To rationalise how The New Pornographers came together would require casting an eye across the ‘Vancouver scene’ circa 1997, where a group of like-minded musicians united to share their love of 70’s rock radio and power pop, settling on a band name that would ensure it never grew beyond their local stages (this, at best, a presumption). Their 2000 debut album Mass Romantic and the single “Letter To An Occupant”, one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, was to change all that, as the then-touted phrase “Canadian super-group” seemed to bear proof of its weight.
2007’s Challengers was an apt title for the band’s fourth album, showing Newman and Co. plying their talents as serious songwriters, forgoing the care-free frivolity of previous releases. Maturity in songwriting is sometimes a double-edged sword. It opens up new doors just as quickly as it closes them. For a good 50 minutes it sounded like everybody in the band was either recently married (as was the case with Newman) or neck-deep in relationships, with only Dan Bejar, the Pornographers vaudevillian in the wings, left to shake things up. For an album which felt their most “un-Pornographic” so far, Together is a free-spirited blast from the past a la Mass Romantic with a little tempering of the Challenger ways.
Was it Zeppelin who first showed us the true power of the cello as a rock and roll instrument? The New Pornographers remember this well, and it’s the cello-rockin’, Zeppelin-esque riffin’ swagger of “The Moves” that shakes the cobwebs loose just as surely as “Second Hand News” did with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Any pop album maker worth their salt knows the power of the one-two punch, setting things up for “Crash Years”, with Newman and the ‘Porno’s own Stevie Nicks, Neko Case, standing side by side, reeling in their biggest pop hook to date (by way of a lift from Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind”). To give the band credit, the one-two punch is extended five-ways ending in the sublime Calder/Newman/Case harmonies and odd rhyming of “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.
It would be unfair to say Together is a return to form, but merely re-focussing on what it was that brought the band together — note the implication of the title and the two songs which share this feeling. The first track released to the public, the speaker-rattling “(Your Hands) Together”, was also the first indication (and a loud one at that) that the band had come full circle again. Dan Bejar’s contributions are always a welcome interruption to programming, but this time he finds himself almost being out-kooked by his bandmates (cf: Newman’s “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” ). “Silver Jenny Dollar” is Bejar at his enchanting best, with “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” running a close second.
Together, like every other New Pornographers album (’cept the last one…), is a study in the art of power pop. Hand claps, whistle solos, guest appearances from friends and acquaintances that if it weren’t pointed out, (would we ever know a St. Vincent guitar solo (on the Neko Case ballad “My Shepherd”) from a Todd Fancey one?) would’ve passed unnoticed. Even on the near-epic closer “We End Up Together”, which had it remained a simple dual-sung acoustic track would’ve made a perfect bookend to the album, there’s a sense of everything-but-the kitchen sink about Together, where the verses sound like chorus’ and the strings sound like guitars, but that’s what makes The New Pornographers so great. They’re a throw-back to the age when songwriters wrote pop songs that *popped* and popped they do. Put your hands together.
I agree with your assessment entirely. Including that “Letter From An Occupant” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Fantastic album.
P.S. I actually do have a t-shirt, and I purposely wore it at certain times in high school in order to upset and alienate.