Say what you will about the New Pornographers, Carl Newman and company know a good album title when they see one. Together is exactly what this collection should be called, because here the band sounds more like a cohesive band than they ever have on record.
To me, this has always seemed like Newman’s show, and he brings in Neko Case and Dan Bejar for some nice variety, and killer songwriting chops. When Case or Bejar pop up on, say, Electric Version, it feels like a shift, a break from what’s really going on in the New Pornographers. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it does make for albums that, however catchy, sometimes feel like they’re jumping around.
Here, Newman takes a bit of a back seat. In fact, he only sings one of the first seven songs by himself. Case harmonizes with him on “Your Hands (Together),” as does the band’s keyboardist (and Newman’s niece) Kathryn Calder on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” and Case and Bejar both take two turns at lead vocals in the record’s first half. But despite frontloading it with those guys (Newman gets his time in during the second half), this all meshes together awfully well. Partly because Bejar’s work is perhaps his most consistent New Pornographers material to date. Songs like “Silver Jenny Dollar” and “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” don’t bend the band’s power-pop into something angular, but instead they fall in line and, in doing so, hearken nicely back to the breezy lyricism of Destroyer’s Streethawk: A Seduction.
Neko Case is in similarly fine form. “Crash Years” is an absolute knock out, a ready-made single with a sweet melody and Case’s flawless voice belting the chorus out to the rafters. It’s also an energetic counterpoint to her more reserved but no less striking take on “My Shepherd.” These songs also slide into the record nicely, perhaps because Case sings so often on Newman’s songs, or perhaps because the whole record takes on a huge, orchestrated sheen.
For his part, Newman’s never had trouble keeping up with the distinct voices of Case and Bejar. Hell, he’s got a pretty impressive catalog himself, and in places here, he reminds us of that. “What’s love but what turns up in the dark?” he asks on late-album stand out “Up in the Dark.” And when he’s not grabbing us with the words themselves, he catches us with the smooth peaks and valleys of his voice on “Moves.”
But it’s the orchestration that will take up much of your attention on this record. The band’s slow but steady move away from a focus on guitar continues here, though the elements mix a bit better here than on parts of Challengers. Where a few records ago we’d get a crunchy riff, here we get strings — particularly cellos — taking the place of guitar. It works when the band keeps the energy high, as on “Moves” and “Crash Years,” or in the towering horns added into Bejar’s songs. The flourishes maintain the immediacy of the melody while still letting the songs soar just enough.
There are a few moments towards the end of the record that still feel like they’re waiting on that guitar lick. Closer “We End Up Together” is sweet enough, but there’s a space between cello and acoustic guitar that needs to be filled. And “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” has a subtle build-up that is, in one way, charming and, in another, doesn’t hold up to the insistent energy of the songs around it.
Still, Newman the arranger, and the New Pornographers as a more orchestral band, are both on display and mostly killing it like they always have on Together. And the more cohesive feel, like Newman and Case and Bejar might actually all be there at the same time, comes as much out of the consistency of the songwriting as it does the closer meld of their voices here. On the whole, Together smartly meshes thick orchestration with their lean energy really well, picking up where Challengers left off and improving in a lot of ways. Plus, it’s nice to see three great performers sound like they’re all in a band together, not just working on a project. Even if that’s not how it is, it’s nice that the record fools us into it for a while.