Posts tagged: A.C. Newman

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

By , October 16, 2012 10:00 am

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

Matador 2012

Rating: 7/10

At this point, it’s hard for Carl Newman to defy the expectations automatically placed upon any album bearing his name. There are the two albums with Zumpano, a ‘90s power-pop outfit (see: Sloan, also of the Great White North, who did it better). The five eerily consistent albums with the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop “supergroup” who reasonably could only fall under that term if you were a fervent follower of obscure ‘90s indie acts or in tune with mildly popular transplanted alt-country singers. Now, with Shut Down the Streets, three albums of sparkling solo work, releases that tend to weigh heavily on the side of (surprise!) power-pop, while leaning ever so slightly towards the ‘70s singer-songwriter tropes that Newman has long worshipped and bolstered by a seemingly endless bag of hooks and melodies that would make Costello and McCartney proud. It’s perhaps a tragedy of the digital age that for over the course of all these songs Newman has cultivated a distinct identity that, in a different time, may have made him one of a generation’s truly great songsmiths; as it stands now, this consistency has nevertheless marked him as “that guy from the New Pornographers.” He is the straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s schizophrenic genre outlaw, the driving engine behind the success of one of indie’s biggest millennial bands but never the kind to pull on any heartstrings, to really stand up and beg to be noticed. Shut Down the Streets is an album that longs to defeat that perception, to go onward into some brave new territory – hell, Newman seems to already be there on the album cover – but it can’t help but keep one foot in the past.

Easy signposts to point to for the album are the much-reported death of his mother and birth of his son, two seismic life events for any person, much less in such close proximity to each other and in the midst of that person recording an album. It’s easy because Newman has never been so heart-on-his-sleeve with his songwriting as he is here, holding forth on grief and newborn love with equal, unusual candor. The gradual triumphant swell that bubbles to the surface in album centerpiece “Strings” is far less deliberate than past major-key jubilations like Get Guilty’s “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve,” utilizing this album’s wider palette of sounds and instruments to a pronounced, organic effect. With it, the song’s understated chorus of “we’ve been waiting for you” is a heartbreakingly simple depiction of a father’s love rather than a bombastic, orchestrated declaration.

The album has a more bucolic tone than anything in Newman’s past work, a pastoral hue that calls to mind John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan and the work of New Pornos associate Neko Case (who is on board for some typically lovely harmonic contributions). Mixing elements of misty blue-eyed folk with his more typical baroque pop arrangements, that Americana edge that Newman has always tended so carefully yet shown so sparingly bears some pleasantly surprising fruit in tracks like “You Could Get Lost Out Here” and the rural jig of “The Troubadour.” Indeed, it’s the tracks that call to mind the past that tend to distract from the album’s overall feel. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is a prototypical New Pornographers single, right down to that rollicking backbeat, clink-your-PBRs-together chorus and Case’s howling backing vocals, while “There’s Money in New Wave” is just the kind of carefully enunciated twee ballad Newman can’t help but writing at least once an album. At other times, the album’s distinct style detracts from the song’s themselves: the woodwind that skips about merrily introducing “Hostages” is one such example, gone as abruptly as it is introduced until a brief reemergence in the second half, an outsized distraction in an otherwise unremarkable pop-rock tune.

While decidedly uneven and lacking in the sheer number of hooks a regular dose of Newman provides, Shut Down the Streets does have two of the best songs of his long career in opener “I’m Not Talking” and closer “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets.” The former is a master class in songwriting, something that sounds like it was lifted wholesale from some glen in the ‘60s, and the subtle percussion and even the damn woodwind build to something truly magical, that affecting assurance, “No, I’ve never been close, but I’ve never been far away.” The latter is a slow burning recollection of his mother’s death, as quiet and contemplative as “I’m Not Talking” is soaring and rhapsodic. Both are fundamentally melancholy but at opposite ends of the spectrum in tone and the feelings they engender. With two bookends like these, it’s perhaps too easy to write off everything in between as not up to snuff, and while that may be unfair, it’s also inevitable – it’s these scattered moments of brilliance that make everything else seem so inconsequential. Shut Down the Streets is no doubt a flawed record, but the more I listen to it the more I see not just A.C. Newman the preternaturally gifted power-pop auteur in its failures and its successes but also Carl Newman the person, more relatable than he has ever been before.

A.C. Newman may best be known as the leader of The New Pornographers, but he has also made much-loved solo albums. These show a more personal and intimate side to Carl's songwriting, and on Shut Down The Streets, recorded in Woodstock in Upstate New York, he is joined by longtime colleague Neko Case to make one of his most gorgeous, wide-ranging records yet.
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A.C. Newman – Strings

By , October 9, 2012 10:00 am

My favorite ginger is releasing his third solo album today, entitled Shut Down the Streets on Matador Records. A.C. Newman has always been the driving force behind the New Pornographers‘, the more straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s crazy, off-kilter firebrand, and his solo work has always polished those pop instincts, oftentimes more contemplative and bucolic than his work with the New Pornos. Shut Down the Streets is probably his most mellow work yet, working in a wider palette of sounds and instruments than usual and keeping things at a steady, pastoral midtempo for much of the record. “Strings” is a perfect example, weaving slowly up through that plucked melody and booming percussion and some always welcome harmonies from fellow New Porno Neko Case, all accompanying a melody that keeps rising to a fulfilling, horn-drenched apex.

A.C. Newman – “Strings”

The New Pornographers – Together

By , May 4, 2010 12:00 pm

The New Pornographers – Together

Matador 2010

Rating: 7/10

New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman recently told Pitchfork in an interview that “sometimes the songs are definitely about something, but sometimes I just like the sound of things.” If there’s a better logic behind the long and impeccably catchy career of this indie-pop “supergroup,” I can’t find it. From 2000’s Mass Romantic to Together, the band has churned out some of the best, most intricate indie pop this side of Belle & Sebastian, but with a hell of a lot more muscle than most of their contemporaries. And it’s never been about just what exactly Newman or Neko Case or Dan Bejar have been trying to say, but rather how they’ve said it: in Case’s throaty, powerful vocals; through Bejar’s quirky, avant-pop compositions; via Newman’s distinctive brand of hyper-charged, sugar-rush pop. It’s fitting, then, that the appropriately named Together shows the band working more in sync with each other than ever before, following more along the softer side of things that Challengers explored but beefing up the hooks that that record so often lacked.

Together is nowhere near the relentless triumphs of Twin Cinema or Electric Version, but from a band that’s already made the defining power pop records of the decade, perhaps exploring new sounds isn’t so bad after all. And where Challengers ventured astray with songs that never really managed to stick, Together keeps it all from falling apart, whether it be on the hard-hitting glam-rock of thudding opener “Moves” or the riff-tastic sing-a-long “Your Hands (Together).” These are songs that throw everything and more into the melting pot of the New Pornos sound and come out the better for it. They rarely, if ever, mean anything – a song like “Silver Jenny Dollar” is so good precisely because it knows directly where the hook is and hits it hard and fast and generously, an even bigger surprise when you realize this is Dan Bejar, the New Pornos’ resident weirdo, making it to the money chorus in record time and feeling content to stay there. At times, this is a disappointment, as when a song like “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” reveals itself as perfectly acceptable pop in the realm of the New Pornos, but lacks that certain bite and vigor that made Bejar contributions like “Jackie Dressed in Cobras” or “Myriad Harbour” such rare treats.

At times, however, it seems like the New Pornos are content to rest on their laurels. Songs like “Up in the Dark” or “A Bite Out Of My Bed” would blow away their partners on any other rote power pop band’s record, but here they seem more like the New Pornos running through the motions than anything particularly groundbreaking. Despite it’s clear desire to be an epic closer in the vein of “Stacked Crooked,” “We End Up Together” really has no reason to extend past four minutes as egregiously as it does. Even songs like “Your Hands (Together)” seem like nothing special on first listen, requiring more than a few spins to appreciate the vocal interplay and the twining melodies. Thank God, then, for Neko Case, who explodes to the forefront on first single “Crash Years” and dominates Together as she has few New Pornos albums in recent memory. It’s her dynamic pipes that really hold the record together, whether in a lovely duet with Newman on “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” or making the one-two punch of “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” and “My Shepherd” the centerpiece of the album. Bejar might not up to his usual tricks, but Case more than makes up for it – her songs are what lift Together out of what could have been another insipid Challengers-esque morass and turn it into something new, something unique, and something markedly powerful in a way the New Pornos haven’t been since 2005.

While Case might be the soul behind the best songs here, Together still comes off as the band’s strongest group effort, remarkable when one considers that many of their previous efforts could be characterized with “oh, that’s a Bejar song,” and “ that one is definitely all Carl.” Here, Bejar sounds like Newman and vice versa, and while Case is more than happy to take the lead, her constant backing work ties everything together effortlessly. It’s a record that, on first listen, doesn’t really mean much and rarely has a tune that stands out like previous, more straightforward New Pornos heavyweights, but on repeated listens bears some of the best fruit of their career. Again, Newman can describe the feel of the New Pornos distinctive sound better than I could: “when I’m depressed, I don’t want to express how depressed I am. I want to somehow make myself happier . . . I’ve always found I’m much happier when I’m happier.” There hasn’t been a better blueprint for the New Pornographers’ sound and mission, and, if all else fails, Together will certainly make you smile.

The New Pornographers – “Crash Years”

2010 release, the fifth album from Canadian-US collective The New Pornographers, featuring Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar, in addition to bandleader and chief songwriter A.C. Newman. Playing to all the New Pornographers strengths, Together combines the freewheeling, glammy spirit of their debut Mass Romantic with the very personal, emotional songwriting of their most recent material. As a result, it's an album that aims to please, as exciting for the New Pornographers obsessive as for casual new listeners.
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A.C. Newman – Get Guilty

By , January 20, 2009 12:00 pm

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty

Matador Records 2009

Rating: 8/10


In a fairer world, Carl Newman would be heralded by mainstream media outlets the Western hemisphere over as one of Canada’s preeminent modern pop songwriters, the Great White North’s newer, hipper version of Sir Paul or Burt Bacharach. The brainchild behind perennial award-winners and indie mainstays the New Pornographers, Newman’s sun-kissed brand of quirky, technically accomplished baroque-pop has been imitated by many yet matched by few. Few songwriters working today can match his depth of wit and devious lyrical turns, and his immediately pleasing arrangements match the best of ‘60s pop with a properly indie experimental sensibility. With his second solo release under his “A.C.” alias, Newman does little to dispel the notion that he remains one of the most consistent entertainers of the indie world.

Newman was always the steadying force behind the New Pornographers fun-loving brand of pop. While Neko Case had her own style of countrified balladry and Dan Bejar a sense of weirdness and inexplicable charm that made its mark on any New Pornos song he wrote, Newman remained the lover of harmonic choruses, intricately developed melodies, and brilliant guitar-piano-vocal interplay. While the New Pornos’ latest, Challengers, focused more on slower tunes and diverse styles, Get Guilty harkens back to the New Pornographers of old, a guitar-drive, eminently catchy record of earnest pop-rock.

Opener “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” is suitably majestic, riding a pounding, ascending guitar line before settling into a quieter stop/start rhythm and Newman’s ambiguous lyrics to “make of that what you will.” The soft-loud dynamic works well here, alternating between brash bursts of toms and crashing chords to a lilting piano-led melody framing Newman’s distinctive pipes. Newman’s seemingly effortless ability to craft involved melodies that sound instinctive and easy. “The Heartbreak Rides” moves along cascading drums, lyrics that rhyme without even seeming to mean to, and a powerful chorus built on top of what sounds like woodwinds, a nonsensical chant of “yell-oooo,” and a pounding march of a climax.

Newman’s supporting cast fits the quality caliber of his song craft, from ex-Superchunk drummer Jon Wurst’s fine work on the breakneck pace of the South American-flavored “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer” to Mates of State’s solid backing vocal work. But it’s Newman’s record through and through. “The Palace at 4 a.m.” is vintage Newman, flowing along a propulsive beat, a perfectly placed series of “ba-ba-bas,” a sugary-sweet chorus that could match up to the best of the New Pornographers’ catalogue, and typically obtuse Newman lyrics.

Wordiness, in fact, is perhaps Newman’s biggest downfall: when he proclaims “no more pushing words around” on “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” you wish he would have taken that a bit more to heart. The best Newman songs, such as his 2004 masterpiece “Miracle Drug” to Get Guilty’s highlights, “Submarines of Stockholm” and the closing “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” are simple and effective demonstrations of the power of a well-written melody. Songs like the otherwise enjoyable, elegiac “Young Atlantis” and the jumbled mess of “Prophets” suffer from rather odd thematic choices and lyrics that flounder rather than connect with the listener.

Luckily for us, Newman doesn’t seem to be running out of interesting material anytime soon. After four New Pornographers records and now this second solo effort, along with countless extracurricular contributions, Newman’s creative flow seems to be practically unstoppable. Do yourself a favor and listen to songs like the epic “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” and the syncopated sing-a-long ode to youth that is “Thunderbolt,” and perhaps comparing him to McCartney won’t sound too far off. Get Guilty is not a groundbreaking record, and it won’t have critics grasping frantically for some obscure superlative like, say, the latest Animal Collectives release, but it’s undoubtedly excellent music: honest, with smart writing and gorgeous production, and hooks that refuse to quit.

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