Friday, October 09, 2009

New Pornographers in the 2000's

In sports, they say that flags fly forever, which is another way of saying that you're more likely to be remembered for one outstanding year than a number of merely good years. The quickest and safest route to history is to burn excessively bright for a short time, just ask the Sex Pistols (or even the blasted Libertines).

New Pornographers didn't release a world-conquering album that stands apart from the rest of their music. But they did release four very good albums of punchy guitar pop that are deservedly beloved by indie rock fans. They haven't strayed far from the blueprint of their first album, 2000's "Mass Romantic", or the formula that turned that album's centrepiece track, "Letter From an Occupant" into a minor anthem (I think the next track, "To Wild Homes", with all its outlandish Spectorian piano-pounding drama, is the true heart and soul of that album, but let's stick to the other storyline for a moment).

So at decade's end, bands like the New Pornographers arguably find themselves in an unusual spot: warmly remembered and respected in the present, but without a secure legacy to ensure that it'll stay that way in the future. Now, if best-of lists were the be all and end all of guaranteeing that a band will remain popular, then not having one album that is widely acknowledged as classic would be problematic. But in the big picture, lists don't mean shit. Radio is what matters -- what's key is to have at least one or two hits that remain fixtures on radio playlists. I'm not sure that New Pornographers could make that claim either, even among indie circles. There's something about the replayability of their albums that I've never quite understood, basically, I hear one of their album and will happily sing along throughout the record, but never feel the need to play it a second time straight through, or even just to replay one or two songs. They write fantastic pop songs, but don't write "hits". It's an illogical feeling, I know, particularly when every sensible bone in my body tells me that, say, "Sing Me Spanish Techno" is hit-worthy and should be a radio staple.

There is so much more indie rock music now than there was in 2000, and now they must compete with more bands to carve out that legacy. The indie scene is become ever more interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating itself with other genres, but New Pornographers remain proudly "plain".

In that make-believe world where lists actually influence a band's reputation, then New Pornographers are left out in the cold, without a clear favourite album (in the opinion of both fans or critics) that will rank along the decade's uber-classics. They are a "down-ballot" band, furthermore hurt by their own consistency, because that will lead to vote-splitting among their albums. This is definitely a weakness of listmaking: there is room for the band that released one classic and a load of crap otherwise, but the consistently good bands get squeezed out ... unless the voter essentially invokes a "lifetime achievement" clause, and gives inflated marks to whatever one deems to be their best album. I personally try to resist the urge to do this, and I keep reminding myself of that when I think about albums by bands like Mogwai and Xiu Xiu. What should definitely be avoided is what we can call the "Maps effect" -- that is, the overrating of a fairly ordinary album like the YYY's "Fever To Tell", not because they think it's a classic album, but because they feel the need to rep for classic songs on that album. So people vote for it even though they're really just repping for "Maps".

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