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The New Pornographers

Canadian indie rock/pop supergroups were as rare as hen’s teeth when The NEW PORNOGRAPHERS kicked off their campaign in the late 90s. It’s rarer still that collectives stick together for several albums, despite having extracurricular interests elsewhere.
The project was instigated in 1996/7 by ZUMPANO’s Carl “A.C.” Newman, who’d time on his hands after his main Vancouver-based combo cut their swan song set, `Goin’ Through Changes’; the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s inspiration came from the 60s Japanese movie, “The Pornographers”. Slowly but surely picking up equally-minded strays from other acts, Carl roped in bassist John Collins (of EVAPORATORS), guitarist/singer Dan Bejar (of DESTROYER), keyboardist Blaine Thurier (an animator/filmmaker), drummer Fisher Rose, and guest – at first – Neko Case (ex-MAOW); the latter was about to launch her own alt-country-inspired solo career with “her Boyfriends”. When, in 1999, Rose decided to bail after cutting a handful of tracks (he’d later turn up with said DESTROYER), former AGE OF ELECTRIC sticksman Kurt Dahle (also of LIMBLIFTER), filled his spot on The NEW PORNOGRAPHER’s debut set, MASS ROMANTIC (2000) {*8}.
One of the hardest acts ever to pigeonhole, their apparently post-new wave/power pop indie sound was certainly undulating, though indeed charming. From the opening freewheeling vibes of the title track to the wryly-titled glam-beat of `The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism’ and `Mystery Hours’, Carl, Dan and Neko presented a discordant but otherworldly harmonious effect. `The Mary Martin Show’, `The Fake Headlines’, `Letter From An Occupant’, `To Wild Homes’ and so on, ratcheted up the decibels a tad, but were nonetheless hook-line catchy.
Subsequently switching from Mint Records to Matador, and adding guitarist/keyboardist Todd Fancey (ex-LIMBLIFTER), 2003’s sophomore set ELECTRIC VERSION {*9}, sided more to the ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, TODD RUNDGREN and trippy, sunny-day psychedelia of their forefathers/mothers. The record was recorded on and off over the course of a year, however, somehow, each Newman/Case interplay songs such as `The Laws Have Changed’, `The New Face Of Zero And One’, `From Blown Speakers’, `It’s Only Divine Right’ (and others), melded amiably as if they’d been cut in one glorious session.
Not only had their interim period come up with an eighth member in singer/pianist Kathryn Calder (of IMMACULATE MACHINE), but auxiliaries, among them, David Carswell (slide guitar), Tyr Jami (cello) and Shaun Brodie (trumpet), had the swelled the ranks considerably on Top 50 breaker, TWIN CINEMA (2005) {*9}; incidentally Kathryn was Carl’s niece and was initially drafted in to fill on tour for an otherwise occupied Neko. And arriving on the back of NEWMAN’s 2004 superb solo set, “The Slow Wonder” (not withstanding the growing CV for DESTROYER, NEKO CASE et al), The NEW PORNOGRAPHERS were fast-becoming Canada’s go-to indie act next to rivals ARCADE FIRE. The album itself was as infectious as previous efforts; Case’s kooky un-country crooning complementing Newman’s ROY WOOD-ian songs or Bejar’s hooky HITCHCOCK-esque digressions. The all-in nature and ethos of their individual or collective high spots were peppered everywhere here, and taking twee Bejar’s triumvirate, `Broken Breads’, `Streets Of Fire’ and `Jackie, Dressed In Cobras’, out of the equation, it’d be hard to separate the merits of the title track, `The Bones Of An Idol’, `Use It’ or their rare and pop-friendly 45, `Sing Me Spanish Techno’.
CHALLENGERS (2007) {*8} dumbed down their muscular melodies for imaginative introspective and heartache hue and cry. The US Top 40 album fell a little short by comparison to their previous records, but listeners were soon aware of the classicist feel of Bejar’s freak-folky or Britpop-ish allocations, `Myriad Harbour’, `Entering White Cecilia’ and `The Spirit Of Giving’. Newman, of course, was the catalyst that held this 8-piece together, and in `My Rights Versus Yours’, `All The Old Showstoppers’ and `All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth’, recalled singer-songwriter salad days of yesteryear. The man was therefore entitled to break the Billboard 200 (at #99) on his own moonlighting effort, `Get Guilty’ (2009).
To coincide with a covers 7-inch EP, `Togetherness: The New Pornographers Play Outrageous Cherry’, 2010’s TOGETHER {*7} was even more inclusive than ever; roping in Zach Condon (of BEIRUT), Will Sheff (from OKKERVIL RIVER) and rising star ST. VINCENT. Surprisingly, having also peaked within the US Top 20, this fifth album was the ensemble’s inaugural home soil success. Whilst Neko was now something akin to NATALIE MERCHANT, and DESTROYER’s Bejar was a fanciful ROBYN HITCHCOCK, their incalculable contributions to the cerebral and complex Newman’s nuance was integral to best bits, `Moves’, `Crash Years’, `Your Hands (Together)’, the twee some `Silver Jenny Dollar’, `Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk’ et al.
The NEW PORNOGRAPHERS were finally back on song in 2014 with BRILL BRUISERS {*8}; two years prior, A.C. had issued his third set, `Shut Down The Streets’. Previewed by Newman’s title track and Bejar’s `War On The East Coast’ singles, the US#13 set was as dramatic as they’d ever been; Dan’s DESTROYER cut `Spidyr’ (formally `Spider’), and his `Born With A Sound’ (enhanced by LIGHTNING DUST’s Amber Webber), wrestled beautifully with the cascading and cryptically cutting edge cues like `Champions Of The Red Wine’ and `Dancehall Domine’.
The loss of the much in-demand Dan Bejar would be felt a little with the NPs seventh set: the Top 40 WHITEOUT CONDITIONS (2017) {*7}. A universal switch from Last Gang Records (in Canada) and Matador (in US/UK) to Concord Music Group, had been looked upon as a chancy decision given that the Polaris Music Prize nominees were on the ascendancy. Dahle was also absent from proceedings; his berth taken by multi-instrumentalist Joe Seiders. Opening with `Play Money’; featuring Neko on lead in her best 10,000 MANIACS lilt, the sonic septet dabbled with a Krautrock agenda on several pulsating pop pieces such as the soaring title track, the single `High Ticket Attractions’, `This Is The World Of Theater’ and the Bunnymen-esque `Darling Shade’.
The NPs had covered songs on various artists’ benefit compilations, and most recently B-sided with JIGSAW’s `Sky High’; others included The DONNER PARTY’s `When I Was A Baby’, FLEETWOOD MAC’s `Dreams’, and a CHILLIWACK cover medley of `Joseph, Who Understood’, `Arms Of Mary’ and `Looking At My Baby’.
When it looked very unlikely that Bejar would again grace the group, violinist/vocalist Simi Stone returned them to an octet for 2019’s IN THE MORSE CODE OF BRAKE LIGHTS {*9}. However, despite rave reviews from some quarters, they’d not just dropped out of Top 40 contention, but the Top 100 (at #144 stateside). They did not deserve this fate. A quirky twee pop sensibility had usurped their panic-attack power-pop appeal (think PREFAB SPROUT), and recalling the days of cars and girls songs (brushstroked in their own inimitable aplomb), the sonic bubblegum outfit oozed class and craft on the wondrous `You’ll Be A Backseat Driver’, `The Surprise Knock’, `Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile’, `Colossus Of Rhodes’, `Opening Ceremony’, `Need Some Giants’, `One Kind Of Solomon’, and one of the songs of the year, `Higher Beams’ (n.b. `Dreamlike And On The Rush’).
© MC Strong/MCS Oct2019

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