Making the art of the pop song safe for indie rockers, The New Pornographers return for 2010 with Together, the Canadian musical collective's fifth album. That's a somewhat surprising mark considering the band's genesis in the late '90s as a sort of power pop recording side project for the various members, who during the time of the initial sessions were all active in various bands in the Vancouver, British Columbia, music scene. The debut album Mass Romantic emerged at the end of 2000 and was soon hailed by many critics as an instant classic, eventually leading the group to tour and become more of a full-on band.
The group's legend collectively and individually has grown exponentially ever since. Along with primary songwriters/guitarists Carl Newman and Dan Bejar, the original lineup includes bassist John Collins, drummer Kurt Dahle, keyboardist Blaine Thurier and, of course, the vocals of Neko Case. Her involvement has to be considered somewhat of a lucky bit of synchronicity, as she was just leaving the Vancouver scene as The New Pornographers was getting off the ground; her vocal contributions have ended up being a big part of the group's sound.
Having members who are often working on their own projects, like Case and Bejar (of the prolific band Destroyer), can make it tricky to tour, which is part of the reason that the band's size has also grown over the years. Todd Fancey (guitar/keyboards) joined the fold for 2003's Electric Version, while Kathryn Calder (keys) helped out with recording 2005's Twin Cinema, and has been along for the ride since the subsequent tour.
The New Pornographers' recordings have gradually become more elaborate with each new album, taking advantage of both the members' multi-instrumental abilities and selected guest players. 2007's Challengers introduced much more complex arrangements as well, moving toward the spacier end of pop (a la The Shins) as the crunchy electric guitars faded into the background. The arrangements on Together are similarly complex but this time make room for a bit more of that old power pop bounce and crunch than on Challengers, while at times also moving their sound into chamber-pop territory.
The album's opener, "Moves," substitutes what sounds like cello for some of the guitar crunch; "Your Hands (Together)" manages to be a stomper despite its lurching starts and stops; and, the unstoppable confection "Up in the Dark" helps keep things moving in the middle of the second side. Even the elegiac "My Shepherd" ends up being pretty darn catchy after a few spins, helped along by an assist from the Dap Kings horn section. One interesting thing to note: While perusing the liner notes, there's no mention this time around of who wrote what. The current press "biography," written by novelist/essayist Rick Moody, gives no answers, beyond noting that a couple tracks are about other songs by George Harrison and Chicago.
Whether I know who wrote what for sure, Together is growing on me the more I listen to it. I wouldn't be surprised if its combination of pop smarts and more complex arrangements ends up being my second favorite disc after their debut. The band will visit Wisconsin twice on the tour supporting the new album; the first stop in the state is at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Saturday, June 12. The tour is currently scheduled to end right here in Madison with an all-ages show at the Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday, August 4. (Matador, 2010)