Written by By Dr. Devon King, CNN
As New Pornographers continue to refine their sonic tools for 24-hour release cycles (as they did recently with the excellent “Ten Canoes”), today’s career trajectories of the four-piece group can look like two spectrums — the short and enjoyable, and the downright baffling.
What a long, strange trip they’ve taken. Since releasing the 1999 debut “Alligator Car,” the quartet — producer-songwriter Carl Newman, singer Neko Case, Brian Moen, Daniel Licht and Dean Fertita — has put out 15 records on three labels.
Sometimes those records become best-selling juggernauts. In 2007, “Loveless” pushed the group past Lou Reed to achieve the #5 spot on Billboard’s 200 albums chart. To this day, the band’s sixth studio album, “Lightning Bolt,” remains the single biggest seller of all New Pornographers releases.
But for every “Downtown Lights” (nearly 35 million records sold) there’s been a “Alligator Car,” a sterling “Sword of Damocles” that saw Newman — who now sits atop the Billboard 200 with his ninth solo album, “Universal Gnarly Animals” — juggling album release and a nearly decade-long residency at Manhattan’s legendary Webster Hall.
Part I (1990), a single-disc set featuring three side-two compilations of New Pornographers new songs, gave the group its first major hit with “Unbeaten Plane,” a saucy tale of uppers and downers about New York City’s interconnectedness (and Newman’s love for drugs).
Part II (1992), a more cohesive live-band outing that focused on Newman’s adventurous solo compositions, enjoyed more success with “Recycling Rats,” a set of a cappella and enraptured folk with a sharp, proto-punk edge.
Take-ins included detailed guitar work from Moen and Peter Svensson on the title track; pedal steel and bass wailers from Eric Mintel and Patrick Nelson; and the ever-present string and accordion-laden keys of Fertita.
Part III (1995), a compact side-two set titled “Best of Indie New Pornographers,” offered the chance to hear off-kilter clips of solo recordings from Newman (carefully edited into performances by frequent live guests Moen and Licht) and a deluxe mini-set of Moeen’s musical contributions.
And in 2001, the band released another new-music mini-set, “Caleb And Cat,” a 21-track compilation, filled with deft cover songs and interesting tracks by Casey Abrams and Kim Deal.
But before that, and possibly for the last time, came the rather long first half of “Uncanny Valley,” the New Pornographers’ February 2014 digital-only release.
The title track certainly evoked suspense: Years-of-progress pessimism sets heavy, grungy guitars against a tender, swaying one, as Newman sings about “glorious, expensive music alone, strange bodies together.”
As much of an artifact as a true New Pornographers album, the half-album came in some-odd spot on the record label rep’s shelf, where it was propped up by stickers and snow-cone holders. Not surprisingly, “Uncanny Valley” has faded into obscurity since its release.
What about Carl Newman’s iPhone …
Twenty-one years after that first “really big” album, what brings Carl Newman to the New Pornographers?
These questions remain untold. For all that Cee Lo Green can recall his first hits — “Fallin’ for You,” of course — Newman’s first forays into studio albums are similarly forgettable.