The New Pornographers: “Together”

Sometimes I feel bad for the New Pornographers; it seems, one might say, that they began writing themselves into a corner with their very first album, welding their very identity to an aesthetic that thrives on a sort of comforting familiarity, leaving very little room for anything resembling reinvention. Every album they’ve made, more or less, has been a variation on a theme, a slight tweaking of a sound that aims for the Beatles by following an unerring, linear path through power pop history by way of Weezer and Big Star, Cheap Trick and early Who. Each album is distinct enough from the last to have its own discernible flavor, but rarely enough to really rock the boat– well, except for Challengers, the low-key record that through fans a major curveball and didn’t exactly go over well in some circles; never mind that it happened to be their most focused, and in many ways their best album.

Not that they seem to mind. Challengers follow-up Together feels like a cheerful return to the norm, not a deliberate act of renouncing the last album so much as a peppy, good-natured acknowledgement that yes, its mellow vibe was probably not what New Pornos fans really wanted. And so we have an album that mostly sounds like the album that could’ve followed Twin Cinema had Carl Newman and Co. not taken that curious detour. It is not a direct retread of that album, but it is, basically, a sequel, a logical progression that, as per usual, shakes things up enough to sound like its own distinct entity without sounding like anything radical. Yes, there are even some slower numbers here, suggesting that Challengers did teach the band some important lessons, or at least provide them with some happy memories.

Newman is still very much the ringleader of this motley crew, which means that the album spends a great deal of time exploring straight-ahead power pop territory– albeit with a few twists. What’s key, though, is that these little curveballs all feel natural, warm– not the kind of changes that smack of experimentation so much as gentle efforts to keep things fresh without alienating any listeners. And so we have the most Neko-centric New Pornos album ever, the golden-voiced chanteuse taking the lead more than ever before, both on slower numbers and rockers, and centering the proceedings around her warm, familiar vocals. We have numbers like album opener “Moves,” which cleverly mirrors its crunching, metal-aping guitar riffs with furious orchestral strings and pounding piano; similarly, a cello provides much of the drive of “The Crash Years,” as if to bridge the gap between power and chamber pop.

Elsewhere, the band tinkers a bit, but not in ways that could be described as surprising so much as pleasantly eclectic. Believe it or not, there are guest spots here for St. Vincent, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, and the Dap Horns— but you’d hardly know it if you didn’t consult the album credits, so seamlessly and unobtrusively does Newman blend them into the New Pornos sound. The horns are most prominent in “A Bite Out of My Bed,” and the role they play could have just as easily been filled by another layer of chiming guitars, to roughly the same effect. The biggest departure here is a ballad called “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” wherein Newman plucks away at a banjo Sufjan Stevens-style; but even here, the sound is natural, easy on the ears, and still not too far removed from past New Pornos slow songs. (Indeed, one naturally expects it to erupt into a big, show-stopping crescendo a la “The Bleeding Heart Show,” and when it doesn’t, it’s the album’s biggest surprise.)

Together is, then, marked by nothing so much as a dogged insistence on bringing in a variety of sounds and ideas, and then conforming them all to a sound that can only be classified as vintage New Pornographers; even Dan Bejar‘s songs seem streamlined here to fit better into the power pop mold, less fussy or wordy than they usually are on these records. The result is a typical release from Newman and the gang: Typically enjoyable, typically catchy, and typically unsurprising. Their familiarity is as comforting as it is, at times, a bit tiresome, and while Together has very much its own distinct identity within the New Pornos catalog, it boils down to roughly the same thing as all the others: Nothing more or less than a very good New Pornographers album.

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