies."
"Use It": Newman points out that drummer Dahle used beats from Iron Maiden, Kiss's "Detroit Rock City", and Zep's "Fool In The Rain" to create this "Frankenstein's monster". Lyric of the week: "Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I'm shitfaced."
"The Bleeding Heart Show": The coda of this song, which confirms Newman's long-suspected interest in the Zulu choral music Isicathamiya, is something he "had around for a while, and just needed a great song to go with it."
"The Jessica Numbers": Possibly Newman's favorite song on the album, as "it doesn't sound like any song I can think of, though Dan compared it to 'Jesus Christ Superstar', which is of course an incredible compliment."
"These Are The Fables": Newman says, "This one I like 'cause it's got, unintentionally, a little Jimmy Webb in it. It wouldn't have been that out of place on Thelma Houston's Sunshower or that Supremes album he wrote. Itâ€™s also cool to have Neko sing something not like her previous lead vocals." Note the groovy piano/drum jam toward the end.
"Sing Me Spanish Techno": In which Newman tries to write a song with a ton of parts and an asymmetrical structure but still a pop song through and through. And succeeds. Title inspired by his girlfriend Amy, and, as he was reading Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" while writing it, "there are some veiled references about the hero's journey and different myths, bullshit like that."
"Falling Through Your Clothes": Newman and Collins (who Newman calls "the quiet backbone of the whole operation") found a shred of music from the Electric Version sessions - deemed too weird to develop for that album - and added some verses and gave it its own song. Newman thinks it sounds like proto-minimalist freak icon Moondog, but Newman is also stoned out of his gourd.
"Three Or Four": The length of this song is 3:04. Accidentally. Newman says that since recording the song, "3 or 4" has shown up everywhere: When do you want to meet? 3 or 4. How many days were you there? 3 or 4. He says, "This song started as a call to arms for some personal revolution, then it became a kind of drinking song." This is a Neko/Kathryn double lead vocal.
"Star Bodies": "Every album needs a song that's based on another one of our songs backwards," says Newman.
"Stacked Crooked": Originally the opening track, Newman felt it worked better as a closer: "It had to be one or the other - it's too epic and strange to fit anywhere else." He fears he cribbed the verse from that "Wars Or Hands Of Time" song by 60s Aussie psych-rockers Masters Apprentices, which is such an A.C. Newman thing to fear.
The New Pornographers will be touring North America from mid-September through early November, and again in 2006.
May 6, 2003
Carl Newman | Blaine Thurier | Todd Fancey | John Collins | Kurt Dahle | Neko Case | Dan Bejar
Spin magazine called them "a reason to greet the day," and sure enough, 'Electric Version' is the most important meal of the day. Shaking our jaded asses from their slacker haze, the New Pornographers have had the same effect on the Matador offices as when Dolly Parton hijacked the company in "9 to 5." With impossibly huge hooks and an innate understanding of every pop trick in the book, this followup to 2000's breakthrough 'Mass Romantic' is the most exciting pop record we've heard in a long while, and the best summer record since 'Surfer Rosa.'
The New Pornographers formed in Vancouver in 1997 as Carl Newman's big idea, recruiting his favorite local talents to realize his grand vision. One of the first songs they recorded was "Letter From An Occupant," featuring the wildly soaring twang-free vocals of Neko Case, which stands as one of the greatest Canadian singles ever. Mint Records released 'Mass Romantic' in 2000, and when, at the 2001 SXSW festival, Ray Davies hopped on stage with the band and performed "Starstruck" for the first time ever live, well, things started rolling.
With 'Electric Version', rather than recording in pieces here & there and working songs out in the studio, the Pornographers went in with an arsenal of new songs, many of them already live favorites, and having been playing as a band for years. The result is much fuller and more confident than 'Mass Romantic', absolutely classic power pop on par with the best of the genre. Carl Newman is probably the shrewdest songwriter working today, with a surreal edge and tricky wit. Some say he is a tyrant, but he is merely self-assured. Dan Bejar, who also enjoys a career as Merge recording artist Destroyer, flies into a lesbian rage on "Chump Change," and also offers "Testament To Youth In Verse" and "Ballad Of A Comeback Kid." On the first single, "The Laws Have Changed," Neko gleefully introduces "for the first time, Pharaoh on the microphone" and elsewhere, as on "Miss Teen Wordpower," she goes for the throat with unabashed emotion.
Check out this slightly outdated band history.
Praise for 'Mass Romantic':
"A striking power-pop album, forty staggeringly catchy minutes of four-part harmonies and Wall of Sound production, exploding with energy and joy; but the New Pornographers' real secret is their arrangements: "a stampeding legion of guitars, organs, hand claps, tambourines, and their idiosyncratic voices." -- Rolling Stone
"An insanely contagious concoction of new wave, Cheap Trick, and garage-glam pandemonium... the perfect pop album." Entertainment Weekly
"The New Pornographers mix the pop purism of the Beach Boys, the power charge of Cheap Trick and the gentle psychedelia of Syd Barrett, some of the best pop of the year." -- New York Times
"Brains-across-the-dashboard power pop... a group experiment gone right, rock where the beat and ideas come faster than you'd expect." -- Spin