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Another solid effort from Canadian indie rockers

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The New Pornographers released their fifth album "Together" May 4 on Matador Records.
(Photo by Jason Creps)
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of obscene material that he could not define it, but "I know it when I see it."

In musical terms, the same might be said of power pop. What exactly defines the genre? It's hard to say, but I know it when I hear it. There's just something that seems to unite music from Big Star, through Cheap Trick and on up to Fountains of Wayne.

It could probably best be described as "bright, high-energy music with a dark sense of humor."

It does, though, seem ironic that contemporary music's preeminent power pop practitioners call themselves The New Pornographers. For a decade now, the Canadian indie rockers have been one of rock's steadiest producers of quality songs and albums.

And so it is with their fifth album "Together," released May 4 on Matador Records. While falling just short of the heights reached by 2007's "Challengers" and 2005's "Twin Cinema," this remains an outstanding edition to the band's catalog.

The Pornographers are considered a supergroup, as nearly all of the eight members is either a solo artist (most notably, Neko Case) or a member of other groups. However, the group is largely the vehicle of A.C. Newman, who shares the songwriting duties with Dan Bejar and the lead singing with Bejar and Case.

Newman lists his influences on this record as Black Sabbath, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Hüsker Dü, Dusty Springfield and Abba. While most of the music doesn't sound much like any of these acts, it certainly illustrates the truly unique place from which these tunes spring.

What's so freeing about the New Pornographers' music is nothing seems off limits, a quality they share with many of the best independent artists of recent years. The band typically mixes traditional rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) with synthesizers and even horns, violin and cello.

A great example is "Crash Years." In a sense, it's a straightforward piece of pop rock, but one of its driving forces, along with guitar and drums, is the cello of guest Ben Kalb. It's subtle, but it adds so much texture to the track.

Another example is opening track "Moves," which kicks off the album with a nice mix of fuzzed-out guitar and cello. It's later joined by violin, piano and a nice mix of vocals.

Additionally, after each refrain of "Crash Years," the song features a chorus of whistling. While whistling is nothing new in popular music (Otis Redding, John Lennon, Guns 'N' Roses), multiple people whistling together is impressive.

Seriously, how many groups of people are at least 50 percent of them good at whistling? Maybe it's a Canadian thing.

It's not all about what makes the music different, though. "Together" is just a fine piece of rock, driven by loud guitar and forceful vocals from Case, Newman, Bejar, Kathryn Calder and Kurt Dahle.

Keyboardist (and film producer) Blaine Thurier directed a funny video for "Together" that's part martial arts, part dance video.

The video fits the band very well. Like the music, it has the polish of a professional artist, while never ceasing to be fun.

My spin: B+

Of the New Porographers' five albums, "Together" is probably the third or fourth best. Yet it's still a record any band should be proud to have produced. That's just the level on which this group works.

While the first three songs ("Moves," "Crash Years" and "Your Hands") are real attention grabbers, the album is by no means front-loaded. Other standouts include "Bite Out of My Bed," the slowed-down "Daughters of Sorrow" and "Silver Jenny Dollar."

All 12 are quality, though. It's an album, not a collection of songs.

The New Pornographers, Together

Released: May 4, Matador Records

The New Pornographers are: A.C. Newman-vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, banjo; Kathryn Calder-vocals, keyboards, piano; Neko Case-vocals; John Collins-bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards; Kurt Dahle-drums, percussion, vocals; Todd Fancey-guitar; Blaine Thurier-keyboards; Dan Bejar-vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, organ, vibraphone, percussion

Additional players: Annie Clark-guitar; Zach Condon-trumpet; Will Scheff-vocals; Tara Szczygielski-violin; Ben Kalb-cello; The Dap-Kings-horns; Neal Sugarman-tenor saxophone, flute; Dave Guy-trumpet; Cochemea Gastelum-baritone saxophone

Proudcers: The New Pornographers and Phil Palazzolo

Learn more at: www.thenewpornographers.com or www.matadorrecords.com