When the New Pornographers released their first album, Mass Romantic, in 2000, they were a cult sensation, partially because they were comprised of cult sensations from Vancouver, chief among them Carl Newman of Zumpano, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and alt-country singer/songwriter Neko Case. Not longer after that first album, Case started to earn some accolades on her own, thereby raising the group's profile, which meant that their second album, 2003's Electric Version, garnered more attention than their debut. But by that point, the band had its own word-of-mouth following, large enough to attract the attention of indie rock standard-bearer Matador, who not only released the New Pornographers' sophomore effort, but Newman's superb solo album The Slow Wonder in the summer of 2004. All this set the stage for the group's third album, Twin Cinema, which arrived in late summer 2005 to rather high expectations -- after all, they not only had two fine records underneath their belt, but The Slow Wonder was also well regarded (and earned some airtime on The OC to boot), so the time seemed ripe for a masterpiece from the New Pornographers. By that standard, Twin Cinema is a disappointment, since it does not constitute either a definitive statement or a great leap forward, but by nearly every other measure, it's a success.
Like their previous two records, it's a bright, hooky record that sounds cheerful even when the tempos slow down and the melodies drift toward a minor key. It's sharp and tuneful, abundant in references to classic guitar pop yet never sounding beholden to the past, thanks to the lively, loose performances, a simple yet muscular production, and smart writing, usually from the pen of Newman. Although he writes ten of the 13 songs here (Bejar contributes the other three, including the insistent "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras" and "Broken Breads," which comes across like Syd Barrett fronting the Kinks or Robyn Hitchcock jamming with the Hoodoo Gurus, depending on your point of view), Newman has a different perspective when writing for the New Pornographers, composing within a specific framework that emphasizes the collective nature of the group, giving every member more or less equal time. And, as Twin Cinema proves, collective is a better word to describe the New Pornographers than band, since they have a friendly, casual vibe that sounds like the product of informal jam sessions. That's appealing, but it's also part of the reason that the New Pornographers can't quite deliver a masterpiece, or an album that's as strong and sustained as The Slow Wonder.
Since all contributions are treated equally, the group doesn't have a distinctive personality or focal point outside of the tunefulness of the music itself. Which is not to say that the New Pornographers lack engaging singers -- Newman has a sweet everyman voice, perfect for power pop, and Neko Case is so gripping a singer that it's hard not to wish she took the lead more often -- but there's such an emphasis on never overemphasizing any specific member that the music winds up humble to a fault. Which is why the New Pornographers are more of an indie band than a power pop band: instead of trading in titanic hooks and glistening surfaces, they make deliberately small-scale, insular music that cuts its classicist nature with enigmatic, sometimes impenetrable lyrics and ragged performances. While that may keep the group from power pop greatness, there's no denying that they're charming in their modesty, which is what makes Twin Cinema an endearing listen, if not a flat-out knockout. Like the previous two New Pornographers albums, there are plenty of great tunes here -- including the hard-rocking, invigorating title track, the urgent "Use It," and the moody, meditative "These Are the Fables" -- that are reminiscent of classic '60s and '70s guitar pop without specifically sounding like any band in particular. The hooks and harmonies tumble out one after another, as the band plays with energy and enthusiasm that falls somewhat short of being truly exciting, yet the catchiness of the songs is a good compensation for that. All this adds up to a very enjoyable record, one that compares favorably to what the band has done before, even if its modest nature suggests that the New Pornographers have found their niche, and will continue to refine it instead of expand upon it. While that may disappoint some waiting for a masterpiece, there's no shame in mining the same ground as long as they make records as tight and tuneful as this. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine