Originally posted on December 29, 2005. Enjoy. (Kinda long, I know.)
If “listening too long to one song” were a punishable offense – as one of the best songs on The New Pornographers latest CD suggests – then our already overcrowded prisons would be overflowing with those who fell victim to the likes of “The Body Says No” and “The Laws Have Changed.” Songs like these – from Mass Romantic and Electric Version, respectively – won over fans and critics alike with their irresistible hooks, propulsive rhythms, arcade noises, and sing-along choruses.
I, for one, was sure that I was hearing the best record of 2003 when I was introduced to the band via Electric Version (I turned out to be wrong). I loved the retro/contemporary tension that the band achieved in certain songs, even if trying to sustain such a vibe over the whole record was like trying to carry a completed jigsaw puzzle from one surface to another. Since this was my first impression, I was slightly less impressed by Mass Romantic – just as those who heard that record first were generally less impressed by Electric Version – but I loved it all the same, and still do.
But from the start, I was concerned about the same thing that I am about all power-pop records: that they would get stale soon. A year and a half after first hearing them, I find that I am partially right: the great songs are still great, but the rest just sounds a bit like filler. On the weaker tracks, the band leans to heavily on a “look how catchy, quirky, and bouncy our songs are” mentality. Sugary power pop, just like sugary snacks, bring with them great highs and equally annoying crashes. As I said in a previous review, power pop is enjoyable but undernourishing. Unlike Miller Light, which claims to benefit from tasting great AND being less filling, power pop can suffer from being both.
(Moment of silence following long-winded intro….)
Nonetheless, I eagerly awaited the next release by The New Pornos, and I was very happy when I learned that Twin Cinema was due to hit stores. After reading a couple ” their best CD yet” reviews, I was initially somewhat disappointed. It seemed to me that on this record, they seemed to be fumbling a bit in their attempt to juggle multiple lead vocalists and two songwriters. But although music like this shouldn’t require patience to enjoy, it took me a few listens to agree that this was the band’s most solid effort. I came to realize that the shuffling of lead vocalists actually had a seamless quality that was lacking on the previous efforts.
While Dan Bejar’s songs on MR and EV were quite good, they tended to stand out in the way songs do when Keith Richards takes the mic at a Stones concert. With Twin Cinema’s “Broken Breads,” however, Bejar proves himself to be every bit as capable of writing at least one song that is as good as anything by Carl Newman. In fact, he may have pulled off an upset here by writing what is arguably the best song on the disc.
Strangely, most of the reviews that I have read of this CD highlight one of his other songs, the good but not-as-good “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras.” It is understandable that he will always be in Newman’s shadow as a member of the New Pornos, but it would be a shame for it to be because his best work with the band isn’t being recognized as such. But at least he has his own band, Destroyer, in which to explore his songwriting muse on his own terms.
Backing up a bit, Mass Romantic and Electric Version seem to me now to be full-length records which existed as an environment for a handful of really great songs. Thus, the problems with these 2 records is one of consistency: the great songs are REALLY great, the other ones, not so much. Twin Cinema corrects this problem. Here, the lesser songs are not weak, they are simply not as exceptionally good as the best songs. And whereas the previous releases had at least 3 exceptionally good songs each, Twin Cinema has at least 5: “Use It,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “Broken Breads,” and “Stacked Crooked.”
Meanwhile, “Twin Cinema,” “The Jessica Numbers,” “These Are the Fables,” “Jackie Dressed In Cobras,” “Falling Through Your Clothes,” and “Star Bodies” are nothing to be ashamed of, either. Only “Three of Four” and the somewhat sappy “Streets of Fire” are noticeably lesser songs, and “The Bones of An Idol” isn’t bad but not great (gotta love Neko Case’s voice). These are simply my opinions, of course, and there will always be a wide variety of personal faves among fans of this band.
In popular music, obscure lyrics can be a liability or an asset. As much as I love Tom Waits, sometimes I can’t help but wonder what the hell he’s talking about and why he’s talking about it. Conversely, R.E.M. does a fine job of using lyrics to create atmosphere and mood rather than meaning. With The New Pornographers, it is hard to say what the case is. Power pop lyrics are generally pretty straightforward or downright puerile, so that fans can sing along easily. More often than not, I find myself completely butchering The New Pornos’ lyrics.
In the case of Twin Cinema, for just one example, I thought that the closing line to “The Bleeding Heart Show” was “you have a right to love to hate the bleeding heart show”,whatever that means. Turns out, however, that it is actually “we have arrived to late to play the bleeding heart show.” I am not sure what that means, either, but it is probably something political. (And doesn’t “falling through your clothes” sound like “falling through your gloves”? In either case, wtf?) I am not sure if most of their lyrics are supposed to mean anything, or if they just sound good juxtaposed with one another. But there is the occasional gem where the meaning is pretty clear, e.g., “two sips from the cup of human kindness/And I’m shit-faced.”
There are advantages to The New Pornos’ inscrutable lyrics. First of all, once one knows the words, he or she can sing along for fun, and not think twice about what they mean. Or, s/he can try to figure out if they do in fact mean anything. OR, one can sing the wrong words without ever knowing for sure what the correct lyrics are, let alone what they mean. In any case, I applaud the band for not printing the lyrics in the booklets, no matter how many times I have wished that they did. (I have heard an interpretation which claims that “The Laws Have Changed” – from Electric Version – is a swipe at the Bush dynasty. My hat’s off to them if that is true, but I can’t quite glean that, even after repeated listenings to the song.)
So anyway, Twin Cinema is the best New Pornos CD to date, and one of the best of 2005. Why the 4 1/3 stars? Well, I would probably give about 4 stars each to Mass Romantic and Electric Version. Thus, I need to give the extra 1/3 star in order to make it clear that this one is at least slightly better than those two. For the uninitiated, Twin Cinema is a great place to start, but if it is where you do so, be prepared to work your way backwards, and to be listening too long to lots of songs.
(PS: I read a review – I forget where – which claimed that when it comes to indie rock, it is The New Pornographers, not The Shins, who will change your life. Well, if it is gonna be one or the other, I must say that it is The Shins who have in fact changed my life the way indie rock can. I am not sure that The New Pornos music has such a life-changing quality, but that, of course, is in the ear of the beholder.)