Honestly, why have The New Pornographers not made the jump to a major record label at this point? The music industry hierarchy and model of yesteryear may be continuing its downward spiral into irrelevance, but that hasn’t stopped other indie giants like Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists from signing contracts with the big leagues in recent years. Though their shimmering power-pop may be more instantly accessible than the headier preoccupations of the aforementioned acts, The New Pornographers unquestionably share their knack for sing-along choruses and quirky melodrama. Those same qualities even landed Death Cab and bands like Grizzly Bear and Band of Skulls a spot on last year’s Twilight soundtrack.
Blessed with a dynamic songwriting duo (A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar), one of the finest female vocalist this side of Emmylou Harris (Neko Case), and a rotating gaggle of multi-instrumentalists, The New Pornographers remain one of pop music’s best kept secrets: a true marvel, considering that more than a dozen of the group’s tunes have cropped up in various commercials, TV shows, and films since the dawn of the new century. Together – their 5th studio LP – is another fantastic display of the band’s trademark wit and playfulness. The album finds the Vancouver collective making only subtle yet effective changes to the way it does business while the songs remain as sturdy and taut as ever; it’s one of the most reliable releases you’re likely to encounter this year.
Taking all of that into account then, Together’s appeal might also be its Achilles’ heel. No single track is devoid of at least one memorable idea, but often the opposite problem is created – one in which there’s just too much to take in. Ultimately, this fact shouldn’t shock anyone; any band with eight individuals this talented is bound to be bursting at the seams with creative energy, and for better or for worse, A.C. Newman knows just how to ensure everyone’s strengths are brought to the table.
Opening cut “Moves” boasts oscillating cello riffage, sprightly piano rhythms, and Newman and Case – as The Pornos’ most formidable vocal threat – singing, “these things get louder” in pitch-perfect harmony. Listen closely, and you’ll even hear Okkervil River’s Will Sheff somewhere in the mix. The pure elation of “Your Hands (Together)” gallops on top of drummer Kurt Dahle’s propulsive triplet groove and tambourine accents. The track also features a rousing call to arms (“Put, put, put your hands together!”) and sublime vocal harmonies from Case and Kathryn Calder. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” is one of the album’s standout tracks, juxtaposing the mellow textures found on 2007’s Challengers with the jangly whims of earlier releases like 2005’s Twin Cinema. The song has a slightly ambient bent with pulsating piano chords and characteristically surreal lyrics like, “A mistake on the part of nature / you’re so thin, so fair / just sit anywhere / I’ll pencil sketch the scene / it’s feeling Byzantine.”
The simpleminded pop lover’s dilemma becomes more pronounced on the album’s latter half, where the songwriting is even more varied and intricately developed. Truth be told, the nuanced performance makes for a more exciting listen. “Up in the Dark” is a stomping acoustic number that somehow finds danceable moments in alternating 5/4 and 3/4 time signatures, with Neko proclaiming, “What’s love / what turns up in the dark.” “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco,” a sullen blend of piano arpeggiations and heavy atmosphere, is the rare minor-key NP track that actually comes off with a tinge of melancholy. “Daughters of Sorrow,” has plenty of soul and also The Dap Kings, who guest on the track with some killer brass hooks. Closer “We End Up Together” serves the same purpose that “Stacked Crooked” did for Twin Cinema, slow to build but ultimately exploding in an epic display of sonic euphoria.
Fault them, if you want, for not taking bigger risks with this record. With all the accolades heaped on the band’s main songwriters these past few years, this really could’ve been a prime opportunity to go for broke. But as we’ve learned with every sequent release since the group’s Mass Romantic debut of ten years ago, The New Pornographers never really seemed as enamored with augmentation as they did with adjustment, and Together continues the trend by simply tweaking what has always been an incredibly polished spectacle. I’m more than willing to sacrifice evolution at the expense of refinement, and with musicianship this consistent and engaging, can we really ask for more?