Take Them On, On Your Own
Solo Scenes from Two New Pornographers

So this is going to sound very strange, especially since it has nothing to do with music or anything else this column usually tackles. It’s just something that’s been tickling my mind lately.

Okay. Have you seen those new Cheetos commercials? The ones with a depressingly computer-generated Chester Cheetah? The usual conceit of these ads is that our non-Cheetah protagonist, easily identified because he or she is eating Cheetos, encounters someone rude or obnoxious. He or she then uses his or her Cheetos to exact some form of petty revenge – wiping orange residue on the obnoxious person’s back, for example, or throwing the tasty snacks on the ground by the obnoxious person’s feet, to attract birds.

And each time, Chester Cheetah looks on approvingly. In some of the ads, he actually gives our protagonist the idea for whatever Cheetos-related vengeance they enact. In one, he says “Papa Chester’s proud of you,” in a really creepy, low voice.

This troubles me. Not a lot, you understand, but it does rub me wrong. I just think Chester Cheetah deserves better. When I was growing up, Chester was unflappable. You couldn’t rattle that guy. He’d breeze through Cheetos ads with his cool-as-hell shades, sometimes dancing but often just hanging out, totally laid back. He rolled with the punches and kept on smiling, just being… cool.

And now? This Chester is a bit of a scumbag. Rather than just letting the irritations of life roll off his back, he encourages striking out at people, and revels in their misery. Who is this guy? What happened to Chester? Did he have a bad experience with a woman cheetah that hardened him towards life? He’s no longer cool. He’s just kind of a dick who thinks he’s cool.

Yes, I’ve actually spent time thinking about this. Shut up. Stop laughing. Move along, nothing to see here…

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Tori Amos’ new album is called Abnormally Attracted to Sin.

I would repeat that for effect, but I don’t want to type it again. It is easily the dumbest, most on-the-nose title of her career, even if it is from Guys and Dolls. The album, out on May 19, is another 17-song monster, and the cover art is bland and boring. Every Tori album fills me with dread these days, but I fear even the modest gains she made with American Doll Posse (an album that has diminished somewhat with time) may be lost here.

Depressing. We shall see.

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I’m finding myself interested in parts and their sums this week. I’ve been a fan of Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers since their first album, Mass Romantic, in 2000. I came awfully close to including their third album, Twin Cinema, on my 2005 top 10 list. They’re less a band and more a collective, a group of songwriters and prolific artists in their own right who come together once every couple of years to pool talents.

And what they do works brilliantly. But me being me, I’m practically obsessed with taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s not enough for me to just enjoy the sound, however it comes together. I need to know which of the component parts is responsible for what, and why the combination works as well as it does. I know, I frustrate myself, too.

But the Pornographers make it easy for me by maintaining their own careers, apart from the band. This makes it easy to figure out just what each one brings to the table, and what compromises each one makes in service of the collective sound. Happily, each of the Pornographers’ solo records is also worth hearing – it’s not just an academic exercise, but an enjoyable romp through different kinds of musical imagination.

No disrespect to Dan Bejar intended, but the two New Pornographers who get the most attention are Carl Newman and Neko Case. They’re the Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of this group, although I’m pretty sure they never dated, broke up and wrote a whole album of songs about each other. Newman writes most of the band’s tunes, often for Case to sing – he’s the boy genius, the guy with a thousand good ideas a minute. Case grounds his work with her glorious voice. She adds an air of authenticity to everything she sings, and can sell Newman’s melodies better than anyone.

They work so well together that it’s sometimes strange to hear them acting independently. Case’s solo work is often country-inflected, usually earthy and genuine-sounding. She doesn’t quite have the scope as a songwriter that Newman does, but with her voice, it rarely matters. Newman, on the other hand, is a melody factory. His songs are endlessly inventive and quirky, if not always memorable. His voice is nice, but words like “capable” and “adequate” come to mind. He has a songwriter’s voice, not a singer’s.

But both of their recent efforts are quite strong – both, in fact, are better than the last New Porn album, 2007’s Challengers. Why is this? Did the synergy simply fail during the Challengers sessions? Did Case and Newman save their best stuff for their own albums? You’d think that would be the first assumption, but the songs on both of these albums play to their authors’ individual strengths more than to the New Pornographers group dynamic. Put simply, these aren’t really New Pornographers songs.

That’s especially true of Case’s record. It’s her fifth, and it’s called Middle Cyclone. I have to make special mention here of the cover, as it’s my favorite of 2009 so far. It features Case in a short black skirt, crouched on the front of a classic old car, and clutching a sword in her right hand. She looks ready to strike, or at least ready for an adventure. It’s a pretty awesome picture. But if it leads you to expect something bold and raucous, like the soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino flick, prepare to be disappointed.

Middle Cyclone is a slow, pretty affair, for the most part. Case’s country leanings are all but gone here, replaced by acoustic balladry and jangle-pop. But it’s pretty good acoustic balladry and jangle-pop, and Case brings That Voice, which elevates everything. Opener “This Tornado Loves You” is her most clever, a lovesick letter from a force of nature that has chased the object of its affection across the country: “Carved your name across three counties,” she sings, and ends the song pleading, “This tornado loves you, what will make you believe me?”

The overall tone is sweet and down-to-earth, with some real flashes of invention. “Polar Nettles” does some interesting things with backwards recording, which the title song contains two music box solos that fit in with Case’s melodies perfectly. My favorite song here is “Prison Girls” – this one does sound like a Tarantino flick, with its minor-key surf guitar and dark lyrics. (Oh, and the best “oh-oooh” refrain Case has ever written.) She also does a great job with Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” a song also recently covered by the Walkmen.

Still and all, Case’s songs are pretty simple, even if they are simply pretty. Middle Cyclone sounds great when you’re playing it, but leaves your head pretty soon after it stops, no matter how haunting and moving her voice is. Strangely, she ends her album with 31 minutes of frog and insect noises, as if to underline the nature themes that sprinkle her songs this time. I’m not sure what to make of that, but the other 14 tracks are decent-to-good tunes that never reach for more.

Meanwhile, Carl Newman (who goes by A.C. Newman when recording on his own) has stepped up his songwriting game on his second solo disc, Get Guilty. He keeps the more mellow approach of Challengers, but remembers to bring engaging hooks this time, and his record is all the better for it. Opener “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” sounds like a fanfare, and says a lot with a few well-placed lines and observations. The third verse begins like this: “And her eyes, they were a color I can’t remember, which says more than the first two verses…”

Newman does his budget Brian Wilson production here as well, with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, recorders, flutes, mandolins, strings and an army of backing vocalists. (The recorder is on second track “The Heartbreak Rides,” and its entrance is unexpected, but sounds just right.) While I like all these songs, Newman shines in the record’s final third. “Young Atlantis” may be his best song this time out, a circular folk number with a great chorus and some swell strings. It’s matched by the bizarre “The Collected Works,” and Newman ends the record with the singalong “All of My Days and All of My Days Off.”

But here’s the thing – Newman on his own is a songwriter’s songwriter, assembling chords and riffs and orchestrations like a master, but failing to emotionally connect. It’s a flaw I’m not sure I would have even noticed if he hadn’t spent so much of the past nine years working with Case, who bridges that gap effortlessly. It’s easy to see from these records what Newman and Case bring back to their band – he’s the brain, she’s the heart. They’re good on their own, but when they really click together, they’re something more.

Would I recommend these solo albums, then? Sure. Case’s record is frequently beautiful, and quite frankly, I’d pay money to hear her sing just about anything. And Newman’s disc is an indie pop masterclass, like just about everything he does. If you want to hear 12 songs packed with little surprises and big hooks, you can’t go wrong. As much as I like the whole better than the parts, I’m glad I don’t have to choose. I can have both, and so can you.

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One thing to mention before I go. Did everyone see Jon Stewart’s epic takedown of CNBC’s Jim Cramer last week? It was one of the most impressive pieces of actual journalism I’ve seen in a long time. That it came from a guy who hosts a fake news show on Comedy Central surprised some, but not me. Stewart is one of the most important voices of our time, especially when he’s good and angry and has a boatload of research to back him up.

The unedited interview is in three parts on Comedy Central’s Web site here, here and here. Do check it out.

Next week, a little thing I’m calling “The WTF Awards.” Come back in seven days to find out WTF that means.

See you in line Tuesday morning.