Put Your Hands Together (But Don’t Say “Power Pop”)

What’s sad about Together, the new New Pornographers’ album, being so damn good is that idiots will continue to maintain that the New Pornos are a “power” pop band which will lead to two things I can’t abide: 1) these clowns will continue to deride 2007’s highly underrated Challengers as some kind of misstep in an otherwise stellar career, 2) they will probably talk about Together using phrases like “return to form”, which is always annoying because it assumes that the New Pornographers only ever did one thing that you liked (and who the fuck are you to determine a band’s “form” if you’re not in the band?), and 3) people will continue using the phrase “power pop” as if it means anything at all. Okay, that’s three things I can’t abide.

Let me talk about number 3 for a minute. I have been bashing genre tags for a long time here at Bollocks! because I think they’re pointless. In some cases (post-rock, anyone?) they are unnecessarily academic and in other cases they are downright idiotic (shoegaze and power pop come to mind). What I think people mean when they say “power pop” is probably just “really great pop” because there’s nothing that distinguishes so-called power pop from, say, the kind of pop the Beatles did. The only difference to my ears is that, nowadays, you can be a very good pop band and never be heard on pop radio (this may call for a distinction I’ve made before: pop music is often thought of as simply “any music that is popular” but it also exists as a distinct style, usually featuring strong, memorable melodies that build to catchy choruses. Who’s being overly academic now?). This is not the New Pornographers’ fault, it’s the radio’s fault or rather, it’s the fault of the two or three corporate giants that own most of the radio stations and major record labels. And those corporate giants are simply doing their job: spoon-feeding people dog shit because people will pay for dog shit which is what economists refer to as “increasing the demand” for the dog shit said corporate giants are all too happy to provide. Ask and ye shall receive, America.

Okay. “Return to form.” This phrase also has to be phased out, along with the people who use it. There is only one form to which people think a band must eventually return and that is “the form they had on the last album of theirs I liked.” This is enormously selfish. The New Pornographers do not exist just to please a fistful of people (no band does, except maybe Metallica. By their own admission, Metallica exists to please Metallica and absolutely no one else). Near as I can tell, they exist to make really excellent pop music. When you say a band has “returned to form” you’re lazily saying they tried something that you didn’t like and now your narrow-minded ass is oh-so-relieved because they’re doing stuff you like once again, you selfish bastard. The New Pornographers’ form has always been “kick-ass pop music” so it is most accurate to say that Together represents a “continued non-deviation from form.”

In their continued non-deviation from form, the New Pornographers have crafted an excellent summer pop album (just in time, too – we’re about to embark on our nine months of summer here in Los Angeles and it’ll be good to have a nice selection of albums to play with the windows down. Well, with the AC cranked. You get the idea) with some of their best melodies yet, not to mention their best lyrics since Mass Romantic (which is my favorite New Pornos record in large part because of “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” which is possibly the most underrated pop song ever). As a playwright, I particularly relish, “cruel plays/ but then they made you/ mine all mine” from the album’s almost-title track, “Your Hands (Together)”.

With four featured vocalists (Neko Case, who is easily the best female vocalist working today – I know what I said on April Fool’s Day, but your ears are clogged with stupid if you really think that I or any other thinking person really believes that Mariah Carey is a better singer than Neko Case; Dan Bejar, whose work as Destroyer actually bores me to tears; A.C. Newman, whose two solo records are pretty good; and Kathyrn Calder, whom I’ve never heard outside of the New Pornographers), there’s plenty of dynamic opportunities in the New Pornographers and they don’t waste any of them on Together. From a melody/harmony perspective, this album might just be their best (so there’s clearly no need for the strictly verboten Return-to-Form. Also, I should point out that for me, the spectrum of New Pornographers albums runs from “Good” to “Fucking Awesome,” with the bulk of their work clumped toward the “Fucking Awesome” end) – Case and Calder, when not singing exquisite leads (the ladies pretty much win Together – Case on “The Crash Years” and “My Shepherd”, Calder on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” and “Valkyrie In the Roller Disco”), provide excellent background vocals for Bejar and Newman, who more than adequately uphold their end of the bargain (as little as I like Bejar’s non-New Pornographers work, he seems to always bring his pop A-Game to their albums).

At the end of the day, of course, it matters very little how you classify (or even if you classify) the New Pornographers. If you like good music with clever lyrics and memorable melodies, you will like Together. I could repeat my rant from the end of my review of LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, but why not attempt to initiate a proactive solution to the problem of massive, corporate radio suckitude? Let the less-discerning people you know hear albums like Together and This Is Happening and Heaven is Whenever and High Violet (wow, 2010 has been kind to me) and then let them use their dollars to demand that music. Will it bring the system to its knees, or at the very least make EMI close its doors forever out of pure shame? Of course not. Some people genuinely like the bullshit the radio pumps out at them and they might not like the aforementioned albums. But the world is already full of the noises they like. Why not even things out a bit by filling a little corner of the world with pop music the way the New Pornographers make it? Why not make “these things get  louder” (from Together‘s excellent opening track, “Moves” – featuring an electric fucking cello) a prophesy instead of just a catchy line? Who’s with me?

<sound of crickets chirping>

<sudden dawning of realization that not very many people read Bollocks! and that a revolution in which people just blast New Pornographers music from the rooftops is apt to be even more nebulous in execution than it was in conception>

<sound of beer being opened>

<opening notes of “Moves” from Together>