The New Pornographers

Letter From An OccupantMass Romantic
The Slow Descent Into AlcoholismMass Romantic
The Laws Have ChangedElectric Version
The Bleeding Heart ShowTwin Cinema
Sing Me Spanish TechnoTwin Cinema
All The Old ShowstoppersChallengers
Myriad HarbourChallengers
Crash YearsTogether
Brill BruisersBrill Bruisers
High Ticket AttractionsWhiteout Conditions

The New Pornographers photo 1



New Pornographers playlist


Contributor: Marc Fagel

The New Pornographers got their start as a sort of Canadian indie rock ‘super group’ – though that might be pushing things. While comprised of disparate musicians from the Vancouver music scene, none had quite the profile of, say, the members of Asia (or, for that matter, Golden Smog), though many have since established successful careers outside of the band. And at eight albums and counting, it’s fair to say the New Pornographers have more than demonstrated their bona fides as one of the preeminent indie acts of the last 20 years.

Carl Newman formed the band after releasing two unjustly overlooked albums of unusually sophisticated power pop with Zumpano (as well as serving time with other indie acts). For his new band, Newman (who has also released a number of solo records under the moniker A.C. Newman) went beyond Zumpano’s (slightly) more straightforward power pop stylings, crafting dense and complex arrangements tethered to ecstatically winning hooks. One could look to more adventurous bands like Jellyfish or the Posies as having a similar sensibility, though Newman’s songwriting is truly in a class of its own, songs taking unpredictable twists and turns, never resting on a simple riff, yet almost invariably landing on a chorus so infectious you’ll be stuck humming it for days.

The band benefits from an immensely talented group of supporting players, more than up to the task of realizing Newman’s musical vision, while contributing a few tunes of their own to enhance the variety. Dan Bejar, who also serves time leading edgy indie band Destroyer, has helmed a few tunes per album (at least until the past couple releases), his songwriting and voice a bit more prickly and less immediate, but providing a helpful Harrison counterpoint to Newman’s Lennon-McCartney genius. Other members of the sometimes-varying cast include guitarist Doug Fancey, who has released a few Beach Boys-inspired sunshine pop albums as Fancey.

But the band’s not-so-secret weapon, of course, is Americana chanteuse Neko Case, who brilliantly adapts her more country-tinged inclinations to Newman’s earworm pop, providing stunning lead and harmony vocals that bring out the emotion in Newman’s complex music. On recent albums she is ably abetted by vocalist/keyboardist Kathryn Calder (Newman’s niece), who started as a live fill-in for Neko – whose solo success often prevents her from touring with the band – before joining full-time.

The band’s 2000 debut, Mass Romantic, immediately established the blueprint, with energetic guitar and keyboard-driven indie rock distinguished by a seemingly endless supply of hooks and Case and Newman’s enchanting intertwined vocals, intermittently broken up by Bejar’s offbeat tunes. The title track that opens the album leaps out of the gate at a galloping pace, crunchy guitars with garage band organ touches, Case’s delirious voice rising above everything. A seemingly perfect declaration of purpose, it’s not even the album’s best song. That honor rests with the similarly Case-helmed Letter From An Occupant, its jagged guitar attack softened by its densely arrayed vocals and well-deployed ooh-oohs. Nearly as great is the similarly rapid-fire The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism, confirming that Newman can front his own tunes no less artfully than Case.

Electric Version, the 2003 follow-up, allayed any concerns that Mass Romantic was a one-off for some local scenesters mining Newman’s pent-up creativity from his earlier bands. Aided by cleaner sound, the album backed off some of the debut’s more overheated cacophony, with a bit more production polish but undiminished complexity to the music. Clear standout The Laws Have Changed offers a joyful loud-soft-loud dynamic that perfectly balances Newman’s relentless hooks with Case’s softer croon. Comparably great album closer Miss Teen Wordpower reprises the debut’s energetic gallop, with another spotlight for Newman and Case’s vocal interplay, while The End Of Medicine is a chipper bit of post-new wave bubblegum.

2005’s Twin Cinema didn’t stray far from Electric Version’s template, with an equally impressive and varied slew of breathless, twisted pop. The album provided the band’s finest stand-alone tune to date, the slow-building, multi-part suite The Bleeding Heart Show, which moves from a restrained lead-in to a closing vocal showcase that is almost shockingly tuneful, one of those songs that compels you to hit the rewind button and play it just one more time, the hey-la’s echoing in your head long after the album has ended. Sing Me Spanish Techno is another personal favorite, a simple, recurring guitar riff complemented by another smile-inducing chorus.

If any criticism could be lodged against the initial trio of albums, it’s that the busy arrangements sometimes distracted from the hooks and clever wordplay, making it hard to just kick back and hum along with an otherwise ridiculously catchy tune. They tempered this a bit on 2007’s excellent Challengers, which retains the musical ingenuity but pares things down on a few songs so you can actually catch your breath. The album is riddled with wonderful, marginally more straightforward pop tunes, from the deliriously anthemic All The Old Showstoppers to the gently melodic My Rights Versus Yours to the perky Mutiny, I Promise You, not to mention the gorgeous Case-sung title ballad and the hypnotic, electronic groove duet Failsafe – hell, you could just throw a dart at the wall to pick a few for inclusion on a band Top 10. And while I’m clearly a Newman devotee, Bejar offers one of his most distinctive tracks in the skewed folk-pop Myriad Harbour.

After such a remarkable run of albums, the New Ps couldn’t help but hit a bit of a slowdown, and 2010’s Together feels a little short of noteworthy material. It starts out strong enough, both the orchestrally-abetted album opener Moves and especially the tuneful Crash Years (with its wickedly catchy whistling) as stellar as anything they’d done to date. But a few more winners aside (notably Bejar’s terrific Silver Jenny Dollar and Newman’s A Bite Out Of My Bed), it lacks some of the energetic charm of prior releases.

After a four-year break, the band returned to form with the fantastic Brill Bruisers, a rousing collection of densely-layered baroque pop that, like Challengers, eschews some of the fussy complexity of the earliest work and is all the more engaging for it. The title track that opens the album is another Newman-penned jaw-dropper, overwhelming hooks amplified by Spector-esque production, simply massive, booming reverb, while the band chimes in with those crazy bo-ba-bo harmonies. The relatively restrained Champions Of Red Wine digs back into a new wave vibe, gentle washes of synth backing Neko’s gentle crooning; Fantasy Fools wraps fugue-like complexity around delicious Newman/Case duets; and Dancehall Domine is a perky blast of alternate universe party music.

2017’s Whiteout Conditions is the first without Bejar, though Newman had no trouble filling the gap. The album serves as a logical extension of Brill Bruisers, gleefully upbeat with another batch of bracing, just barely-skewed pop tunes, highlighted by the sugary-sweet title track and the synth-driven High Ticket Attractions. It’s more workmanlike than showy, an album of simpler charms but livelier than the comparable Together.

The band’s most recent album, 2019’s In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights, strays somewhat from past work. It’s a lower key, more downbeat affair; the music bears all the touchstones of Newman’s unpredictable curveballs, odd little melodies that evade simple pop, but it’s also much more reliant on atmospherics than killer choruses. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some infectious tunes: The Surprise Knock and One Kind Of Solomon sound like classic New Pornographers, if marginally more restrained; Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile works a bubbly mid-tempo groove. Overall, though, it’s a sedate record, almost like Newman saw the pandemic coming and cooked up some music better suited to being cooped up at home than cranking out of open car windows.

As for the members’ extracurricular works: Newman’s solo recordings as A.C. Newman are the subject of another Toppermost contribution; all will appeal to fans of the band, though they tend to be far more stripped down than the Pornographers’ albums (Encylopedia Of Classic Takedowns off 2012’s Shut Down The Streets arguably coming closest to replicating the band’s sound, largely on account of Neko Case’s cameo appearance). His two Zumpano albums are both pretty good, a nice preview of what was to come if less striking (alas, I believe both are out of print, but they currently stream on Spotify).

Neko Case has nearly a dozen solo releases at this point, all showcases for her stunning voice, and while most embrace Americana, quite different from her NP work, more recent works offer varied blends of country, pop, and smoky, soulful torch songs; 2009’s Middle Cyclone is a personal favorite, though particularly amazing is her 2016 collaboration with KD Lang and Laura Veirs, case/lang/veirs.

I really enjoy Doug Fancey’s work as Fancey, retro-sunshine pop that blends classic Brian Wilson-isms with blissfully schlocky 70s pop. I’m less familiar with Bejar’s albums with Destroyer, which tend to be a little more idiosyncratic and experimental (though still often quite catchy), conjuring everyone from Bowie to the Silver Jews, so I’ll defer to a more dedicated Bejar fan to take them on in these pages.


The New Pornographers photo 2

Carl Newman & Neko Case


The New Pornographers photo 3

Dan Bejar


The New Pornographers photo 4

John Collins


New Pornographers official website

NPR’s New Pornographers Page

Pitchfork’s New Pornographers Page

A.C. Newman official website

Neko Case official website

Dan Bejar / Destroyer (Wikipedia)

Todd Fancey official website

Kathryn Calder (Wikipedia)

The New Pornographers biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

TopperPost #917

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