“In Hollywood,” film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, “you’re only as good as your last picture, and no one in that power-oriented micropolis wants to waste time on has-beens.”
Vancouver, British Columbia is not Hollywood and A.C. (Carl) Newman is not some hack director sustained by the ebb and flow of weekend box office numbers. Thank God. If he were a budding director entangled in the thorny vines of the Hollywood studio system, Newman would be manhandled and strong-armed and coerced, seduced into applying his creative maturation to the suffocating realm of genre pictures.
But Newman is a pop junkie’s popmeister, the primary songwriter and wrangler for the New Pornographers, a Canadian supergroup of sorts that has quickly transformed itself from side project indulgence to full-steam-ahead frontrunner for this decade’s perfect pop outfit. Regardless of the fact that he works in an entirely different medium, Newman appears to be settling into the parameters set forth by Sarris’s 1962 “auteur theory”. Sarris’s thesis (itself an extension of François Truffaut’s politiques des auteurs, published in a 1954 edition of Cahiers du Cinéma) argues “over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature”. Later, in his book The American Cinema, Sarris would offer further clarification: “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully.” To declare Newman a new prototype for the auteur paradigm may reek of hastiness, since Sarris employed the benefit of decades of cinematic hindsight to bolster his argument; nevertheless, Newman’s continued success stamping an individualist’s temperament on a universal archetype—with the Pornographers, Zumpano, and solo endeavors—implies that the entirety of his career will be dictated as such.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s storyboarded mise en scène or John Ford’s pitting of solitary figures against the expansive backdrop of Monument Valley, Newman’s giddy music, drunk on its own effervescence, is such a stylized idealization of pop’s possibilities that it can’t be anything but auteurism. His unofficial campaign to condense the obscurities and prominences of pop music’s last 35 years into tightly packed capsules of glimpsed bliss, taunting and frenetic and utterly unshakeable, has created an emergent discography recognizable for its immediate idiosyncrasies. The most telling feature of the New Pornographers’ sound is its exorbitant stimulus, that unfamiliar blood rush that the music elicits. The band’s third full-length record, Twin Cinema, is yet another serving of pop music that you thought was extinct; perhaps you thought its kind never existed at all. When was the last time you heard pop music this smart and audaciously engaging? Electric Version? Mass Romantic? Newman’s 2004 solo album The Slow Wonder? The New Pornographers are a recurring reminder of how ebullient this kind of music can be, which makes them radicals of the form.
Unlike the slick presentation of Electric Version (which seemed to offer a streamlined, almost delicate, typecasting of the Pornographers), Twin Cinema is a more eclectic record, shaded in varying tints, fantasizing over an assortment of genres, reveling in the possibilities granted by experimentation. Its songs shift and twist on a whim like a dirty secret in the final chapters of Raymond Chandler novel—think the giant leaps of logic exhibited in Mass Romantic, only with less visible stretch marks. The leadoff title track is the only time the record plays by the band’s predetermined rules, its verse chords tumbling into place as uncomfortably as rubber balls squashed into square openings (a classic Newman ploy). “The Bones of an Idol”, with lead vocals by the band’s resident chanteuse Neko Case, is a mid-tempo pop dream masquerading as prog rock fantasy. Case sings of lighting torches and kneeling in the court of the king (no lyrical taboo is off-limits here), setting up the wordless chorus: a plague of ecstasies shouldering new layers of interwoven harmonies through three all-too-brief repeats. “The Bleeding Heart Show” begins as a pensive acoustic ballad both heartfelt and cryptic, only to methodically build to a fast-paced choral extravaganza with visions of “Hey Jude” grandeur. “Falling Through Your Clothes” recalls some of The Slow Wonder‘s obscurities, using backwards vocals to loop its delirious chorus. The most challenging example of Twin Cinema‘s fidgety transfigurations is the closing track, “Stacked Crooked”, an arty slice of sci-fi moonlighting as surf rock moonlighting as krautrock moonlighting as melodic hypnosis, with dueling guitars that sound like mariachi horns thrown in for increased defiance.
All of these twists and turns help the more straightforward songs stick out. “The Jessica Numbers”, which hints at covert missions, brainwashings, or code crackings, is propelled by a thunderous, seasick riff as primal and abrupt as anything in the band’s catalog. The neon power pop of “Sing Me Spanish Techno” streaks by with undeterred purposefulness and a penchant for caressing the throttle (“Now we see what the engine can do,” Newman sings). The breakdown plea “take me to where your sister lives” in “Star Bodies”, encircled by swarming ebows and xylophone, offers a brief chance to catch a breath from its ecstatic huff-and-puff rhythm. And “Use It” is the record’s should-be hit single, sumptuous and simple, laying claim to one of Newman’s best lines (“Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I’m shitfaced”) and rollicking with the carefree dominance of a monster truck’s wheels.
The New Pornographers would be nothing without Newman’s group of usual suspects, which has ballooned to a total of nine for Twin Cinema: multi-instrumentalist John Collins, drummer Kurt Dahle, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, guitarist Todd Fancey, vocalist/guitarist/sometimes-songwriter Dan Bejar, vocalists Nora O’Connor and Kathryn Calder, the latter Newman’s “long-lost” niece and an added boost to the band’s estrogen levels. Dahle, in particular, pulverizes the chorus of “Use It” and the coda of “The Bleeding Heart Show” into moments of oppressive rapture. Destroyer’s Bejar, sometimes referred to as the Pornographers’ “secret member”, springs his rattlesnake pop on Twin Cinema‘s party like a wild-eyed, aroused creature stirred from dreaming in the bushes; he’s Peckinpah to Newman’s Ford. Twin Cinema‘s hedonistic witch brew of perverted populism summons the Bejar character, bearded and mad-hatted like Merlin, to rise from its simmering cauldron like a wisp of convoluted smoke. “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras”, possibly a sequel to Mass Romantic‘s “Jackie”, announces itself like a docking boat and ends up stammering frantically against the pier. “I requested ‘Suicide Blonde’—loudly,” Bejar declares without irony in “Broken Breads”, which dares to inject its bewildering structure with a devilish refrain of “li li li"s.
Bejar, like all of Twin Cinema‘s recurring and cameo characters, is an integral part of the New Pornographers’ fostered identity. As an architect of the soundtrack to a fantasy world, or the fantastical craftsman lobbying for our suspension of disbelief, Newman constructs his Twin Cinema with an eye for classic drama: Case’s siren call turns heads like Grace Kelly in pearls; Bejar stirs things up like Peter Lorre scrambling through the clandestine pleasures of Rick’s Café Americain. Truffaut once wrote that Hitchcock “is undoubtedly one of the few filmmakers on the horizon today whose screen signature can be identified as soon as the picture begins.” The same concept can be applied to Newman: like Hitchcock or Ford or Welles, his auteuristic thumbprint—this sonic mise en scène that flails and squirms with the promise of a beach party at sunset—is categorically unique and identifiable, no matter which vocalist happens to be interpreting it. So whether it’s the snake-tailed feedback snap that retreats into the tremolo-stumble of “Three or Four”, the simple eighth note pounds and call-and-response vocals of “Star Bodies”, the erratic lead guitar provocation in the title track, or the repetitive disorientation needling the monstrous outro of “Use It”, identifying Newman in Twin Cinema is as easy as spotting the fat man who misses the bus in North by Northwest‘s credit sequence. It’s about familiarity: No matter the gradient of the pop terrain, the New Pornographers stay in frame and in focus. The kids stay in the picture.
// Notes from the Road
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