The Canadian-based band The New Pornographers, led by songwriters A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar, staked its reputation on delivering smart pop songs. From their 2000 debut, Mass Romantic, the talented core group, including vocalist/songwriter Neko Case, has remained intact. They've enlarged the troupe, adding guitarist Todd Fancey and Newman's niece, Kathryn Calder, on vocals and keyboards (initially for touring purposes). In the decade of their existence, the band, named after a 1960s Japanese dark comedy film, has patiently released a string of quirky pop records, varying in tone and elevating in quality. Their fifth release, Together, is aptly named, working a double-edged sword between sincerity and irony -- often brilliantly.
Newman emerged as the leader of the group, often bringing his bag of influences --’70s rock, power pop and Brian Wilson -- into ironic songs with sometimes nonsensical lyrics. However, Bejar consistently contributed eccentric, chopped-rhythm numbers that drew more from ’60s psychedelia and Robyn Hitchcock. One wouldn't necessarily need to recognize the lead singer's voice to be able to distinguish who wrote what song. It was pretty clear. Until Together.
It's surprising to hear Bejar's Belle & Sebastian-like jangle on "If You Can't See My Mirrors" or the power pop gem "Silver Jenny Dollar," which subtly represents the state-of-the-world theme running throughout this record. What's a shock is that Bejar's three songs are so accessible. It blurs the distinctions. "And it's true, you noticed that's all I could do," sings Bejar in a deadpan manner, "in a world that's beaten everything black and blue."
Newman counters with "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," which, in turn, employs the quirkiness of Bejar's songwriting. Newman moreover relies on his strengths, clearly illustrated in his first superb 2004 solo release, Slow Wonder. His Phil Spector confection "Crash Years," with its tambourines, strings, a "Be My Baby"-like backbeat and whistles, is beautifully frosted by the icing of Neko Case's vocals. "The ruins are wild," Case belts out. "Tonight will be an open mike." It juxtaposes the apocalyptic and absurd, while reflecting on recent history. Newman shapes Together by drawing from a well of ’60s LA pop, ’70s ELO-like string arrangements, and early ’80s Elvis Costello execution -- clever, literate and sharp.
True to the record's title, The New Pornographers have banded together to create a sublime record, suited in an intricate and colorful pop fabric. Not since Costello's 1979 masterpiece, Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism), has pop been elevated into an art form, reflecting a state of world weariness with clear imagery, ironic humor and metaphor. Closing the album, Newman flatly sings "We End Up Together" as statement of fact, a true swan song. Together, as all effective art does, reminds us that in the end, we indeed do. And we might as well be whistling when we do.