Friday, October 16, 2009

#79. 'What the last ten minutes have taught me'

The New Pornographers "Letter From an Occupant"

The supergroup is a tricky proposition in any genre of music. Something about projects where more than a couple of well regarded musicians gather together has more potential for failure than for greatness because any sort of collaboration could easily wind up diluting the respective greatness of each member's input. At least that how I thought it worked, but sometimes the right people get together, regardless of past success or divergent visions, there's a certain magic that gets unleashed. The collaborative process just illuminates the best parts of each constituent member's talent and the way it melds with the others in the group makes for something above and beyond whatever they could do on their own. Are The New Pornographers the best example of this? Maybe not, but the fact that they've survived to create four albums when most supergroups don't get beyond one or two says a lo about how well the personalities involved work with each other.

The inventory of who's who in the band represents an impressive cross section of the west coast Canadian music scene, from Carl Newman of defunct power poppers Zumpano and Kurt Dahle of fringe mainstreamers Age of Electric and Limblifter to art pop/Bowie fetishist Dan Bejar of Destroyer and sultry alt country chanteuse Neko Case. The key to the group's success is that all four voices are well represented on not just the breadth of their albums but within individual songs themselves. "Letter From an Occupant" is as good an example of that as anything they've done; at first glance it could be a particularly upbeat Neko Case number and nothing more, but the more time I give to it the more the other voices in the band come to the fore. That jagged, out of nowhere burst of guitar towards the end is pure Bejar, the lyrics are a combination of Case's straightforward country-ism and Bejar's imagery-based surrealism, and the general hookiness could be either Newman or Dahle but the 'ooooh-weee-ooh's are definitely on Newman (Dahle's all about the 'bah-bah-bah's.) It's a true collaboration is what I'm getting at, not just a Neko Case song that happens to feature a bunch of other known quantities.

That said, if it really were just that I doubt it would be much lower on the list. Neko Case is a force of nature as a vocalist on her worst day, and here she's close to her best. She's on total control from the moment the song begins, drawing the attention the minute the first word leaves her mouth in a way that would carry the song completely if it needed it. Te other member may all get their moments here and there, but his is Case's baby through and through, and so much better for it. I could go on with that for a while, but the short version is that any time I hear her voice I am blown away by its strength and versatility. Her solo albums are great showcases for that, Blacklisted especially, but hearing it in the context of a full on power-pop barnburner like "Letter" just highlights how much she brings to the table in a project like this.

Coming up tomorrow: The best Interpol song of the decade, except for the part where it's not by Interpol.

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