The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema & The Immaculate Machine: Ones and Zeros

“What happened to The New Pornographers?”

Twin Cinema


That’s all I kept asking myself while listening to their new album, Twin Cinema, easily the band’s most mediocre offering. Compared to the band’s previous albums, Twin Cinema sounds boring and overproduced, replacing wall-to-wall hooks and sugar-sweet harmonies with unfinished songs and an often-murky mix. For a band famous for writing catchy songs, there are only about seven songs out of Twin Cinema’s 14 tracks that are worthy of that reputation.

So what happened? First I blame Carl Newman, the Pornographers’ lead songwriter. Somewhere between 2002’s The Electric Version and Twin Cinema, Newman stopped writing real hooks. Instead, he’s content to add instrument on top of instrument to his half-hooks, desperately trying to hide the fact that he’s running out of chord progressions. Between the band’s last two albums and his solo album, Newman has probably written 25 to 30 power-pop gems, and he’s showing signs of losing steam. For every “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” there’s a “These Are The Fables,” easily one of the worst songs he’s ever written. A piano and guitar ballad sung by Neko Case, “Fables” constantly threatens to be catchy, with Case’s voice rising to resolve the melody, only to pull back at the last second.


The second culprit is Kathryn Calder (of The Immaculate Machine), murdering The New Pornographers sound by being in the studio with a piano. The band’s first two albums have organs and synthesizers, wonderfully appropriate power-pop instruments with no boring, fuddy-duddy piano. A piano doesn’t belong in a power-pop band, or at least not in the kind of power-pop band I think The New Pornographers are.


And then there’s the production. On “Letter From An Occupant” off Mass Romantic, the band’s first album, John Dahle created a driving drum beat with just his kick drum and one of his tom drums while the organ squealed away and Neko Case hit all her favorite high notes. On Twin Cinema, Dahle’s drums have been mixed down, as if the songs were too delicate to take them at full volume.  Another problem with the production is that it seems like every inch of the mix is filled with some sort of sound, whether cello, keyboard or guitar. One of the joys of the band’s earlier work was how much space was allowed between the rhythm section and the organs and guitars. When an organ line came in during the middle eight bars of a song, the sound was sublime. But things like that rarely happen on Twin Cinema.


One of the songs that is strengthened by the band’s new sound is “Streets of Fire.” Consisting of only acoustic guitar, melodeon and various electronic confections, the song is quiet, spare and gorgeous. Had the album been made up of more songs like “Streets of Fire,” it could have signaled a new direction for the band towards spaceier, atmospheric pop music.  After I finished listening to Twin Cinema, I listened to The Electric Version to remind myself why I had loved the band. All I kept thinking as I was listening to it was, where are songs like these on Twin Cinema?


Ones and Zeros

Fear the phrase “power trio” in any band’s press kit. Because, if whoever wrote their bio couldn’t think of a better adjective than “power” to describe the band, you know something’s wrong. So when I spotted the sinister phrase in The Immaculate Machine’s bio, I knew it was likely I was going to hate the band. And this was before I had read that the lead singer of The Immaculate Machine, Kathryn Calder, is the long lost niece of Carl Newman, lead singer of The New Pornographers.


According to the bio, Newman “knows talent.” So apparently The Immaculate Machine is a can’t miss affair. But the problem with that sort of name-dropping is that anyone who reads it can’t help but compare The Immaculate Machine to The New Pornographers, and that only hurts the former. The Immaculate Machine is a decent, indie rock band, but that’s about it. Am I too cynical in wondering if the band got signed to Mint Records mostly because Calder is related to Newman?


What’s wrong with Ones and Zeros, the Immaculate Machine’s debut album, is that it’s so unexceptional. Calder and guitarist Brooke Gallupe sing mid-tempo, indie rock songs about dysfunctional relationships and our consumer-based society but they do it in the most rote and cliched manner possible. Anyone who has heard Rainer Maria is going to crack up when they hear Ones and Zeros because the Immaculate Machine cops every one of their moves. Waspy female vocalist with sizeable vocal range? Check. “Poetic” lyrics that sound more like unedited journal entries? Double check. Old-school emo (Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate) minor chord progressions? Triple check.


The only song that rises above the Rainer Maria worship is “Fire in the Lobby,” a song whose momentum and choral-esque arrangement transcend its trite lyrics (“There’s more chance I’ll die from laughing than I ever will from crying”) and make it something that might sound at home on the Arcade Fire’s early demos. But it’s only the third track on the album, so you can’t use it as the carrot that makes you sit through the rest of the album just to hear it.


But I feel like there’s an audience out there for The Immaculate Machine. Their audiences are kids just getting out of rap-rock and pop-punk and into indie rock. These kids are starving for smart, exciting music that doesn’t pound them over the head or insult their intelligence. For them, a band like The Immaculate Machine is going to sound incredibly new and exciting. Sure they might find the CD two years later and laugh at how they ever could have liked such lame music, but those first few listens can feel revelatory. So file Ones and Zeros under “great indie rock starter CD.”


The New Pornographers will play at the Wonder Ballroom Sept. 25 with The Immaculate Machine and Destroyer.