From the first few notes of "Together," you know that The New Pornographers are back to form.
The New Pornographers' last album, "Challengers," was something of a disappointment. It felt pedestrian, a strange word to associate with a band like this. It was The New Pornographers A-B-C's. Perhaps it was a subconscious affliction as a result of the masterful "Twin Cinemas." Whatever the reason, "Challengers" came across as uninspired and not the least bit challenging.
The same can't be said for "Together." This is everything you love about The New Pornographers: the great melodies, the intertwining vocals, the quirky lyrics, and dynamic instrumentation. This is a band that will record anything, no matter how strange, if they think it sounds good. They are shameless servants to rhythm and melody.
The first track, "Moves," kicks the album off perfectly, with a string/guitar combination that is strangely wonderful. At various moments, you'll hear what sounds like a cello drowning out the guitar, only to then hear the guitar drowning out that supposed cello. And at a certain point they throw some keyboard and piano in there for good measure. Truly remarkable, this pastiche of instruments never drown out the vocal lines, yet only serve to lift them up.
There's also a cohesion to "Together" (appropriately enough) that was lacking on their last album. The aforementioned cello carries us into "Crash Years," the first song on the album to feature Neko Case as the main vocalist. Case has an avid following and I always wonder how The New Pornographers manage to maintain a balance between her vocals and those of Carl Newman, Kathryn Calder, and Dan Bejar. It would seem tempting, on some level, to place the focus on Case, given her popularity, but if The New Pornographers are doing that, it's not obvious, as the songs feel completely organic.
If "Together" ever feels less than together, it's the growing distinction between the Newman penned songs and those by Bejar. Aside from the obvious vocal difference, Bejar's songs tend to be more pop oriented, almost like they're actively wishing for a simpler time. Bejar's tracks, "Silver Jenny Dollar," "If You Can't See My Mirrors," and "Daughters of Sorrow," are spread throughout this album, but in a way that makes their positioning seem premeditated by their creator, not their tone, as a way of making sure his songs are scattered equally from beginning to end.
"Up In the Dark" is perhaps my favorite song on "Together," with it's choppy acoustic rhythm guitar and twangy lead guitar that lead to a driving chorus featuring "What's love?" over and over again (I'll give you a hint: it turns up in the dark). The dueling vocals between Newman and Case remind me of everything that's great about The New Pornographers.
The slower numbers, like the aforementioned "Daughters of Sorrow," "Valkyrie In the Roller Disco," and the fantastic "We End Up Together," show The New Pornographers at the top of their game. I've never been sold on their less energetic tunes; there was always something missing, something that prevented them from working for me on a purely sentimental level. That isn't he case here, just another indication of how great this record is.
I was nearly convinced that The New Pornographers' well had run dry after "Challengers." I'm happy to see that I was jumping the gun, and that the water on "Together" runs deep.