Powerpop for Now People 

On the genius and melodic tenacity of the New Pornographers.

A dear and ordinarily rational friend of mine once disparaged the New Pornographers as "gayer than eight guys blowing nine guys." This statement lacks both grace and credibility. To start with, he most likely stole it from Patton Oswalt or some similarly smarmy indie-bleagh comedian. Furthermore, the slur is, in this case, wildly inaccurate. The New Pornographers are pure powerpop in its cleverest, catchiest, most intricate form, familiar but never overly so, capable of stirring feelings of joy and elation ordinarily accessible only during massive odd-numbered oral sex orgies (regardless of your sexual preference).

Back off, Slappy.

The litmus test for New Pornographers devotion (and thus, the likelihood you will personally befriend me) lies at the end of "The Bleeding Heart Show," the finest track on the Canadian supergroup's new Matador masterpiece Twin Cinema. At first it's content to be a moody piano-guitar elegy with Porn mastermind A.C. Newman's mix of infectious melody and abstractly whimsical verbiage (It looked as if I picked your name out of a hat/Next thing you know you are asleep in someone's lap), but at the tail end the drums crank up, the volume intensifies, and a small army of voices rises in chorus: Hey-la hey-la, hey-la hey-laaaaaa. The phenomenon recalls Andre 3000, that '80s Dream Academy tune "Life in a Northern Town," and the happiest moment of your life so far. Many will find it slightly cheesy; ideally, many more will consider it awe-inspiring.

Powerpop is due a wide-scale cultural comeback of dance-punk proportions -- Big Star is well primed to be the movement's very own Gang of Four. And lo, here's "Dony," a brand-new Big Star tune flitting about Blogland, testifying like a roughed-up collaboration between Guided by Voices and Steely Dan, and featuring the loveliest sax solo you'll hear all summer. If In Space, the band's first new record in thirty years (with a couple guys from '90s alt-poppers the Posies replacing the dead and/or disgruntled members), is a relatively harmless victory lap, it's at least well deserved. In a way similar to -- but far less annoying than -- the legions of twentysomething doofuses ripping off Entertainment, Big Star's disciples are everywhere.

Consider Scottish cult-inspirers Teenage Fanclub, who rained showers of Kool-Aid over a Bimbo's crowd in SF a couple weekends back. Though they peaked in the Kurt Cobain era and have physically aged alarmingly since -- inspiring a few Aw, Geez Dad, Get Off the Stage moments -- the Fanclub's multipart harmonies are still stunning and weirdly affecting. Dudes with guitars: still potentially mesmerizing in 2005. "The Concept" still features the sweetest application of the words Oh yeah/Oh yeah to date.

But from a powerpop standpoint, it's the New Pornographers' world to create or destroy as they see fit, and Twin Cinema succeeds primarily because it doesn't come on too strong at first. Pop tends to overwhelm people with its saccharine exuberance -- as fabulous as Fountains of Wayne are, you can't really blame people who flee the room in terror when "Stacy's Mom" cranks up -- and the first couple Pornographers albums are similarly daunting. Whether it was Newman bouncing merrily through a insidiously catchy tune entitled "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism" or No Depression-subscriber heartthrob Neko Case belting out "Letter to an Occupant" like a melodically gifted nuclear foghorn, 2000's Mass Romantic was one highly enjoyable but incredibly visceral aural ice-cream headache, and while 2003's Electric Version threw in a few moments of calm and subtlety and relaxation, it can probably still technically cause diabetes.

Twin Cinema, then, is the difficult album -- the Mutations, the Electric Circus, the Tusk. "We wanted to see if we could make a record that isn't referred to as 'The windows-down, car stereo-blasting summer album of the year,' if only once," Newman has declared, and the baroque, subterranean weirdness haunting "Bones of an Idol" will indeed sound odd and disquieting blasting from your RAV4. "Falling Through Your Clothes" feels like a hypnotic choral exercise. The catchiest tune is entitled "Sing Me Spanish Techno." And then there's the Pornographers' not particularly secret weapon, sidekick songwriter Dan Bejar, whose bizarrely slithery voice and even stranger wordplay (song title: "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras") spikes Newman's more bubblegum inclinations.

All of this is deliberately disorienting, but it's still infectious, still rousing, still thoroughly pop. Feel free to blast it from your car stereo with the windows down -- the road is just a little bumpier this time. The laws have changed.


The Pornographers, of course, don't necessarily need any more critical praise -- Ben Folds is another story. Too many knuckleheads have him pegged as an alt.rock casualty, polarized as either a somber sad sack (à la "Brick") or an unhinged goofball (à la pretty much everything else). But after dissolving Ben Folds Five, his solo debut, 2001's Rocking the Suburbs, was criminally underrated, credible both in its moments of upbeat Todd Rundgren finesse and its quiet, reflective ballads about forced retirees and disgraced hippies and true love. (I will soon attend a wedding reception wherein the couple's first slow dance will be "The Luckiest." This is a profoundly good idea.) This year's Songs for Silverman, though laden with plenty of death/aging rumination, has much of the same charm, and that iTunes single where he covers Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" is approximately ten thousand times funnier than it has any right to be in the post-Dynamite Hack era. Join the cresting wave of anti-Folds backlash backlash. He deserves it.

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