On a road trip this summer, an advance copy of the New Pornographers' Twin Cinema was as welcome as gas below $3 per gallon.
Four people with distinct musical tastes, ranging from Dischord-flavored post-punk to Tullycraft's cuddle-core twee pop, found common ground in the nuanced bounciness of a record no one in the rented minivan had ever heard before.
Two of the quartet were familiar with the New Pornographers already, having sipped from the sweet boxed wine of the lo-fi Mass Romantic. The exhortation "For the love of a God, you say" and a chorus of falsetto "woos" from the calling card "Letter from an Occupant" had whet their palates. They'd been drunk ever since.
The others were seduced by the edict "All hail/What will be revealed today/As we peer to the great unknown/From the land of the throne" and a wave of "nanas" from "The Laws Have Changed," the anthemic sister track to "Letter from an Occupant" from the Pornographer's souped-up, Matador Records-released second album, Electric Version.
Whether the New Pornographers became your preferred glass of wine in 2001 or 2003, you thought you were listening to a band whose showcase talent was the alter-ego of alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, the red-haired vixen whose waxy voice took center stage in both of the aforementioned songs.
Two experiences convinced me that I didn't properly understand the New Pornographers the first two times around the block. First was a show at the Echo Lounge in 2003. As the band crowded onto the tiny stage -- as Canadian bands like Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire often do, thanks to our neighboring country's predilection for full sounds and many mouths to feed -- I noticed Case standing stage-right looking disengaged from time to time. She would bang a tambourine, clap her hands and occasionally belt out a song, but she was certainly not the center of attention. That honor belonged to a cartoonish man who stood to Case's left. He had short, fiery red hair and looked like Raggedy Andy come to life.
He sang on every song. In fact, he was the featured voice on most of them. His guitar work set the pace for any changes in tempo or chord progression. He was clearly the leader of the ragtag bunch of seven or so musicians. Oddly enough, I wasn't even sure I knew his name. Though now I can tell you, it's Carl Newman. Call the New Pornographers what you may -- a supergroup, Neko Case's other project, Canadian -- nothing actually hits the mark unless it's "Newman's own."
That fact was further illustrated last year when I heard The Slow Wonder, Newman's relentlessly catchy solo album recorded under the moniker A.C. Newman. The opening cut, "Miracle Drug," was the smoking gun. From the song's stuttering clapboard drum beat, its motorized guitar riff, and the voice I had heard a hundred times before without bothering to attribute it to anyone in particular, I realized I could have been listening to Mass Romantic or Electric Version, except Case was nowhere to be found.
The Slow Wonder dabbled in textures, tempos and moods that the New Pornographers had never approached, save contributions by Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar, who lent his off-kilter, shambolic nasal-folk warble to the Pornographers on four occasions. If you were looking for anything other than effervescence from the previous albums, it was supplied by Bejar. He often muses rather than emotes. He challenges you to stay as much as he invites you in. He could also care less if you like him but loathes to be hated.
Newman's entrée into the dark side of pop signaled a new tack in the course of the Pornographers. The first two records were more a double album -- the same mode of songwriting and the overall uniformity of sound so homogenous that an iPod shuffle of the two would be a near-perfect mix. Twin Cinema is a new beast from the get-go.
While the title tracks that begin Mass Romantic and Electric Version enter with the fanfare of a hypnotizing keyboard line or a skittering drum roll, respectively, the new disc seems to pick up in the middle of a guitar phrase on its title-bearing opener. Three minutes into its run, Newman is already dimming the lights, inserting the slow-building "The Bones of an Idol." Interestingly, it's one of the tracks he hands off to Case, who is typically employed for "swinging you around," not ferrying you through varying atmospheres.
If Newman wasn't so skilled at turning anything into a deliciously chewable hook by festooning it with a keyboard twinkle, a soaring guitar lick or undeniable harmonies, Twin Cinema could have been thought of as the experimental album that separated the real Pornographers' fans from the pretenders. But it's a full range of emotion -- from the familiar insouciance of "Use It" to the plaintive whispers of "Falling through Your Clothes" -- that is nowhere near in danger of losing a listener at any of its many turns.
For me, bands become important when they become bigger than themselves. When I not only crave them for a song or two that's been hard-wired into my psyche, but can use them to explain other bands. It's the Nirvanas, the Yo La Tengos, the Sonic Youths, the Fugazis, the Replacements and the Neutral Milk Hotels, to name a few from the last 20 years. These bands not only explain the good and bad that's come after them, but hold up and support artists who have come before them, too.
I realized the New Pornographers reached that status toward the end of my road trip, when a debate began about the validity of Fleetwood Mac. There was the oft-used "all drama, no substance" argument on the one side vs. the "personalities aside, they wrote great songs" refutation. As the latter party played "Never Going Back Again" off Rumors to support her argument, I decided to chime in.
"If you don't like this song," I say, "you don't like the New Pornographers."