Thursday, September 1, 2005

Records In Review: The New Pornographers--Twin Cinema

All right, I admit it: I've been living under a rock for the past five years as far as The New Pornographers are concerned, and now I feel like a total schmuck. The reason? Twin Cinema is call-in-sick, hug-your-next-door-neighbour, bugger-me-with-a-barge-pole good. All right, I exaggerate: I wouldn't actually hug my neighbour, as he's 90 and reeks of the 2.5 packs of Rothmans that he runs through daily. Nevertheless, the world is a happy place and I am full of hope, goddammit!

I don't have much to reference this album to, as I'm not familiar with the previous work of mainmen Newman and Bejar--hey, cut grampa some slack--and have only heard a smidgen of Neko Case, whom I liked but who occupies an alt-countryish realm that isn't really my washboard of choice. I can pick out a general resemblance to The Shins in terms of melodic facility, but with less of the woooo! mop-top thing, and a little bit of Matthew Sweet, but that's probably just some of the guitar and vocal production and in any event, The Pornographers don't make a similar fetish of the low-brow.

Mostly, the music puts old-school psych and guitar-rock motifs at the service of highly-skilful and economical songcraft. [enough hyphenation--ed.] That's spelled E-C-O-N-O-M-I-C-A-L. I've listened to the album through several times now, and if anyone can find me a superfluous or missing eight bars on this record, then I'll buy them an inexpensive steak dinner. The arrangements, too, are lovely. It's mostly traditional guitar, bass, drums and piano, but the sound is very expansive, aided in no small part by some great vocal layering and performance. Production is crystal-clear and unobtrusive, giving the impression of a work that is both very substantial and eminently listenable. Jackpot!

Case's dead-on-the-beat, unaffected folksy style is an excellent fit with the material presented here, mostly written by Newman. Her first lead, "The Bones Of An Idol," is my favourite track, and it's a fascinating one, too. Less than three minutes long, and trundling along at a leisurely pace to boot, it combines a near-perfect yet simple song structure with a sonic environment that makes me think that someone in the band was listening to late-'80s Mike Oldfield (I've been mentally adding a tympani part in the finale). "These Are The Fables," also sung by Case, is a lovely plaintive number that employs a more overtly folky vocal cadence. Like several songs here, some version of a verse-chorus repetition is followed by a variation outtro, which very much adds to the sense of space on the record. The rest of Newman's output tends to be rockier, like the title-track opener (the aformentioned Shins resemblance is strongest here), or else spacier, as in the well-arranged and punchy "Falling Through Your Clothes."

Bejar's compositions are unabashedly '60s-retro in their inspiration, but they never descend to self-consciousness or kitsch. He comes awful close in "Broken Breads," with its hilarious happy-hippy la-la chorus, but it's such fun that you don't care. Play it loud on your car stereo and if anybody stares at you, just smile. "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras" is another favourite, and one which propels itself along with gusto while effectively playing off the contrasts between its verse/(presumed) chorus and break sections. Bejar's singing voice reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock, albeit less grainy.

Twin Cinema is, I think, going to end up costing me a lot more than $14.99. I've got some serious back catalogue to start exploring.

P.S. I should also say a word about drummer (and co-producer) Kurt Dahle, whose playing on the album is both sympathetic and technically impressive. My only familiarity with him is from the odd single by his previous bands Age Of Electric and Limblifter, both of whose target markets were me minus 10-15 years.