When semi-popular powerpop sprang up in the ’70s, critical triumph usually went hand in hand with commercial failure. So it’s encouraging that today in the same genre, modest sales can go hand in hand with praise from scribes (e.g., Shins). Not always, though.
Three decades have passed since Big Star’s last studio album. But since reuniting the band a dozen years ago, leader Alex Chilton (recently rescued from the Big Easy) has kept a steady lineup together: faithful, agile drummer Jody Stephens plus two of Big Star’s best students, Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Anyone expecting a classic fourth album is ignoring Chilton’s solo career, wherein he’s coasted through down-home music, discarding his iconhood with a grin and shrug. DIY punker that he is, Chilton quickly recorded first takes this time, with little mistakes left in and a minimum of overdubs. And if about half the songs aren’t typical Big Star material, remember that their three ’70s albums didn’t flow together into one thing either. Chilton’s fellow Stars respect the old days—plenty of Beach Boys fun and sun warms charmers like Ken’s “Lady Sweet” and Jody’s “February’s Quiet.” But Chilton’s perverse instincts have little use for such history, as the album’s second half especially makes clear: He gives up a hilarious disco number, a sloppy baroque instrumental, a lost soul hit (the Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively”), and a great tossed-off jam. This guy definitely revels in his cult status.
But if Chilton’s at peace with his marginality, New Pornographer honcho Carl Newman sounds resigned to his. After two indelible albums (aided by lovable chanteuse Neko Case and Destroyer’s glam-tastic Dan Bejar) and a deliciously tuneful solo turn, Newman is sounding a bit winded: Maybe a third of the record sounds rueful, something previously unimaginable. This new downcast mood isn’t as surefire as the cheeriness Newman used to so dependably radiate, even through oblique lyrics about abuse, apocalypse, and other unpleasantness. Songs like “Bones of an Idol” and “Streets of Fire” pick up in tempo eventually, but also sound like sad reflections on the music trade: “Come out of the rain/you’re not impressed/you’re just too learned.” But even through his doubts, he’s determined to keep penning intricately constructed gems.
Ideally, Chilton would tighten up (instead of amusingly flipping off fan expectations) and Newman would lighten up (easing his rigorous devotion to craft). But in the end, the strength of the best powerpop is the stubborn individualism and determination of its players. You plow onward, or you give it up.
The New Pornographers play Webster Hall October 12 and 13.