The only thing better than a great solo artist is a group of great solo artists that make beautiful music together. And better than beautiful music is Canadian-bred indie power pop. Enter The New Pornographers. Led by A.C. Newman’s Beach Boy-vocals, Dan Bejar’s slick electric guitars, and Neko Case’s divine harmonies, the band lives up to their cult status with their third album, “Twin Cinema.” It is as brilliant and thrillingly catchy as their first two records (though perhaps not as euphoric as their near-perfect debut, “Mass Romantic”), and an innovative spin on their already successful formula.
What makes The New Pornographers so singularly great can be found in the semantic differences between “power pop” and “pop.” There’s something more special about the double “p”; the catchiness of radio hits is maintained, but it’s more clever, more crafty, and less shallow.
“Twin Cinema” is wildly infectious, yet the band’s sound seems to be maturing. Or at least it sounds more brooding. The previous melt-in-your-mouth sugary numbers (“The Laws Have Changed,” “Slow Decent Into Alcoholism”) are nudged aside for a more subtle, quirky mix of songs.
“Stacked Crooked,” the album closer, is a four-minute epic of layered reverb vocals, languid horns and trumpets reminiscent of the Fiery Furnaces in its ambitious glory. The alternating rhythms build into a melodic hypnosis, only made more trancelike by Neko Case and her fellow vocalists singing “Ooooo” repeatedly.
Where it could be said that the two previous releases lacked an expansive depth, “Twin Cinema” is confidently complex. Newman — whose solo album “The Slow Wonder” was last summer’s sleeper hit — gets more personal with his songwriting, though it is, as always, wonderfully absurd. On “Use It,” one of the album’s best tracks, he sings: “Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I’m shitfaced.” (In context, it sounds downright intimate). The song’s rousing verses and chorus are harmonically softened by a Ben Folds-like piano, but made excitedly dramatic by a thumping bass and a faultlessly erratic drum beat.
It is drummer Kurt Dahle who shines on many of the album’s cuts, creating impeccable beats that only strengthen The New Pornographer’s drive. On “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” (perhaps a sequel to “Jackie” from “Mass Romantic”), Dahle fills the spaces between vibrant verses with ebullient and imaginative percussion.
The best thing about “Twin Cinema” is the musicianship of each one of the band’s seven members (plus two more, equally lovely female backup singers). At one time or another, everyone seems to be in peak form. From Dahle’s crisp drumming to the perfectly complementary vocal harmonies of the three ladies, the album’s sounds are tight, powerful and sophisticated. It’s a shame that Neko Case sings lead on only two songs; her songs have long been the highlights of the band’s albums. But when she gets the spotlight on “Cinema,” she is graceful and emotionally rich. “These Are the Fables” is an acoustic half-ballad, immaculately performed by Ms. Case backed by a poignant and colorful cello.
But of course, best of all is the power pop. On the opener, “Twin Cinema,” Newman sings falsetto on a chorus that’s instantly likeable, and his high voice is artfully balanced out by an electric synthesizer. Combined with head-bobbing guitars, the track is the most fanciful of the album. It has The New Pornographers’ signature all over it.
Coherence is sacrificed for a more experimental tone, which isn’t exactly a crime, but the album lacks an over-arching sentiment to pull it all together. Nevertheless, it stands on its own as testament to the band’s tremendous talent for crafting music that is as heavy with hooks as intelligence. The New Pornographers may have started out as a side project, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason to keep their day jobs.