Sunday, May 1, 2011

A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009)



The first time I listened to Get Guilty, I dismissed it almost right away as going too far in the "record collector rock" direction suggested by some of Carl Newman's material with the New Pornographers. When I listen to Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema and trip out on their pure and ample pleasures, there's this feeling in the back of my mind -- I get it with Beulah and Apples in Stereo records as well -- that the songs are just ever-so-slightly close to going past chorus and hook-filled pop bliss into being just, well, annoying. The tension generated from teetering on that edge and rarely falling over gives the band a lot of their spunky, outrageous appeal, solving a problem the Cars struggled with throughout their post-debut career (they ended up making their music overly anonymous in reaction). It doesn't help that Guilty is Newman's first real project to surface after the Pornographers' Challengers, an underrated and actually quite lovely album but still an undeniable game-changer and turnaround for them, with a hint of parade's-gone-by heartbreak and loss reminiscent of early-'80s Kinks. Album centerpiece "Prophets" comes across as a direct sequel to that flawed LP, but its strangely uneven, memorable but difficult chorus calls another UK luminary immediately to mind: Paul McCartney.

More specifically, Paul McCartney in the '70s. The most apt comparison for the way Get Guilty initially came off to me is suggested by conjuring up the excited claims I made about the New Pornographers on first discovering them and thinking of their unmitigated joy and pop subservience and audience connection as our equivalent to the Beatles; they were the band that frankly made the indie rock of the 2000s come alive for me and become visibly worth my consideration. So therefore, Get Guilty reminds me of Wings... one member of the supergroup running amok, with none of the filtering his very talented fellow Pornographers usually provide, so that his skill at crafting melodies and hooks that burrow their ways into your skull and refuse to leave is more prominent than ever... but as with Wings, there's the question of whether you really want these tunes in there. The repetition of these uproariously catchy bits and pieces can come off initially as, to put in kindly, a bit grating. It's hard not to grimace at the application of Newman's pop smarts to songs as plodding as "Thunderbolts" and poorly placed opener "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve," and a song as persuasively complex, so lovingly designed for a journey of upheaval, as "The Heartbreak Rides" deserves a far stronger chorus than the letdown nonentity provided.

Happily, Newman's second album is deceptive and intricate in ways its predecessor, the more immediately pleasurable Slow Wonder, did not approach. By a third or fourth runthrough, the sophistication and undercurrent and even the jugular pleasures of the songs, the accents that his band might have made more pronounced, come into stunning focus. One lesson: the record isn't made for headphones and needs to be played as loud as possible. Sure, Newman, like McCartney, is more difficult to love when his intensity and raw populist eccentricities are not diluted by any outside force, but his songs still have hidden treasures and subtleties to discover, which makes the record easier going as familiarity grows -- there's a lot more going on here than in Wings at the Speed of Sound or something -- and there's even something to be said for the album's misdirected "bigness" and its immensely charming fliching before its own hedonism, the good-time rock & roll clichés meeting with nice-guy hesitation.

Newman rounds out his lineup variously with the ever-reliable Jon Wurster, appealingly Neko Case-like backing vocalist Nicole Atkins, and most interestingly, Lawrence's Mates of State, a band that's made a career out of toying with pop structure to render it twisted and unrecognizable but still subliminally pleasurable, an appropriate correspondence for the songwriting here that would never occur in a New Pornos setting. Note the way that "Like a Hitman Like a Dancer" tosses halting rhythms on an NPs-like arrangement. On "Submarines of Stockholm," Newman and cohorts add dynamic extremism and a defiant (if slightly dated, maybe on purpose) Midwestern college rock sound to a tune that's otherwise indistiguishable from the New Pornographers. Newman still has a taste for pop gimmicry to which he totally gives in on "Elemental," complete with well-timed falsetto, but the new crew gives him license to cut loose on the unexpected British Invasion stomper "All of My days and All of My Days Off," which degenerates into a lovely singalong worthy of his greatest work.

The second half of Get Guilty changes things up a bit; the songs are stronger and come on less empathically, offering more room to breathe, with a heretofore unexplored (at least, as far as I can remember) Brian Wilson fixation that manifests itself quite gorgeously on "The Palace at 4 AM." The track's towering intensity marks a clear debt to the Wrecking Crew (and there seems to be a bit of Hal Blaine-infested Wurster drumming on "The Changeling" as well), while the Smile-like "Young Atlantis" is such a standout it scarcely seems to belong on the record. The sweet string arrangement, the vocal sophistication, and the feel of an extremely softened Pornographers track add up to an injecion of something that seems outside Guilty's emotional scope, and indeed outside of the pleasure-upon-pleasure devotion of much of Newman's work to date. On reflection, it's surprising that the following year's NP return Together did not move farther in this direction. More reflection of its sort could prove revitalizing.

But hey, a Wings album isn't necessarily a bad thing; "The Changeling (Get Guilty)" is a triumph, building drama with its very '70s Paul-Linda-Denny solidity. McCartney wasn't always hard to listen to in the '70s, and he was always interesting... and always impeccably skilled. I was immediately crazy for The Slow Wonder, but that was tempered by a feeling that it was Carl Newman on autopilot -- that he could've written and performed it without more than a modicum of effort and it would've still been just as strong. In many ways, I prefer the trickier and much more difficult Get Guilty; it's almost too much at times, like an over-the-top disaster flick, but that seems to be a function of who Newman is. Perhaps it feels more endearing because it's so personal. You can hear when he's pushing himself, and that always manifests with the New Pornographers in the feeling of sheer joy and smart tweakery that made them the astounding band they were at their peak, and still are if you catch them live on a night like we did last June. That version of ringleader A.C. Newman guest stars here in "The Collected Works" -- bouncy, feverish and ferocious, and just a little bit back-of-the-room dorky. Here's to seeing and hearing where the dork takes it from here.

The Slow Wonder (2004)

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