The New Pornographers – Together

Together (2010)

B

1. Moves 2. Crash Years 3. Your Hands (Together) 4. Silver Jenny Dollar 5. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk 6. My Shepherd 7. If You Can’t See My Mirrors 8. Up In The Dark 9. Valkyrie In The Roller Disco 10. A Bite Out Of My Bed 11. Daughters Of Sorrow 12. We End Up Together

 

Apparently buying into the Challengers backlash, the ‘Nographers return with an album that sounds, well, just like themselves. And yet I’m left feeling rather underwhelmed. Therein lies the rub – as a purveyor of musical notes, once you go down new musical path, can you really come back all the way to where you were before? It’s sort of one of those age-old ultimatums, like “once you go black, you never go back,” or “once you have non-procreative sex, you automatically go straight to Hell and join Satan’s army” (Rick Santorum told me that. He wouldn’t lie! He’s got conviction!). The answer, of course, is that in the vast majority of cases, you simply can’t convincingly revive the sound and vision of the glory days without sounding like you’re pandering. Of course, we can never really be sure of an artist’s true intentions – it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Carl sat down to write a new batch of songs and Together is just what came out naturally. But TO ME, Mr. editorializing asshole, it sounds like he was playing it as safe as he could by deliberately writing the most stereotypically “New Pornographers”-sounding songs he could. Unfortunately, playing it safe is no way to make a great rock ‘n roll record.

Allow me to be more specific about how this album sounds, because I’d like to think I’m a better writer than I’ve shown thus far by saying that a New Pornographers album sounds like the New Pornographers (yeah, real perceptive, there). Basically, the band tries to amend what they were criticized for on Challengers (playing too many slow acoustic songs) by self-consciously rocking out a bit more, while at the same time absorbing the more “adult” musical elements that they introduced to their sound on said previous album, i.e. there are still cellos and shit, and less whirring synthesizers. Again, more often that not, the more upbeat tunes here sound more like workmanlike attempts to rebuke critics and garner a “return to form!” review on Pitchfork than honest inspiration. The galloping bridge of the lead single “Your Hands (Together)” (possibly the New Pornos’ most ‘70s classic rock-sounding song ever) and the surging chorus of “Up In The Dark” provide the requisite rockin’ thrills, but they’re just not nearly as fun as the old days… as always, it’s all eminently professional, catchy and well-written, but there’s just something a bit empty about the band’s approach here. Like how “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” is a rewrite of “Use It” from Twin Cinema with all the tension removed. Still perfectly enjoyable piano/guitar pop, but there’s something missing.

I dunno, old New Pornos songs used to just swarm with little, maddeningly catchy musical ideas that would keep you coming back for more – to use a couple of examples from this very album, the way the band sings the “slow down please” chorus of the wonderful guitar/cello rocker “Moves” (a song that I wish wasn’t nearly ruined for me by virtue of the fact that I hear it in that T-mobile commercial 118 times a day) with that catch their throats, like the sound of a CD skipping, or those unexpected, highly consonant, 60s San Francisco-esque multi-part harmony “ahhh’s” in Bejar’s “If You Can’t See My Mirrors.” But most of these songs just kind of chug along with their basic melodies and arrangements without a whole lot of extra treats or accoutrements. And a couple of these songs just don’t go much of anywhere… the Neko-sung ballad “My Shepherd” isn’t terrible or anything, but it just sorta drags on without doing anything all that exciting, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong, Carl definitely hasn’t lost it or anything. He still has an incredible gift for coming up with melodies and constructing songs. “Crash Years” is a terrific acoustic-electric pop rocker not only in the style of, but worthy of, classic New Pornos, and provides Neko an opportunity to sing something fun and upbeat for the first time since Electric Version. And after the relative misfire of an epic-length song that was “Unguided” on Challengers, the near-6-minute orchestrated closer “We End Up Together” is an excellent, heartwarming song – it actually does sound like a bit of the old magic getting rekindled. But I just wonder how committed the band members remain to the future of this project… Carl does solo albums, Neko is probably more well-known from her solo career than any of these guys combined, even Destroyer is getting more popular (and well they should be – those three songs on every New Pornos album sung by the dude with the weird ass voice are just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to the esoteric, enigmatic genius that is Dan Bejar). I imagine that if Carl wanted to keep making nothing more than competent, not-quite-exceptional power pop like Together, he’d probably just focus on his solo career. But I would certainly like to see these guys come back and prove they’ve got some pop genius left to give the world.



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