by carl wilson

The Only Pornographers are
the Pornographers of Ice Cream

newpies.jpg

First a note that The Wire, the smart CBC radio show on "the effect of electricity on music" that I've pimped to you in the past is, just in time for the CBC labour lockout, being featured on the Third Coast International Audio Festival's cool-radio site. You can listen to excerpts and read a terrific "behind the scenes" interview with host Jowi Taylor.

Our main bizness this morning, though, is my review of the new New Pornographers album, Twin Cinema, today in The Globe and Mail. I've revised my initial impression of the disc, as I suspected I would. At first I thought it sounded rushed - now I think much of it works well, but it still suffers from a muchness, from too many mixed intentions, with the parts out of balance. This has always been an inherent problem with the band but three albums in, you wish it would be resolved, and I'm not sure the way to do it is for the band to get artier - I've got Destroyer albums for that, but Carl Newman's strengths are pop strengths - clever, left-field pop, but pop nonetheless. I'm led back to The Trouble With Indie Rock (insofar as there is an indie rock). It's a subcultural tendency in which pop bands are led (by whatever cultural habitus and category errors you care to name) to consider themselves in a sense above the form, and therefore miss their opportunity to explore and exploit said form fully. (Not that I think this problem is simple.) In the case of the NPs, that's complicated by the disparateness of the band members and particularly Neko Case's limited availability. And still, with all those caveats, I think the album has a great deal to offer (especially, to reiterate a particular peeve of mine, when the arrangements afford the vocals enough space for legibility).

Whether that justifies my extended ice-cream analogy is up for debate. [...]

CD of the Week
Sweet, savoury, fusion confusion

The New Pornographers:
Twin Cinema

(Mint Records)
★ ★ ★

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, August 19, 2005

This third album by Vancouver band the New Pornographers may get mixed reactions from fans. Say, for instance, that your favourite ice-cream man started infusing his chocolate mint with curry, or layering his heavenly hash with foie gras. Fine, he wants to stretch his gastronomic skills. But prickly fusion cuisine isn't what brought you across town on a hot night to line up at his stall at the fair.

For the past five years, the New Pornographers have been making, as reviewers like to say, "pop music for people who don't like pop music," sourced mainly in the post-psychedelic glam and bubble gum of the early 1970s and in 1980s New Wave. Of course, New Pornographers fans do like pop music; many merely refuse, for elusive sociological reasons, to admit it. But offer cayenne pepper instead of hot fudge sauce, and they might not bite.

The band features three lead singers (Carl Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case), guitars, drums, keyboards and expansive studio ingenuity. On 2001's Mass Romantic and 2003's Electric Version, the approach was to create hyper-pop, songs that sounded like three hit singles happening at once, with almost too many words, too many melodic hooks, too many hot riffs jammed together. They strained the form, testing just how catchy a tune could get before it collapsed, and then doing it again. Most songs exploded from the first note all the way to the final chorus.

Twin Cinema takes the proposition of making non-pop under more serious consideration. Not that it's scant on hooks, choruses and sing-alongs, but they're stirred into a thicker churn. There's a dark complication in even the brightest bonbons here. The album feels more mature, and perhaps more geopolitically aware; several songs teem with threat and conspiracy.

Tunes here tend to build gradually rather than burst into action. A few are subdued all the way through, including two ballads showcasing Case's swooping, sympathetic voice - one the rousing These Are the Fables, and the other The Bones of an Idol, which plods.

With few exceptions, the band discovers new trap doors and stairs within its style without forgetting the route back to surging riffs and bell-ringing harmonies. Newman's Sing Me Spanish Techno and The Bleeding Heart Show and Bejar's Streets of Fire and Jackie Dressed in Cobras are among the Pornographers' best. Edit out the two or three stiffs and you've got a consistently addictive set.

But there are nagging issues. Only one of the three principals, Carl Newman, is fully committed. Neko Case has her alt-country solo career; Bejar's main project, Destroyer, is now signed to thriving Merge Records.

As vocal pinch-hitters, Newman has recruited his niece, Kathryn Calder (of Vancouver's the Immaculate Machines), as well as Nora O'Connor of Chicago group the Blacks. While the variety is diverting, it's no substitute for Case's solar-plexus punch. Meanwhile, Bejar's songs are too few here to lend the disc all the balance they could, yet his writing does show up Newman's flaws - namely, the sense of a centre frequently missing from his songs. (They all perform together on a joint New Pornographers-Destroyer tour this fall.)

Finally, there's the pop perplex: Is it all just too much tinkering around when, with Newman's arrangements and Case's pipes, they could be knocking out hits to leave Kelly Clarkson in the dust? I'm not sure. It's a memorable thing to meet the patent-holder on the curry cone, but the New Pornographers could be the emperors of ice cream.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 19 at 11:16 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

"Carl Newman also made a side/solo project this past year, so I don't think you can really say he's been totally committed either. He's still undoubtedly the glue that binds the group though."

Posted by nicole b. on August 20, 2005 1:15 PM

 

 

The W Stevens allusion should have been a signal not to take the K Clarkson allusion literally. Silly of me!

Posted by John S. on August 19, 2005 5:10 PM

 

 

I think your post is its own answer, JS - I know that realistically speaking the NPs won't necessarily ever get a hit. But if Carl Newman aimed a little more at writing West Side Story and less at Einstein on the Beach (to use a very imprecise analogy) that would be a step in the right direction. Not that EotB is lesser than WSS, it's just less Carl Newman. (If Dan Bejar wants to write Einstein on the Beach, he can go ahead. Life is unfair like that.)

Posted by zoilus on August 19, 2005 2:24 PM

 

 

I'm not sure that ""writing a hit song"" is a sure-fire thing for anybody. Certain people get on runs, but even those runs run out. (Longest run -- Irving Berlin? From Alexander's Ragtime Band to Annie Get Your Gun, 35 years. Anybody longer?) It's a lucky combination of talent and skill and ambition and an X factor that slots a person's skills and persona and vibe into the sensibility of the time in a way that resonates.

Posted by John S. on August 19, 2005 2:00 PM

 

 

Dude, the chance to riff on Wallace Stevens alone justifies your extended ice cream analogy. Nice!

Posted by DW on August 19, 2005 1:40 PM

 

 

anne carson has had her influence, hey?

Posted by Dixon on August 19, 2005 11:41 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson