Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The New Pornographers

  • Mass Romantic [Mint, 2000] A-
  • Electric Version [Matador, 2003] B+
  • Twin Cinema [Matador, 2005] **
  • Challengers [Matador, 2007] B+
  • Together [Matador, 2010] *
  • Brill Bruisers [Matador, 2014] A-
  • Whiteout Conditions [Collected Works/Concord, 2017] A
  • In the Morse Code of Brake Lights [Concord, 2019] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Mass Romantic [Mint, 2000]
Even understood to indicate "rock" played by commercially theoretical alt-indie guitar bands, "pop" has become a term so elastic it assures only the desire to be tuneful or at least songful. There are wimp pop bands and punk pop bands, bedroom pop bands and studio pop bands, sour pop bands and sugary pop bands, metallic pop bands and folkish pop bands, pop bands that gleam like platinum and pop bands that mulch like autumn leaves. Even the boring ones, which doesn't just mean the tuneless ones, can claim their own "sound." But this Vancouver "supergroup" (Zumpano fans are reeling) have content, personality, and attitude (and tunes). Without powering into the radio-ready amplitude of, oh, Tsar, they have a grand old time faking artificiality: "Telstar" organ and "Carrie-Anne" falsettos, glam Briticisms and Neil Diamond chords, Katrina Leskanich tributes and faux fops tossing off lyrics like "Heavens to Betsy/Come on let's see/What could be worse than/The wheel of history?" All brought off with switched-on brio, sardonic multireferentiality, and jubilant momentum. Get inside that sound and it's a blast. A-

Electric Version [Matador, 2003]
Earns its buzz. Tremendous craft, winning enthusiasm. You'll remember every song when it comes on--maybe even when it doesn't, hum hum. But if it has a point beyond whistling at the void, it declines to mention what that point might be. Also, I wish the sparingly deployed Neko Case would abandon her faux-country career. Carl Newman likes a lot of things about British pop that I don't, starting with vocal filters (his seems built-in) and that cute accent (signifying not class but artifice as a virtue). Is this what Zumpano sounds like? Who cares? B+

Twin Cinema [Matador, 2005]
Weightwise, think Hollies, with the lyrics dumber and the production too full of itself ("Use It," "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras"). **

Challengers [Matador, 2007]
Still a band that improves everyone in it, and more forthcoming this time, though they really ought to risk despoiling their precious graphics with lyrics. Carl Newman will always be too formal (do Canadians really say "hangs in air," not "hangs in the air"?), but when Neko Case steps up to take one of his difficult-love songs, feelings surface--and also the meanings Case's own albums archly avoid. Plus, who would have thought Destroyer Dan Bejar could write an open-skied Manhattan anthem that ventures into Queens? It's "Myriad Harbour," the indie-rock "New York, New York." Mark Kozelek could cover it! B+

Together [Matador, 2010]
Never actually a "supergroup," now clearly a side project ("Crash Years," "Up in the Dark"). *

Brill Bruisers [Matador, 2014]
So arch and so in-your-face about it, they remain a case study in obscurity as banality with an attitude problem. Yet the Brill Building tease of the title parses. All 13 tracks including the foreshortened "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" are in-your-face lessons in pop song construction, fetching verse intensified by disarming bridge powered by dynamite chorus if that's the pattern--they vary. Guitars are extraneous and electronics rule--old-school synths rather than EDM rhythms, but electronics nevertheless. So let it roll over you and find somebody else to do your meaning for you just like they're too arch to suggest in so many words. If it helps, I did find some Inspirational Verse that applies, kind of: "They say we can't make this stuff up/But what else could we make?" A-

Whiteout Conditions [Collected Works/Concord, 2017]
Carl Newman's ad hoc outfit could be the greatest band in the world if he didn't write so obsessively about purveying their tune-porn, but he'll settle for the status he's got. Claiming Krautrock and shrugging off the departed Dan Bejar, he generates 11 soaring new pop songs, which in some abstrusely Krautrock way are sparer than the 13 on Brill Bruisers. And from those songs let me corral a few snatches of meaning. "I only play for the money honey." "You can imagine all the factions/That form around high ticket attractions." "A scalper's price built into the design." "Colosseums of the mind / An ancient con, the shadows of a song." "This is the world of the theater / Come up with some highbrow move / Think of all the lives we're saving / Think of all the ways we'll cave in." "With the ignorance of a poet." "Second-rate Socrates" (second, eh?). "Cottage industry." "I wasn't hoping for a win / I was hoping for freedom / You couldn't beat 'em / Forget the mission just get out alive." "Didn't choose what we mean / Just went along with what's played / There were rules once before / There should be rules again." But until that by no means impending day . . . A

In the Morse Code of Brake Lights [Concord, 2019]
Although Carl Newman's ability to roll out the memorable pop-rock songs few bands bother to fail at anymore is something like genius, his reluctance to make them signify is something like neurosis. The fond Brill Bruisers and the outrageous Whiteout Conditions stand tall in his band's catalogue because they address this shortfall. But the main mood to be parsed from this marginally less catchy collection is a sociopolitical dread less acute in Canada because democracy is still less embattled there: "the culture of fear," "the crime in the family," "the surprise knock," "the language of quick goodbyes." The anthemic "Colossus of Rhodes" inspired me to ascertain that said wonder was the tallest structure in the ancient world until an earthquake brought it down just 54 years after it was completed. Which I'll take to mean us Yanks should be grateful our constitution lasted 231. B+