The New Pornographers - Together
Is it time to give up on the New Pornographers? I've got a general rule of thumb when it comes to these things: one off album can be a fluke, two bad albums is a trend. Challengers was somnolent and portentous, this is slightly more spritely but still difficult.
Normally, I'm all for bands changing and evolving. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a good band become a great band through hard work and ingenuity. But the inverse of this is that there is nothing worse than seeing a great band derailed as they lose touch with their core strengths in favor of . . . well, I don't know. I think that AC Newman probably thinks he's onto something since he's produced two albums in a row in this general vein, but I'm just not buying it. Especially galling is the fact that his recent solo joint, last year's Get Guilty, was actually pretty good, but would have definitely benefited from the muscular punch of the rest of the Pornographers.
This is turgid and uninteresting, frankly a chore to get through. Perhaps the singular unifying thread throughout the band's first three spectacular albums is just how effortless they seem: there's a joy that can't be faked and a contagious energy. Although each track is perfectly polished they still project the illusion of spontaneity. In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that Twin Cinema would be their last truly great album - although it was by no means inferior to either of its predecessors, its very big sound lay the foundation for their next move towards a further estrangement from the group's relatively no-frills origins in favor of a burgeoning infatuation with making every song sound like an ELO pocket symphony. Sure enough, Newman indulges his inner Jeff Lynne here, and the result is awful: the songs sound nice, except that there's no thrust, no movement. It's all layered choruses and stutter-stop rhythms. It's like watching a movie that keeps promising to do something but which keeps doubling back on itself to retell the first three minutes. It's exhausting, and it's not fun. The New Pornographers used to be effortless, now all I can hear is the effort.
The only good thing about Together is that it makes you want to flip around on the ol' iPod to hear "Letter to an Occupant" and "Miss Teen Wordpower" and "The Bleeding Hearts Show" all over again. And then you get sad because you realize that they've lost it completely and will likely never do anything even half as good again.
I reserve the right to change my mind six months down the road, but I've already spent the better part of a week listening to this album and trying to hear the "return to form" that everyone else is going on about. Still waiting . . .
(Here's the one half-decent song on the album:)
I'm new to these guys, so I don't know if this is a characteristic release or not. But I can say after listening to the thing half-a-dozen times this last weekend, it's pretty damn strong. I can't remember the last time I was so immediately impressed with an album. This sounds like some seriously next-level, Yankee Hotel Fotrot, Gimme Fiction shit right here.
What I like about these guys is that their sound is relatively unique: there are guitars and bass, sure, but it's really all about the interplay between Matt Berninger's stately baritone and Bryan Devendorf's intense drumming. On first listen it's an odd dichotomy: Berninger's voice is so smooth and level that it's practically a monotone, whereas Devendorf's drumming is so manic that is veers damn close to straight-up jungle a few times throughout. And yet somehow these two disparate parts really come together to create a remarkable effect. The year is almost half over but I don't anticipate hearing many better albums before January.
One of the most frustrating parts of being a critic - even a really half-assed critic like myself - is that sometimes, despite all your efforts to proselytize on behalf of worthy causes, sometimes it just doesn't stick. Case in point: the New Young Pony Club. Their 2007 debut Fantastic Playroom was one of my favorite albums of the entire previous decade. I wrote an embarrassingly glowing 9/10 review for Popmatters. But the album was nevertheless roundly ignored after an initial bout of polite, if distinctly muted and entirely unenthusiastic praise (I think it received a Mercury Prize nomination, if that matters for anything). The Optimist is, if not better, just about as good as their first, and yet it hasn't even received the perfunctorily polite reception of their debut. The press has been decidedly mixed. Furthermore, it's been roundly thrashed by all the usual suspects who usually thrash former buzz bands who fail to live up to their supposed buzz - I won't bother to link, but neither Pitchfork nor Popmatters were particularly thrilled.
What the hell, people? Am I the only one who can hear how awesome these guys are? I'm not going to sit here and belabor the point. Everyone who I've ever convinced to sit down and spend some time with Fantastic Playroom has come away convinced. Is it because they sold their first single to an Apple commercial? Yeah, "Ice Cream" was kind of annoying, but if you listen to the first album you understand pretty quickly that "Ice Cream" was essentially a novelty song about fucking, and no real indicator of the band's sound other than sharing the general milieu of 80s-indebted post-punk. Or rather, perhaps it would be better to say, if you listen to the rest of the album, you understand that "Ice Cream" is satire, a poke in the eye of the male-dominated indie rock world, a world - despite the ostensibly progressive politics embodied by most bands - wherein women are still valued primarily as objects and not subjects, and the only appropriate role for a intelligent woman is either a predatory femme fatale or a fresh faced ingenue. Tahita Bulmer's lyrics are stridently feminist, and deal frankly with the ways in which women are commoditized and dismembered in order to be bought and sold in the culture - practically chopped into bite-size pieces for easy digestion. Given this, it's more than a little ironic that the band suffered as a direct result of being written off as a gimmicky dance-pop act defined by a sexy lead singer with a pouty voice.
Take my word for it: this is a good album. If you liked the first one, you'll like this one as well, and if you haven't heard the first one, you should hear them both. The comparison I made back in 2007 was that Fantastic Playroom reminded me of nothing so much as the Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, and if I can be allowed the conceit of extending the metaphor I'll say that The Optimist bears more than a passing resemblance to Fear of Music - it's still clearly the same band, but there's a newfound emphasis on minor keys, a new confidence in exploring the down beat. I am again confirmed in my opinion that the New Young Pony Club are one of the best bands in the world - or would be, if anyone else was paying any attention.