Thursday, April 22, 2010

I can't define it, but I know it when I see hear it.

Tonight my friend Siobhan and I attended the Philadelphia "Get Together," a listening party for the new New Pornographers album (see what I did there?), Together. The event was held at Kung Fu Necktie in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, and featured free PBR (of course), PBR-branded chapstick (thankfully not PBR flavored or scented!) and all kinds of giveaways, including a pretty awesome-sounding, unlabeled spring mix compiled by Carl Newman that, 5 tracks in, seems to consist mostly of vaguely psychedelic/garage-flavored obscure rock songs.

As for the album itself, the only song that I had been exposed to before tonight was the fairly rocking "Your Hands (Together)," which Matador had already released as an mp3 download. I was aware that first official single, "Crash Years," had been released, but I had not yet heard it. The only other pieces of information that I knew about the album were that Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Will Sheff of Okkervil River both made guest appearances on the record.

The album kicks off with "Moves," an arrestingly catchy Carl-led power pop gem featuring bright, crisp production that gives the song a sheen but doesn't defang the power of the hook; it sounds arena-ready yet still raw and immediate, and frankly after two listens to the album I think it may be second only to "Mass Romantic" as the best opening song on a New Pornographers album, and in spite of the glossier production the song presents a welcome return to the general sound and feel of the New Pornographer's second album, Electric Version.

"Moves" proves to be only the beginning of an absolutely brilliant opening three-song salvo that continues with singles "Crash Years" and "Your Hands (Together)" - which, by the way, becomes a completely different song when blared through the PA system in a bar. I found out tonight just how much better that song becomes the louder it is played. By this point in the album, you would be forgiven for thinking that it could end up besting even Mass Romantic.

The fourth track, "Silver Jenny Dollar," the first of three Dan Bejar-fronted songs, finds the Destroyer frontman in unusually poppy and accessible mode, and on first listen it seemed a bit of a let down. It's not that it was a bad song, it just didn't seem to offer a lot to hang on to. It fared better on second listen, however, perhaps because I was paying more attention to the song itself the second time through. "Silver Jenny Dollar" is followed by the Kathryn Calder-spotlighting "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," the song that ended up providing the biggest surprise of the album; ever since she was added to the lineup, I have found Calder to be the weak link in the New Pornographers. She just never seemed to mesh with the rest of the band, especially when attempting to sing Neko's songs during live shows. She totally makes this song work, however, and avoids making it this album's equivalent of "Failsafe." The first half of the album wraps up with an engaging ballad-ish Neko Case number called "My Shepherd."

Halfway through the album, side 1 seems to hold up as one of the most consistent album sides the Pornographers have recorded thus far. This is obviously an immediate gut reaction and not the result of extended reflection and evaluation, but right now I would rank it at least equal with the first side of Electric Version, possibly even edging that album's first half out. It is certainly a more coherent and engaging listen than the first sides of Twin Cinema and Challengers.

The second half begins just as promisingly with the second Bejar-led song of the collection, "If You Can't See My Mirrors." As poppy as "Silver Jenny Dollar" had sounded, "Mirrors" may well be the most immediate and accessible song Bejar has written yet, and it does not suffer for it. On the contrary, it is a perfect song to kick off the second side of the platter, setting an infectiously playful tone. This gives way another Newman rocker, "Up in the Dark," that cheekily seems to crib its drumbeat from Simple Minds, coming off as a harder-edged older brother of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" - all it's missing is Carl shouting "Hey, hey, hey, HEYYYY!!!" at the beginning.

It is at this point that the album begins to lose steam and reveal its almost impossibly front-loaded nature. The well-meaning but ultimately clumsy Neko Case-sung "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" presents the first lull in the sequencing of the album, and the remaining songs never quite recover from it. Even Bejar's remaining composition, "Daughters of Sorrow," seems somewhat lugubrious and half-hearted, as though the entire band had completely spent themselves on the first eight songs. Still, those first eight songs are almost unbelievably solid and consistent, and it is quite possible that the back third of the album will leave a better impression on me when I am listening to it in an optimal environment (i.e., not a loud bar).

My second time through I focused my attention on the instrumentation, trying to pick out the contributions of Clark and Sheff. It did not sound to me as though either one contributed vocals, although it's possible that I just didn't detect them over the din in the bar. The third Bejar song, "Daughters of Sorrow," seemed to have a distinctly Okkervil River-ish quality to the guitar tone and the interplay of the rhythm section, so I am thinking that Sheff may have at least made an appearance on that song. Throughout the album I heard several guitar lines that sounded as though they could have been the work of Ms. Clark, but I did not take not of which songs they were.

Overall, this record has immediately surpassed Twin Cinema and Challengers, and established itself as my favorite New Pornographers album in seven years. I heartily recommend it, and I look forward to being able to spend more time with it.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't thank Siobhan for coming out, having fun, and just being awesome in general, Matador for presenting these listening parties, and Brian from Beggars for all his hard work organizing and hosting the event tonight.

Together will be released on May 4. If you pre-order the CD or LP from the Matador online store, you will receive a free three-song 7" single of non-album cover songs with your order.
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