Thursday, August 7, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 648: New Pornographers

I’ve been buying a lot of new music lately, and this next album was one of them. Despite it being new, it was randomly rolled. Because I’d only listened to it once through when I rolled it, this review was a bit delayed, since I wanted to give it a proper chance to settle into my ears. Three more listens later, I think I’m there.

Disc 648 is….Together
Artist: The New Pornographers

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? Miniatures! Careful readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for modeling myself. This cover is pretty cool overall, and catches a vibe of both separation and community that the record also reflects. That said, these figurines need better paint jobs. I suppose that’s the effect they were going for, but I would add a little highlighting and shading if it were up to me.

How I Came To Know It: In the last two years I have become a sudden but fervent fan of Neko Case’s solo work. Once I had mined that to exhaustion, I started looking at her other projects and the logical place to start was the New Pornographers.

I read an article about 2007’s “Challengers” and bought it and loved it, so it was a question of how far down the rabbit hole I wanted to go. I let Youtube decide me, and I listened to every album they had put out song by song to see what I thought. I didn’t care for their first three albums (“Mass Romantic”, “Electric Version” and “Twin Cinema”) at all, despite the rave reviews they received. I was about to give up hope when I heard “Together.” It is no “Challengers” but it was certainly good enough to buy. And so I did.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two New Pornographers albums. They have six albums, but pending a listen to the 2014 release “Brill Bruisers” I am good with the two I have. Of those two, “Together” is second, but having listened to their first three albums as well, I’m comfortable saying it is my second favourite overall as well.

Rating:  3 stars but almost 4

“Together” is an apt title for a record that fuses this many different sounds and notions into each song. Most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I generally appreciated the effort throughout.

The band itself is an amalgam of eight different musicians that lend their talents to both the New Pornographers and a variety of solo projects and other bands. This can sometimes be a hot mess (my one and only experiment with Broken Social Scene was an example of this) and I was a bit nervous about the NP after so many failed attempts to like them (see “How I Came to Know It” above).

Fortunately, “Together” sticks mostly to the approach followed on their previous masterpiece, “Challenger” letting the melodies shine through and keeping all the various contributions to the sound complementary, yet distinct. In short, they keep it together.

I particularly like how they work in the horn and string sections, using little flourishes here and there to punctuate a song emotionally without overwhelming it. On “Crash Years” they even work in some whimsical whistling. At times there can be too many little riffs competing with one another in a single song, but for the most part they hold the curse of the song through choppy waters of their own making.

And on the horn front, full credit for employing the Dap-Kings. These guys can really play, and their soul revival feel infuses the indie constructions with a vitality they might not have managed on their own.

This record is solidly in the modern indie movement, and it suffers from a lot of the common malaises that strike that style. Most notably, lyrics tend to paint small distinct scenes, which prevent a narrative quality I tend to like in a song.

Neko Case is the star of the show, even though she willingly takes a back seat in favour of the collaborative feel of the record. While the production and song construction don’t give these songs the same emotional impact as her solo work, Case still elevates “Together” whenever she gets the chance. “My Shepherd” soars under her vocal leadership and no matter how much of her I get, I always find myself wanting more.

Unfortunately the majority of the vocal leads go to Dan Bejar. Bejar is the Blake Sennett to Neko Case’s Jenny Lewis. Fortunately Bejar’s voice is much better than Sennett’s in Rilo Kiley, the latter of whom often finds me skipping to the next track on casual listens. Despite generally liking Bejar’s voice, and how it holds loose and pretty harmonies with Case, it still suffers from a common indie malaise: ironic detachment. Ironic detachment may be the sound of our times, but that doesn’t mean I have to love it.

The album feels heavily influenced by Belle and Sebastian in places, particularly on “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” featuring lines like “pissed up Sunday morning” which seemed a bit too British Isles for the Vancouver based New Pornographers. Much worse is the song's reference to  “Honourable discharge abord the HMS Pinafore” which made me see the song through the lens of a musical.

I can’t stand the cutesy quality in most musicals, and just referencing HMS Pinafore made me start hearing that quality in a bunch of the other songs, with their light and bouncy style. Fortunately the general excellence of the record dispelled the bad taste by the time I reached the end.

The record has great songs throughout and they often flow together so seamlessly that I can’t remember at the end of listening which is which. This could be a function of me only having four total listens to the record, but even if the feeling persists, it isn’t a bad thing. The same thing happens on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” which is, you know, pretty good.

Lyrically, my favourite song is “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” which had me remembering what it was like to be young and filled with vain hope of love at a teen skate (ice, mind you), enthralled with all the girls that in those days were a foot taller than me. Never have I wanted to die in battle more. “Valkyrie don’t go home” indeed.

Ahem. Back to the record, which ties all its themes together in a nice bow for the final song, “We End Up Together.” This song pulls together a lot of different sounds, most notably a delightful little cello flourish and some back and forth min-choruses. Each element on its own would sound clunky or unfinished. Combined they are a complex layering of sounds that creates a symphony of small. With so much going on as the song (and the record) heads into the final turn you are certain the whole thing is going to hits a wall of production and wash out. Instead, as promised, it ends up together.

Best tracks:   Moves, Crash Years, Silver Jenny Dollar, My Shepherd, Valkyrie in the Roller Disco, We End Up Together

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