Time flies when you’re having fun — and sometimes when you’re not — and suddenly it’s three years since we last were able to buy a new album by the Canadian alt-pop supergroup The New Pornographers. And now their fifth album is available at a fine store near you, and it was worth the wait and worth the money. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The fun isn’t just in the energy they throw into what they do. In this case, most of the enjoyment comes from playing the parlor (or, since they’re mostly Canadian, parlour) game of Sounds Like. In this regard, the title “Together” could be an allusion to all the mashups, pileups and sound warps that assault the senses and stretch their tiny tentacles into every single nook of your memory chip and record collection and then some. And you’ll have yourself a good time as you wrack your brain and say “Where the hell did I hear that before?”
Generally, the best part of listening to The New Pornographers isn’t Neko Case’s mighty voice (though it’s certainly awfully close). It isn’t the collection of well-crafted tunes we’ve come to expect from Case, A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar. It’s knowing that you’re going to get a fresh collection of songs, and one that album isn’t going to sound like another.
Of course, some results (“Mass Romantic,” “Twin Cinema”) will come off better than others (the last one, “Challengers”). But this one takes the grand prize. It makes sharp turns, often without notice, that will leave you occasionally dumbfounded and bedazzled. And throughout this amusement ride, it’ll make you say “This sounds like …” And even if you’re wrong with your guesses — and I’m sure I am on a few, but who cares? — you’ll be thankful you played along.
The opening song, “Moves,” lives up to its name and sets the pace. It twists and warps and taffy-pulls the Chicago “25 or 6 to 4” guitar intro, then quickly shifts to a contemporary R&B/hip-hop piano staccato into a Jeff Lynneish pop melody with strings and dense, dancing vocal harmonies. The structure of the song remains solid, but with all these musical particles dancing around it (including backing vocals by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, who’s been getting a lot of notice of late).
“Crash Years” follows up with the same sort of freeform song-association, highlighted by their appropriation of the whistling from Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” and also offering hints of what sound like George Harrison’s “You,” Lou Christie’s “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” a sleighbell that fell off the Wall of Sound, bits of The Raspberries and maybe even a little “Teen Spirit.”
“Your Hands (Together)” warps the “Eye of the Tiger” intro and then takes an astral trip through the gamut of ’70s metal, from Sabbath to Rainbow to Spinal Tap. You expect the flash pots to go off and the whole bunch to be clad in spandex and glitter; let’s just say it would make a hell of a video. Speaking of glitter, so would the pop gem “Silver Jenny Dollar.” While the brief intro guitar made me think The Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink,” the rest of the song is pure T. Rex, albeit with a harder, more pronounced background. It’s not hard imagining Marc Bolan singing this one were he still around
Case’s charming and forceful voice takes center stage on “Sweet Talk Sweet Talk,” doing a Highland dance over a barely less-sprightly keyboard. The song comes across with a vaguely late-’60s Beatles-meets-Jeff Lynne-meets-Brian Wilson feel before it explodes into an electric pop-romp-stomp with a dash of loungy electronic exotica tossed in at the end.
The shuffle mode on the iPod works its way through the rest of the album as well, and quite well. “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” presents both guitar jangle and twang with a tantalizing touch of upbeat mid-’60s Britpop and brief explosions of sweet harmony. “Up in the Dark” conjures this unlikely teaming: the boldness of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” a backbone of jangle pop and a hint of ’70s Yes. The neat and goofy “A Bite out of My Bed” is delivered in a sprightly “Come On, Eileen” vein with some ’70s pop electronic noodling near the end. And “Daughters of Sorrow,” with Newman’s affected English vocal delivery (think Al Stewart meets John Lennon), melds a rollicking pub singalong with The Royalettes’/Laura Nyro & Labelle’s/Deniece Williams’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” complete with the Dap-Tones horns and a ’70s Stones ballad.
Some contemporary acts try to impress you with their musical knowledge and throw seemingly their entire collection at you, and it all comes off as just too precious as it leaves you dizzy (I’m thinking primarily of Of Montreal). The New Pornographers don’t come off as precious in the least. “Together” will leave you a little dazed, but in the way a new-fashioned wooden roller coaster would — all the wild dips and twists of a modern ride with all the accents of a traditional one. And, of course, wanting to take another ride.
If you have or know of an album I should review — and it has to be available in CD format — drop me a line at email@example.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.