New Pornographers

The New Pornographers File

The New Pornographers have been one of the most reliable indie rock bands in the last fifteen years, and possibly the unlikeliest to have survived.  Those who’ve followed the band or read any of the profiles that were published during the publicity tour for their newest release Brill Bruisers would understand the latter part, considering their unusual origins and group dynamic.  The New Pornographers are a “supergroup” that outshined the work of their predecessor outfits, only to find in the wake of their success offshoot bands that have found equal or greater success.  It may be hard to grab Neko Case away from her solo work and Dan Bejar from tinkering with Destroyer, but every so often Carl Newman (who has a solo career of his own) pulls it off to give the gang another shot, and it usually pays off.

I first became a fan of the band back in college during the time that their seminal work Twin Cinema was released.  I was working in radio at the time, and because I was the kind of worker that did his due diligence, I had noticed a lot of buzz surrounding the album and was excited to find out that we were getting advance tracks from the record.  I remember being captivated by the title “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, partially because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what on earth “Spanish Techno” would sound like (as it turns out, this line of thinking was at least partially responsible for the title–an offhand comment in a conversation referring to “Spanish Techno” was the inspiration).  But I was soon captivated by all the wonderful melodies and enraptured by the sheer catchiness of the song, and in an irony of ironies, found myself constantly putting on repeat a song that excoriated the listener for “listening too long to one song”.

Soon I would pick up the album for myself and familiarize myself with the other highlights, from the bouncy “Use It”, to the mysterious “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras”, and the lilting “Falling Through Your Clothes”.  It was after a few more listens that I finally came to recognize the epic “The Bleeding Heart Show, a song whose brilliance we recognized with our very first Feats of Strength feature.  These tracks always stood out from the rest in my mind, but the rest of the album was at the level that I never felt the need to skip tracks, though I never felt the need to learn their names either.  This would be a pattern that I would find in most of their other works–a few standout tracks that are certain to make most setlists, and the rest doing just enough to keep you interested to finish the album.  Not a revolutionary analysis, I admit, but the significance of those particular tracks always made the band as much a favorite in my mind as a band whose discography I knew front-to-back.

I then worked my way back, picking up the band’s excellent debut, Mass Romantic.  It showed that the group’s knowledge of how to write a killer riff filled with sugar-sweet melodies was evident from the start, from the propulsive “The Body Says No”, to the jaunty title track, and the bouncy “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”.  The New Pornographers simply had a knack from the start for mixing big guitar chords and riffs with inventive and and playful keyboard lines, as well as simply displaying a keen ear for memorable melody lines.  During the time that I spent revisiting the band’s history, I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself humming the chorus to Neko Case’s powerhouse “Letter From An Occupant”.

Electric Version would be proof that yes, sometimes lightning can strike twice, as the band effectively copied the same formula from their debut.  While I have fond memories of the album and always am glad when it it comes up on shuffle, I have the hardest time remembering the specifics of what I love about the record.  On the whole, in many ways it’s a louder and happier take on their debut.  Any other band would be enormously proud of an album like Electric Version; it’s only problem is that it’s sandwiched between two of the great records of the 2000’s.

It was after the success of Twin Cinema where my tastes began to diverge from the consensus.  While many critics and fans were a bit disappointed with Challengers and Together, I find myself listening to these records quite often with a smile on my face.  True, the band began to write more ballads and for some it may have felt that the band couldn’t capture the right momentum on each album, but both albums offered the kind of highlights that would spur me to keep listening to these albums time after time.  It may have partially been the result of the fact that the band released a song with the lyric of “stranded at Bleecker and Broadway” while I was living at the other end of that block in New York (“Myriad Harbour”), but I always had a soft spot for Challengers.  Of course, I think that even the most disappointed critic would be hard-pressed to deny the charms of “Mutiny, I Promise You”.

Together suffered from many of the same critiques as Challengers, but has a slightly better reputation.  Again, I point to the fact that the album includes several of the group’s finest work, from “Crash Years” to “Silver Jenny Dollar” to “Up In The Dark”.  And it has one of the best openers the band has ever done, with “Moves”.

And so when Brill Bruisers was released earlier this year, it was met with the best reviews that the band had received since Twin Cinema.  But once again, I found myself disagreeing with the mainstream opinion.  As is the case with the rest of the band’s output, on the whole it’s a fine album.  However, it really lacks those two or three standout tracks that will be remembered for years to come and become an eternal part of their regular set (though that is of course assuming a lot with this band).  I enjoy the Dan Bejar-penned “War on the East Coast”, and appreciate how they merged Bejar’s more eccentric taste with the regular NP sound, but it feels like a lesser effort on the whole  The first four tracks on the whole work pretty well, but there’s nothing that leaves a lasting impression, and the momentum starts to peter out well before the record finishes.

It may be that the artificial tones used in the recording rub me the wrong way, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; I for one appreciate the much-discussed use of arpeggiators and love most of the keyboards on the album, so it’s not those 80’s-era type touches that bother me.  It may simply be that there is a simple lack of hooks that get me listening “too long to one song” or humming to myself everyday for weeks on end.  This is why when in the weeks leading up to its release we spent a lot of time around here linking to articles and reviews about the band, yet we didn’t recommend Brill Bruisers and write-up a full review of the album; in the end we pushed LOSE from Cymbals Eat Guitars, a fantastic record that may have benefited from lower expectations on our end, and not suffered like Brill Bruisers did.

Still, the band has had a fantastic career and well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.  And we’ll be there tomorrow night when the band takes the stage at the Crystal Ballroom, even if the show includes a healthy portion of new material.

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Over the Weekend (Sept. 22 Edition)

Kicking off the official beginning of fall (even if it begins a day later this year) with some new music and videos…

Jeff Tweedy is set to release the album (Sukierae) he recorded with his son Spencer tomorrow, and the duo stopped by the NPR offices to perform as a part of their “Tiny Desk Concerts” series.

The Antlers have another gorgeous, dreamy video from Familiars, this time for the song “Refuge”.  Not much actually happens, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying all the pretty colors.

If you’re in the mood for a little more action in your music videos, and don’t mind handling a bit of the bizarre, then check out the video for the Suicide-inspired track “Grid” by Perfume Genius, whose new album Too Bright is also set to come out tomorrow.

King Tuff’s new album “Black Moon Spell” is also set to be released on the 23rd, and if you’re quick you can listen to a stream of the glam-rock album on NPR right now.  The title track is the best song that T. Rex never released, if you ask me.

Kele Okereke from Bloc Party will be releasing his second solo album on October 13, and today released the second single from Trick.  Listen to “Coasting” here.

On Friday we linked to Pitchfork’s extensive interview with Richard D. James, but we we wanted to make sure that you saw this video that was linked to in the article of an early performance of “Aisatsana”, featuring a piano swung across the stage as if it were a pendulum.  That should be enough of a signal for you to watch:

And finally, Carl Newman and Neko Case from the New Pornographers talked to NPR about what it takes to write a good pop song, and the piece includes video of their performance at the Brill Building which gave their new album its name.  Unfortunately, the piece also didn’t include Neko’s cover of the Squidbillies theme song, but we got you covered.

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 22 Edition)

For those of you looking for reading material during the commercial breaks of the Every Simpsons Ever marathon…

Everyone’s looking forward to the new album from The New Pornographers next week, Brill Bruisers, and they’re making the media rounds in preparation.  Be sure to check out their interviews with Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork.

Pitchfork also has this look at the early-years of Kraftwerk, a period in which the band had yet to find the style that would come to define them.

If you’re in the mood for a troll-tastic list, there’s this countdown of the Best Video winners from the MTV VMA’s.  You can tell it’s an awful list with its very first selection: a shitty argument stating that R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is the worst in the 30 year history of the event.

[Ed. Note: “Sledgehammer” should be number 1, and “Virtual Insanity” should be 1a, with Chris Rock’s parody of the Jamiroquai video at 1b.]

Deadspin looks at the unlikely connection between the heavily-hyped FKA twigs and Air Supply.

AV Club has been doing a big feature about 1994 this week, and that includes a plea to listen to some Gin Blossoms.

And finally, The Guardian talks to several famous lead singers about the anxieties they face when performing.

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 15 Edition)

Some #longreads for your weekend as we try not mention Spoon for the first time this week.  Oh…goddammit.

Well, we might as well keep the streak up and talk about Spoon again.  But we have a really good reason this time, as Britt Daniel talks to Pitchfork about a number of songs from the entirety of their career, and provides some great insight into the songwriting process and explains a lot of the specific references in their songs.

And while you’re hanging around Pitchfork, be sure to take a look at the story behind the legendary underground hip-hop album Madvillainy, and this piece that looks at why older artists are now hitting the top spot on the albums chart.

Slate has an article that discusses the neuroscience behind people’s natural inclination to adore the songs of their youth, despite the fact that objectively they realize the songs are not very good.  This inspired me to take a look through my collection to see if there was anything that I should be ashamed of, and I really didn’t come up with anything.  But I’m going to post this video of N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star”, because how often will I have the chance?  I wonder what Pharrell ever did after this…

Continuing with the theme of articles of a more analytic nature, FiveThirtyEight has a look at the regional differences in playlist construction of Classic Rock Stations.

Rolling Stone has a couple of pieces that should provoke some interest.  First, there’s an investigation behind a lost classic by the Beastie Boys from the Paul’s Boutique days.  Then there’s a look behind the recording of Mother’s Milk for its 25th anniversary, an album that remains my favorite from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Impose Magazine has an interview with clipping., as they argue against being pigeonholed as “noise-rap”.

And finally, there’s a profile of The New Pornographers in the Wall Street Journal of all places.  Wrap your head around that concept for a second, then go ahead and read the piece.

Catching Up On The Week (July 18 Edition)

Some #longreads as you kick back and sit by the pool this weekend…

This is the week of Weird Al Yankovic, everybody, as our foremost parodist delighted the internet with a new music video each day from his new album, Mandatory Fun.  You should be able to find tons of features on him this week, but I’m going to highlight this piece from Deadspin in particular.  AV Club has had a whole series of articles on him, including a quick interview where Weird Al answers 11 questions.  And SPIN has taken the opportunity to rank every music video Weird Al has done.

The New Pornographers are gearing up for the release of their new album, Brill Bruisers, and The Vancouver Sun talks with Carl Newman on how the band was able to record despite the fact that the various solo projects pull the band members every which way.  After reading that, be sure to enjoy the band’s take on mid-90’s BritPop one-shot videos with the Dan Bejar-sung “War on the East Coast”.

Pitchfork has a piece looking at the evolution of “futuristic” music over the past fifty years, and its commentary on society as we’ve progressed over the years.  We didn’t mention it before, but also check out this other Pitchfork article that looks the validity of various dubious musical theories.

Earlier this week, Eddie Vedder caught some flack for off-the-cuff remarks he made in-between songs at a Pearl Jam show, which is something that Pearl Jam fans should be used to by now.  However, Vedder’s remarks pleading for peace was taken to be anti-Israel by some because of current events, most notably the Jerusalem Post, despite the fact there was no specific party mentioned.  Eddie took the time to post a response, clarifying once again that he’s anti-war, and that should come as no surprise.

And sadly, Johnny Winter passed away earlier this week, and the AV Club pays its respects.  This comes on the heels of last week’s death of Tommy Ramone, which has prompted more remembrances, including this one from Henry Rollins, being published that comment on the lasting influence of the Ramones.

Over the Weekend (Mar. 3 Edition)

It’s time to settle into another week, and what better way to capture the futility of another Monday than a pointless list from Rolling Stone?  This time, the “fearless” editors decided to rank every single song that Nirvana ever played, and decided that a slideshow of 102 clips is the best way to accomplish this.  Sure, some of the anecdotes are a bit fun, but mainly I’m surprised that someone listened to everything in the With the Lights Out boxset.

I'm sure there's a better way to utilize the asterisk.

These songs were ranked in some arbitrary order by Rolling Stone

As technology and the marketplace has evolved in music over the last decade, new business models have emerged, and not always to the benefit of the artists.  For example, a lot of emphasis has been placed on streaming services in recent years, and while some artists have endorsed this development, others have argued strongly against it, including notably Radiohead and The Black Keys.  We plan on doing future explorations of this argument in the future, but keep in mind this bit of evidence offered up by Zoe Keating, who provided a breakdown of where her income from her music came from in 2013.  Also, something else to keep in mind when you hear mindless preaching about how new technology will save us all: Camper Van Beethoven had a higher net profit than Twitter last year.  $645 million greater.

In a bit of great news for those who enjoyed our essay on The New Pornographers, Under the Radar has an interview with Carl Newman talking about their progress on a new album.

Speaking of our own work, it looks like we’re not the only ones who felt the time was right to take a look back at Danger Mouse’s career so far.  Stereogum has an “Annotated Media Guide to Danger Mouse” that you may want to check out.

SPIN seems to have the British band beat down this morning, with news about Coldplay’s new album (due May 19) and the premiere of the Arctic Monkeys’ new video for “Arabella”.

And finally, what better way to feel better about the week ahead than a reminder about the genius of This Is Spinal Tap.  ShortList has a list of the greatest “real life” Spinal Tap moments.  Some of these are probably worthy of a Jeff Goldblum laugh.

Feats of Strength: The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers have carved out a great career writing catchy, ambitious rock songs with great pop melodies.  A prime example of this is “The Bleeding Heart Show”, one of the highlights of my favorite album of theirs, Twin Cinema.  The rousing coda makes it easy to see why it’s a live favorite; it’s probably indie rock’s best answer to the second half of “Layla”.  I think it’s a fair comparison, because while both are certainly crowd-pleasers, I’m never quite sure if there is a real connection between the two sections.

But we’re here to celebrate, not bury the song.  I think it’s pretty apparent that the key part of the coda is the propulsive drumwork of Kurt Dahle.  It’s his shift to double-time that gives the music its lift, and it’s his fills that connect each repetition of the lament “we have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show” that help pump up the listener.  He plays a different variation at the end of each phrase, propelling the band into the next go-around by progressively amping up the intensity and increasing the difficulty while never letting things get out of control.

While I love each of the fills, there is a very subtle pattern that Dahle uses that is in my mind the coolest part of the song.  It occurs about two bars after each fill (after the “too late” part), with the first instance at around the 3:16 mark.  It’s a quick two hits of the hi-hat on the off-beats, and it serves to both accent the “too late” of the lyrics, and to reset the drum pattern until the next fill.  It’s a little detail that’s easy to gloss over and escapes notice on the first few listens, but once it’s found, it becomes the highlight of the song.