This review and interview originally appeared at Exclaim.ca
It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since the New Pornographers burst onto the scene. It’s even harder to believe that Carl Newman and company are able to change things up with each record, given the narrow box they created for themselves back with 2000′s Mass Romantic. Fifth album Together mixes thoughtful power pop riffing with a whole lot of cellos. On “A Bite Out of My Bed,” the instrument shreds like a guitar, propelling the track while a beautiful violin line cuts in-between Newman’s verses. Of course, the group’s trademark harmonies are all over the record, peppered in-between vocal turns from Dan Bejar (“Silver Jenny Dollar,” “If You Can’t See My Mirrors”), Kathryn Calder (“Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”) and Neko Case (“My Shepherd”). Together is a more muscular album than 2007′s Challengers, blending the visceral punch of the band’s debut and the musical ambition of Twin Cinemas. Members of the Dap Kings, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark all offer musical contributions, but none of these indie impresarios overshadow the core group; unsung heroes Kurt Dahle, John Collins and Todd Fancey play like one giant, united instrument. Combined with the group’s all-star vocalists, the band sound as fresh and hungry as they did a decade ago.
New Pornographers – You’re Hands (Together)
There are strings all over the record. What inspired this?
Carl Newman: It’s mainly cello. A lot of it comes from the Move and ELO. I’ve always loved the cello as a rock instrument. Sometimes in the past when we’ve thought, “let’s bring in a string quartet,” I always want to turn everything down. I’m thinking, “too much violin, too much viola, crank up that cello. Too much double bass, get rid of that.” This time, we cut to the chase. Our friends play violin and cello, so let’s get them to be our string section. And it seemed to work very well for us. We’re more of a rock band. It’s interesting to try and use strings in a rock context. I always think Roy Wood’s cello playing in the Move is the most classic rock cello. I even love whoever played guitar in the Creation ― that crazy sound he would get when he would bow his guitar. I always thought, “‘Makin’ Time,’ that’s the most screeching rock sound.”
Have you thought about how you’re going to recreate this live?
We’re bringing them along live. I just started listening to it and thought, “We have to have a cello player.” When you’re a big band like us, you don’t want to keep expanding, but we couldn’t really fire another person. At the minimum we need to have a cello player. I think we’re going to have a few people play with us.
You also brought in quite a few guest musicians: Annie Clark from St. Vincent, Will Sheff from Okkervil River and Ted Leo.
The Ted Leo thing; we were mixing and he had just finished his record with Phil [Palazzolo], who produced our record. He was making last minute changes to his record. I think it was me, Dan and Kathryn in the studio, in the room where Ted was working on ProTools. That was how Ted Leo got on the record and was later cut because that song got knocked off the record.
Will it see life as a B-side?
I was thinking of making it a B-side, but then I decided I wanted to rework it slightly, which happens sometimes. It’s actually a song I really like. Maybe it will be on an EP or maybe it will be on the next album.
Does that happen a lot for you, where songs get held over and end up on the subsequent record?
They don’t really. Occasionally it does. Usually if they get hung over there was something about it I didn’t like and I’ll just rewrite it. Like the song “These are the Fables,” which ended up being one of my favourite songs from Twin Cinemas. Half of that song was from Electric Version. It was a song from Electric Version that I cut because I thought it was unfocused. I just took it apart and thought, “What’s great about this song?” A funny thing about Twin Cinema, even though a lot of people consider it our best record, when I look back on it there’s about four songs on it that were built from scraps of Electric Version songs that didn’t work. I think that was “These are the Fables,” “Falling Through Your Clothes” and, I think, even some of “The Jessica Numbers.”
Why did you feel the need to bring in other people when you’ve already got such a large band?
It was near the end when were thinking these songs need something else. Like the song “My Shepherd,” we were working on it and thought, “This needs a really cool solo.” It was one of those songs where there was a solo section, but we hadn’t figured out the solo yet. Phil had just worked with Annie [Clark from St. Vincent] on something, so he sent her that song and she came in the next day. It was the same thing with Zach [Condon] from Beirut. We’d had the Dap Kings come in and do all these horns, but there was one song near the end that I still wanted to get trumpet on. So I called him up and then he came in the next day and he did it. That’s the cool thing about recording in New York; it’s a collecting place for so many people.
Was this the first time you’d had this kind of experience, bringing in a lot of outside musicians?
Yeah, I guess it was. It was the first time where the other people we brought in happened to be people from popular bands.
With such a large group, do you feel pressure to give everyone a chance to shine on a record?
To a certain degree. I’ve always wanted it to be seamless, like it seems like more of a group. Kathryn will be singing, but then three of us will be singing and then maybe Neko will come in. I’ve always wanted it to be more like that, as opposed to “This is a Neko song, this is a Dan song, this is a Carl song.” And maybe sometimes people listen to it and it sounds like that. But it gets strange when you’ve got four or five singers and only 12 songs on an album. And that’s something that will keep us from achieving Coldplay levels of popularity, because unless you’re the Beatles, I think people like there to be one singer in the band. Or maybe two is acceptable.
Why do you think that is?
I think a really casual listener just wants to listen to one person singing. I don’t think they want it to change very much stylistically. I think the average listener is content to go, “I paid ten bucks for this record and I want one thing.” I think it’s only when you get into music obsessives that you get into “Has there style evolved enough?”