Monday, May 17, 2010

New Pornographers - Together

Today on Flying Houses, we feature a double-bill of Canadian indie rock supergroups who have recently released an album two weeks ago. The first is the New Pornographers.

I don't agree with most people about this band--not that I don't think they're great, but that their best work came at a certain moment. Together is their 5th album. It's on par with Twin Cinema, I think, which many claim is their strongest work. Which is my point of disagreement.

Of course there have been lively debates about whether Mass Romantic is better than Electric Version. At the time, the debut would usually edge the sophomore effort. But I don't want to talk about mainstream critical consensus, except to do a ranking:

Most other rock critics' estimation of the New Pornos catalog (best to worst):
1) Twin Cinema
2) Mass Romantic
3) Electric Version
4) Together
5) Challengers

My estimation of the New Pornos catalog:
1) Electric Version
2) Mass Romantic
3) Twin Cinema
4) Together
5) Challengers

note: there is nothing scientific about this claim.

So there really is no debate about where Together ends up in their pecking order. Obviously, it's an improvement over Challengers, though still falling short of their earlier, best work.

Would it be enough to say that it's a huge improvement over Challengers, and their first three albums are pretty much impossible heights to match, thus Together will be on the top 10 of 2010? I don't think so.

But it is a huge improvement over Challengers and "Your Hands (Together)" is one of the best songs the band has ever done and there are a couple others that might inspire similar claims. Still, something is missing. I don't know why everyone thought Twin Cinema was the height of their talent, but for me, that's when it started to head downhill. To me, Electric Version is the moment showcasing the height of the band's powers--every element that made them distinctive, original, fun, and almost perfectly polished came on at full strength. Twin Cinema is the beginning of their attempt at expanding their palette.

This is a band who had an enormous palette to begin with and actually began limiting themselves by trying to sound more "adult" or "mellow." Thus, Challengers, which is not a total disaster of an album, but definitely a hard one to appreciate. Any time you have Neko Case in your band, and anytime she sings on a song, it is pretty hard to make it into a total disaster. But every song without Neko...yeah...

She is the most important piece of the puzzle, and her presence on "Your Hands (Together)" is enough of a faint whiff of nostalgia to make longtime fans feel like it is 2003 again. Actually, the first time I heard the 1-2 punch of "Crash Years" and "Your Hands (Together)," I was ready to proclaim that they were back.

But in the end I've grown tired of the second track a bit and who knows how much I'll listen to Together. My problem with this album is the same problem I have with the New Pornos live--you're not quite sure what you're getting. I have been to a couple festivals where they were on the bill, and I was very excited each time, only to be disappointed by their sets, #1 because Neko Case was never there, and #2 because they attracted crowds too big for their stage, and #3 because their stage presence, crowd banter, live sound, or "energy translation" failed to meet my expectations.

The other day I listened to the first track, title-track, from Electric Version and it led me to reflect that the entire album was great, so the next day I drove into the city listening to that, not Together. To me that is a landmark album which completed the process Mass Romantic set out to begin--which was to create a new sound, a new genre, a new kind of indie rock band that might get mainstream. Certainly one of the best albums of 2003, but it's hard to stay on top.

But one other thing: I bought Together from Best Buy for $7.99. Totally worth the price.

No comments: