As a genre of music, indie pop is so immediately likeable that if you can’t find a band to love that plays this style of music, chances are there’s something wrong with you. Between The Shins and Phoenix, there’s a fair share of “crossover” indie pop acts too, working their way onto the radio and the general public’s consciousness. Despite being around for 10 years, The New Pornographers, for some reason, have yet to break through that wall. They’re now on their fifth long player, and not a single one of their songs has gotten airplay on a Chicago radio station. Considering at the very least their first three albums were critically acclaimed slices of sugary pop that stuck with you for days and weeks on end, it’s even more perplexing. That’s before you consider the roster of great talents that make up this supergroup, from formidable band “leader” A.C. Newman to Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and siren songstress Neko Case. What is it going to take to get this great band to finally break through? Or are many people scared away by the band name itself, not wanting to be caught searching the internet or talking to their friends about “pornographers”? This mystery is beyond my own comprehension, but the hope is that this new album “Together” might finally earn them the sort of attention they so richly deserve from the right kind of people.
Coming off the somewhat disappointing slow player that was 2007’s “Challengers”, The New Pornographers appear to be feeling better these days, because the quicker and more upbeat tunes of their earlier albums are back on “Together”. Granted, we’re not talking about the high speed sugar-fueled pop of songs like “From Blown Speakers” and “Letter from An Occupant”, but the tempo is definitely faster than most of what was on the last album. So you can’t quite call it a full return to form, but there are a few differemt elements that come into play and add a different dimension to this well-established band.
First is the instrumentation. It feels like The New Pornographers have graduated from the rank and file of other groups in a similar vein and moved into new territory with their sound. Guitars still form the basis for their sound, but for the first time we’re really hearing a full string section and/or horns present through most of the songs. They’ve dabbled in these sorts of arrangements before, just not with the breadth and depth they are now. It was mainly hinted at on their third album “Twin Cinema” and now that transition appears complete.
Secondly, though the vocals have always been shared relatively equally between Newman, Bejar and Case, “Together” truly is the first record where every single band member seems like they’re on the exact same page. There’s a cohesiveness present that takes away the glaring differences between tracks written by the band’s three principal members. Largely helping to create this impression is that they all sing on virtually every song, whether that means taking on a verse or simply adding vocal harmonies. In other words, even a Dan Bejar-fronted song doesn’t always stay that way, and the added vocal diversity does some great work in helping this album to gel from start to finish.
It’s the small things that don’t change which give me the most pause on “Together”. Problems mainly stem from the lyrics, which in typical A.C. Newman fashion, appear to be written from the heart and then colored in with shades of grey. It’s clear that many of the stories he tells are personal, sometimes intensely so, but the wordplay is so hazy and unclear, you’re never entirely sure what exactly he’s getting at. The same goes for Bejar, who’s basically been doing that for his entire career. By keeping the audience at a lyrical distance, an emotional connection to these songs is increasingly difficult to establish, forcing you to settle for the general upbeat fun the music and not the words are offering up.
Despite those minor quibbles, “Together” is a very strong effort from The New Pornographers. They do much more right than they do wrong here, and compared to their last album this one’s a treat. In terms of where this might stand amid their critically acclaimed catalogue, I’m still not entirely sure. What I can tell you with confidence is that “Together” isn’t first or even the second best thing they’ve done to date. The most important thing you need to know is that this album is essentially a return to form for the band, while at the same time taking some of the necessary steps they need for progression’s sake. It marks one of the better indie pop records I’ve heard so far this year, and naturally I would recommend you get a copy should you feel up to it. Now if only more radio stations would give this band a chance.