Collective Efforts

Washington City Paper | October 14, 2005
The New Pornographers lose the numbers game to Broken Social Scene—they list just 13 contributors to their latest offering, Twin Cinema. Perhaps because they’ve got fewer contributors—and maybe because they seem to care more about songwriting than atmospherics—the New Pornographers exhibit a good deal more discipline than their Canuck comrades. Their identity is also more tightly focused, around just three people: mastermind A.C. Newman, vocal savior Neko Case, and sometime songwriter Dan Bejar. The alchemy of their musical ambitions often fizzles, but when it combusts—usually about three times an album—the result can be an astonishingly thrilling rock anthem.

The New Pornographers’ problem is that true euphoria is hard to achieve and nearly impossible to sustain. The Vancouver-based group’s good songs are so good that their B+ tracks have a way of feeling like flops. The culprit of Twin Cinema is “The Bleeding Heart Show,” a breathtaking adventure that opens with Newman and Case singing over soft piano and acoustic guitar. Things pick up with a thrumming electric guitar and quickening drums, then a deliriously beautiful “Hey-la, hey-la, hey-la” chorus over which a distressed-sounding Case sings an oddly haunting refrain: “We have arrived/Too late to play/The bleeding heart show.” This is the sort of high that some pop junkies spend their lives chasing.

The rest of Twin Cinema is hard-pressed to match such a grandiose pinnacle, though a couple of tracks come close. “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” as lyrically nonsensical as most of the other tunes here (something about “listening too long/To one song”), features a big stomping riff and Newman sweetly singing the title phrase over and over. The Bejar-penned “Streets of Fire” is another keeper, with its singalong chorus and spiraling synth riff. Not coincidentally, both of these standouts feature Case, who has a way of lifting songs from interesting to enthralling. Even the ballady “These Are the Fables,” a just-OK tune on which Case croons over an acoustic guitar and piano, is compelling listening. The tracks from which Case is absent—about half of the album’s 14—inevitably sound as if something’s missing, especially when the goofy-voiced Bejar takes his vocal turns, as on the merry but slight “Broken Beads,” whose daffy medieval melody conjures visions of an electrified Sherwood Forest.

At least Twin Cinema doesn’t suffer from the sort of musical overkill that mars Broken Social Scene’s latest. The shuffling between Newman, Case, and Bejar can get distracting, but that’s an issue of dueling identities; there’s little reason to think from listening to the album that more than a dozen people contributed to it. Flawed as it is, it still trounces the dislikable Broken Social Scene. The lesson, then, may be this: If you want to make an album with a double-digit lineup, don’t try to show the whole thing off on every track.

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