Last week’s column was all about artists just doing what they do, establishing a signature sound and riding it out. If I’d heard it in time, I would have included Whiteout Conditions, the seventh album by Canadian don’t-call-us-a-supergroup supergroup The New Pornographers.
Before hearing Whiteout Conditions, I was expecting a bit of a shakeup. While they prefer to be called a collective instead of a supergroup, the New Pornographers initially drew together seven well-known Vancouver-area musicians, most notably chief songwriter A.C. Newman, golden-voiced troubadour Neko Case and Dan Bejar, leader of the constantly-morphing band Destroyer. This lineup has remained relatively stable, and Bejar especially has injected some important mood-shifting diversity with his rougher-edged songs.
Whiteout Conditions is the first New Porn album without Bejar, although Newman insists he has not left the band entirely. It is also the first without founding drummer Kurt Dahle, replaced here by touring drummer Joe Seiders. Case stopped writing songs for the band after their first record, so this means this new album is the first one entirely led by Newman. All eleven songs are his.
In theory, this means Whiteout Conditions should be the band’s most homogenous, monochrome record. In practice, though, what we get is eleven glittering, pulsing pop songs in classic A.C. Newman style, and the final product is remarkably enjoyable. I’d even put this above the last couple – much as I liked Brill Bruisers, the songs on this new one are stronger, solidifying the band’s resurgence after the mediocre Challengers and Together. Case has settled nicely into her role as hired gun singer, and she blends her voice nicely with those of Newman and Kathryn Calder, delivering lovely harmonies. They sound unified here, and it suits them.
All of which would mean less than nothing if Newman hadn’t come up with the goods, but in this album’s new-wave pop-rock grooves, he’s found his. Tunes like “High Ticket Attractions” swagger and shake, the insistent bass thump anchoring flickering keyboards and stabbing bursts of guitar. “Colosseums” bounces along with authority, the title track dances down the lane, beckoning you to follow. “We’ve Been Here Before” offers a glowing interlude that feels like the clouds parting, the three singers harmonizing like angels.
There really isn’t anything here you haven’t heard before from Newman and his band – this is really just them doing what they do. But what they do hasn’t felt this energized, this (to steal an old album title) together in some time. I’m not sure what the circumstances were that led to Whiteout Conditions falling almost entirely under Newman’s purview, but it’s proof that he can deliver, and that the New Pornographers are nowhere near out of gas.
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Newman’s not the only one to pull off a return to form this week.
I’ve been a fan of folk songwriter Peter Mulvey for more than 20 years. His first label, Eastern Front, sent copies of his third album, Rapture, and its companion EP, Goodbye Bob, to the music magazine I worked at after college. It was Mulvey’s voice-and-guitar cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” that drew my attention, and his unique approach to the guitar on songs like “If Love is Not Enough” and “On the Way Up” that kept it. I saw him live only once, at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland, Maine, but that was the night he wrote and debuted one of his signature pieces, “The Trouble with Poets.” I’ve been following ever since.
Lately, though, Mulvey’s output has felt strangely spotty to me. I adore Letters from a Flying Machine, his 2009 conceptual piece that includes “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” a song so good he turned it into a TED talk. But covers album The Good Stuff was, you know, good, and 2014’s Silver Ladder felt a little uninspired to me. Mulvey, it seemed to me, needed something to shake him out of his comfort zone and get him thinking about different approaches to songwriting again.
Who better to shake him up than Ani DiFranco? I have no idea how these two connected – probably just orbiting the same troubadour-with-a-guitar circles – but I’m so glad they did. DiFranco produced and played on Mulvey’s terrific new album, Are You Listening, and has released it on her own Righteous Babe Records, hopefully opening up a new audience for him. At least I hope so, because this is an album that deserves to be heard.
Are You Listening was made largely with DiFranco’s backing band – bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, with violin and vocals by Anna Tivel and lots of contributions from the Little Folksinger herself. There’s an energy to it that has been missing from his work lately, a sense of playing out on the edge, of finding these songs on the side of the road and just running with them. The album opens and closes with jaunty vignettes about country life (“Hold me touch me feed me, that’s what my phone always says, it needs me, but I don’t need you, phone,” he sings on opener “D.I.A.”), and in between touches on war, change, loss and the death of Trayvon Martin, just to name a few.
And despite the fact that it jumps from tone to tone, from strummy exuberance to dark lament to spoken word, it holds together beautifully. Standout “Just Before the War” is about memories of more innocent times, taken (like the song’s subject) too soon and too abruptly. “Winter Poem” is just that, a spoken piece about the stories we erase, just by being the biggest and strongest. “Which One Were You,” dedicated to Martin, is an abstract, haunting tone poem that aches with grief. “The Details” is an old-school Mulvey piece, de-tuned guitar and all, about how we cause our own problems.
As much as I love all of that, I’m a huge fan of the way this album ends. “Sebastian” is a hip-shaker, Tivel’s violin shoving the air around while Mulvey half-raps and harmonizes with DiFranco on the catchy chorus. (“How does it make you feel?”) He follows up earlier number “The Last Song” with “The Song After the Last Song,” a simple anthem of hope that builds and builds over its unfolding five minutes to become something truly special. And then he chooses to go out with a bookend, an epilogue: “Still Life” is silly and timeless, a minute-long reminder that we’re all just simple people with simple lives, and that is beautiful.
I’ve been a Mulvey fan for a long, long time, and Are You Listening is easily one of his very best. Taking a gamble and working with DiFranco and her band paid off a hundredfold. I know there is room for records this deep, this insightful, this dedicated to capturing the human experience, and if DiFranco can open her audience up to the magic that is Mulvey at his best, they’ll be enriched. I certainly have been. It’s been a joy to follow this man’s work for the past two decades, through hills and valleys, great records and misfires, like following a real person’s life. Are You Listening is most definitely a great Peter Mulvey record, daring and powerful and grounded while staring at the sky in wonder. Get thee to www.petermulvey.com and buy it.
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That will do it for me this week. Next week, reviews of Kendrick Lamar (if I hear it in time), Quiet Company and others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.