Posts Tagged ‘Together’

Following the success of the Rock Machine albums CBS came up with a trio of new samplers during 1970 and 1971.  First up in March 1970 was Fill Your Head With Rock.  Priced at 29s/11d (£1.50) and boldly subtitled “The Sound of the Seventies” it broke new ground by extending the format to a double album for the first time.  Resplendent on the cover, bare-chested with long hair flying, was a colourised image of Jerry Goodman, violinist with Chicago jazz rockers the Flock (but soon to join the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  The iconic photograph was the same one used on the back cover of the Flock’s self-titled CBS debut album, except much larger and in colour. “The Sound of the Seventies” tag was used to advertise many CBS LPs during 1970.

Compiler David Howells stated that while the earlier Rock Machine samplers were aimed at promoting specific full-price releases, this record was part of a major push to establish CBS as “the top label in contemporary music” in the UK.  Of the 23 tracks, 16 came from US artists, six were by UK acts and one (Amory Kane) was by an American living and recording in Britain with UK musicians.  There was nothing from Bob Dylan this time, but several artists, including Spirit, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen, Al Stewart, Taj Mahal, Blood Sweat & Tears and Laura Nyro had appeared on the earlier Rock Machine LPs.  New arrivals such as folk rock hopefuls Trees and prog debutants Black Widow and Skin Alley got a chance to rub shoulders with the big names. Fill Your Head With Rock reached #19 in the Melody Maker LP charts in March 1970 and early copies included an eight-page booklet insert.

With its striking image of a pre-fame Arnold Schwarzenegger in full “Mr. Universe” pose taking up the entire gatefold sleeve (which opened vertically), Rockbuster surely has one of the most recognisable covers of all the CBS samplers.  Stylistically, though, the gaudy artwork left much to be desired and, Arnie notwithstanding, the frightful red and yellow striped design could have come straight from the fevered imagination of K-Tel or Ronco.  But perhaps that was the intention.

FILL YOUR HEAD WITH ROCK (CBS SPR 39/40) 1970

ROCKBUSTER (CBS PR48/49) 1970

Overseen by David Howells again, the Rockbuster double set saw the return of Bob Dylan with “Days of 49”, a track from the unloved (by the critics, if not the fans) Self Portrait album.  Elsewhere, the Byrds, Argent, Spirit, Trees, Black Widow, BS&T, Johnny Winter and Al Kooper were again represented.  New this time out were cuts by Miles Davis (continuing his foray into the jazz rock fusion world), Soft Machine, Gary Farr, Robert Wyatt and (fresh from his appearance on Zappa’s Hot Rats album) Shuggie Otis.  Of the 26 tracks on the double album, the US/UK split was 17/9 this time.

The final CBS sampler from this period was Together, released in April 1971.  Although just a single LP, early UK copies were pressed on blue vinyl (a big deal back then) with an eight-page newspaper insert.  The usual suspects, including Laura Nyro, Spirit, Byrds, Trees, Argent and Johnny Winter were joined this time by Poco, Janis Joplin and the Chambers Brothers.  Mainland European pressings of Together substituted the Soft Machine track with one by Norwegian band Titanic who scored a big hit late in 1971 with the Santana influenced instrumental “Sultana”.

TOGETHER (CBS SPR 52) 1971

But it was CBS who really popularised the sampler format in Britain with their Rock Machine albums.  Initiated in January 1968 by Columbia Records’ US president Clive Davis but compiled and overseen in the UK by CBS art director and sleeve designer David Howells, The Rock Machine Turns You On is often cited as the first true UK budget priced rock sampler.

Offering unparalleled value for money at a shade under 15 shillings (75p), at a time when a full-price album retailed at £2 or more, The Rock Machine Turns You On and the follow-up, Rock Machine I Love You proved irresistible to a generation of record buyers, selling well enough to enter the mainstream charts and going on to move an estimated 150,000 copies each.

Glaser designed the iconic poster which originally came with the 1967 US version of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits LP and also the sleeve of Paul Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.  He even created his own typeface font called “Baby Teeth”.  First seen on the Dylan poster mentioned above, in 1973 the font was adopted as the main Columbia/CBS label typeface and used until the late 1990s.

CBS: PART 1 – The ROCK MACHINE

Both Rock Machine LPs featured the same painfully hip sleeve notes which read: The Rock Machine is a Machine with Soul The Rock Machine isn’t a grind-you-up.  It’s a wind-you-up.  The sound is driving.  The sound is searching.  The sound is music.  It’s your bag. So it’s ours. It’s the Super Stars.  And the Poets.  It’s the innovators and the Underground.  It’s the Loners and the Lovers.  And it’s more.  Much more…David Howells was involved with several other CBS releases, including the 1970 samplers Fill Your Head With Rock and Rockbuster (yes, the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover, see below) before helping to launch the Gull label, a subsidiary of Decca, which he ran from 1974 to 1982.  Howells was then appointed managing director of Pete Waterman’s PWL Records, the label which gave us Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan.  It was a very long way from the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.

ROCK MACHINE I LOVE YOU (CBS S/PR 26) 1968

In 1989 there was an attempt to transfer both Rock Machine LPs to CD but this ran into problems right away.  Long-expired licensing rights meant the track listing was reduced from 30 songs to just 20 and the CD looked very different to the original albums.  Gone was Bob Dylan, Roy Harper, the Zombies, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera and Simon & Garfunkel.  One of the two Byrds’ tracks was also dropped.  In their place were a pair of cuts by electric violin exponents the Flock and It’s A Beautiful Day, both of which fell slightly outside the time frame of the original 1968 LPs (although “Tired of Waiting” by the Flock later appeared on another CBS sampler, Fill Your Head With Rock in 1970.

In 1967 CBS launched the Direction label to issue mainly* American soul and R&B records in the UK and a sampler titled Soul Direction appeared in 1968.  Stretching the piscine sole/soul pun to absolute breaking point, a flatfish of some description was pictured on the cover.  Despite releasing some great music, Direction didn’t flourish, and CBS closed the label in 1970.

*There was a degree of cross pollination between labels, as US bluesman Taj Mahal and UK psych outfit Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera were both signed to Direction in the UK, yet their tracks appeared on the CBS Rock Machine albums.

HARVEST – LIFE’s A PICNIC

In the early 70s few record companies immersed themselves in the nascent underground rock movement more comprehensively than the Harvest label.  Formed in 1969 by EMI to compete with other major players in the prog rock scene such as Vertigo, Deram and Chris Blackwell’s independent Island label, Harvest was one of those rare companies where virtually every release in their catalogue was worthy of attention.  In its first year alone the label gave us records by Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Edgar Broughton Band and Shirley & Dolly Collins, with albums by Roy Harper, The Move and ELO not far behind.  It really was a case of “All Killer, No Filler”.

But the main drawcard was the otherwise unavailable Pink Floyd track “Embryo”.  Recorded in November 1968, the studio outtake appeared nowhere else until 1983 when it was included on Floyd’s Works oddities compilation.  Picnic sold well, especially for a double album, reaching #14 in the Melody Maker album charts in July 1970.

A second sampler The Harvest Bag arrived in November 1971.  Employing a tortuous visual pun on the “budget price album” theme, the cover photo showed what was presumably intended to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer standing outside number 11 Downing Street holding aloft his ceremonial briefcase, or “bag” (complete with Harvest logo) containing, we assumed, the, ahem, Budget.  Despite some solid contributions from Roy Harper, the Grease Band, ELO, Edgar Broughton Band and others, The Harvest Bag flew under the radar and is now largely forgotten.

Other excellent Harvest samplers, including Harvest Sweeties (1971) and A Good Harvest (1973), appeared in mainland Europe, but they were not released in the UK.

PICNIC – A BREATH OF FRESH AIR (Harvest SHSS 1/2) 1970

Retailing at 29s/11d (a shade under £1.50) the first Harvest sampler album, Picnic – A Breath Of Fresh Air, arrived in May 1970.  Clad in a distinctive Hipgnosis designed sleeve, the 19-track double album featured a wildly diverse mix of folk, rock, blues, prog and assorted obscurities by the likes of Quatermass, Bakerloo, Forest, Third Ear Band, Pete Brown & Piblokto and Syd Barrett.

But the main drawcard was the otherwise unavailable Pink Floyd track “Embryo”.  Recorded in November 1968, the studio outtake appeared nowhere else until 1983 when it was included on Floyd’s Works oddities compilation.  Picnic sold well, especially for a double album, reaching #14 in the Melody Maker album charts in July 1970.

The Picnic – A Breath Of Fresh Air name reappeared in 2007 on a triple CD sub-titled A Harvest Records Anthology 1969–1974.  But while the title and artwork were similar, the CD shared only three tracks with the 1970 vinyl release (Pink Floyd, Panama Limited and Quatermass).

THE HARVEST BAG (Harvest SHSS3) 1971

THE HOUSE THAT TRACK BUILT (Track 613016) 1969

Track – The Revolution’s Here

Formed in 1966 by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, Track Records is probably best known as the UK home of Jimi Hendrix and the Who.  But the label had other less illustrious signings such as John’s Children (featuring Marc Bolan), Golden Earring, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Marsha Hunt and Pete Townshend protégés Thunderclap Newman.

Track was late to the sampler market, but they soon made up for lost time, releasing around 20 budget compilations and reissues between 1969 and 1973.  First up in September 1969 was the excellent The House That Track Built offering genuinely rare tracks by Fairport Convention, The Who, John’s Children and Thunderclap Newman alongside more obvious fare from Hendrix and Arthur Brown.  The jewel in the crown was undoubtedly an unreleased studio version of The Who’s “Young Man Blues”, as recorded during the Tommy sessions.  It’s a different take to the other studio version added to the expanded Odds and Sods compilation in 1998 and hard to find elsewhere.

The laminated gatefold sleeve was designed by David King who also worked on The Who Sell Out and Jimi’s Axis: Bold As Love sleeves, as well as the infamous Electric Ladyland UK “nude” cover and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.  In the 70s King designed posters and logos for the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Rock Against Racism.  An art historian with a special interest in Leon Trotsky, part of his huge collection of 250,000 Soviet graphics and photographs is housed in the Tate Modern, London.

But the most well-known Track samplers are undoubtedly the Backtrack series.  Comprising 14 volumes in total, they were all released during 1970, the first batch appearing in May of that year, with the rest following in November.  No record company today would dare release an LP showing a little kid smoking a fat joint on the cover.  But the first six Backtrack volumes did exactly that.  The picture was retained for the second batch in the series, albeit greatly reduced in size and relegated to a corner of the sleeve.

The Backtrack series was part of Polydor’s budget price “99” series, introduced in 1970 and used across the entire family of labels (including Atlantic releases before 1972, see below).  Most releases carried the “99” logo in the top left corner of the sleeves denoting the 99p price, a year ahead of decimalisation in 1971.

The Backtrack albums were superseded in 1973 by Allsorts, a series of four budget samplers individually titled Aniseed, Peppermint, Coconut and Liquorice.  The name comes from Liquorice Allsorts, a type of confectionery first produced in Sheffield by George Bassett & Co Ltd around 1900.

The first three LPs were general rock compilations while Liquorice Allsorts was devoted specifically to R&B/Soul artists, just as Backtrack 6 had been.  Curiously, alongside the familiar Track artists on Aniseed, Peppermint and Coconut Allsorts were three cuts each by Joe Cocker, the Move and Procol Harum.  All three artists were signed to David Platz’s Essex Music and had recorded for the recently defunct Regal Zonophone label before transferring to Fly Records around 1971, which in turn became the Cube label.  Presumably, the nine Essex Music tracks were part of a one-off licencing agreement just for the Track Allsorts samplers.

The track titles were embossed in braille on the back cover of each LP, an innovation Track also used on the Who’s 1974 Odds & Sods album sleeve.  This became a trend for a while, with braille messages appearing on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (1972) and Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway (1973).

TRACK ALLSORTS SAMPLERS (1973)

2409 205 – Various Artists – Aniseed Allsorts
2409 206 – Various Artists – Peppermint Allsorts
2409 207 – Various Artists – Coconut Allsorts
2409 208 – Various Artists – Liquorice Allsorts

MARMALADE 100° PROOF (Marmalade 643314) 1969

Marmalade – The Sound That Spreads

Created in 1966 by former Rolling Stones and Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky, the independent Marmalade label lasted only a couple of years before folding in 1969, leaving behind just 14 LPs and around 20 singles.  Despite (or perhaps due to) a wildly eclectic artist roster which included Blossom Toes, Chris Barber, Sonny Boy Williamson and John McLaughlin, sales were disappointing and only one single, “This Wheel’s on Fire” by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity entered the UK charts, reaching #5 in late 1967.

Released in 1969, Marmalade 100° Proof (wittily subtitled A Taste Of Marmalade – The Sound That Spreads) was the only UK sampler LP on the label (although at least one other title appeared in Europe).  All the label’s big names were represented, plus rare tracks by French guitarist Robert Lelievre [billed as “Le Lievre (The Hare)”] and future 10cc members Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley.

IMMEDIATE LETS YOU IN

Immediate Lets You In was issued as a CD in 1999 on the Sequel label.  The track listing was unchanged but the card sleeve was upgraded from black & white to colour.

The following year Immediate tried again with Happy To Be A Part Of The Industry Of Human Happiness.  Once again, the Small Faces were the main drawcard alongside a pair of album cuts from Steve Marriott’s new band Humble Pie, then in their early psych/acoustic rock incarnation with Peter Frampton.  Fleetwood Mac’s big hit single (and their only Immediate release) “Man Of The World” was included together with another hard to find Mayall/Clapton track “On Top Of The World”.  In Germany a sampler titled Immediate Lets You In Vol.2 appeared in 1969.  Although not identical, the track listing was very similar to Happy To Be A Part Of The Industry Of Human Happiness.

The title Happy To Be A Part Of The Industry Of Human Happiness became the official Immediate slogan and appeared on the generic company sleeves of their late 60s singles.  It was all for nothing, however, as the label went out of business in 1970.  The Immediate catalogue has since passed though many hands, including NEMS, Sanctuary and Charley Records, who currently own the label logo.  In 2000 Happy To Be A Part Of The Industry Of Human Happiness was the sub-title of The Immediate Singles Collection, a six CD box set containing the A & B sides of every single released on the label – 162 tracks in all.

Immediate released several other late 60s compilation albums, including the four volume Blues Anytime series and Anthology Of British Blues Volumes 1 & 2, but they don’t qualify as sampler albums.

IMMEDIATE – The INDUSTRY OF HUMAN HAPPINESS

The success of the CBS LPs didn’t go unnoticed and before 1968 was out, other record companies were rushing their own sampler LPs onto the market.  One of the first was from Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label.

Other than the Small Faces, Chris Farlowe and the Nice, Immediate didn’t have too many big names on the artist roster and their first sampler Immediate Lets You In suffered accordingly.  But the rare John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ single “Telephone Blues” featuring Eric Clapton was a worthy inclusion.

ALL GOOD CLEAN FUN (United Artists UDX 201/2) 1971

Many of the artists who had appeared on the Liberty label found themselves shunted sideways onto United Artists and some turned up on the 1971 double LP All Good Clean Fun.  Arriving in an intricate textured “envelope” cover with custom inner sleeves and a 12-page booklet, this was one of the most elaborate samplers to date.  The complex design construction proved problematic when buyers tried filing the album at home, however.  Inevitably, the three fragile flaps which held the “envelope” sleeve together fouled the albums around it, causing all kinds of collateral damage and it’s rare to find a copy of All Good Clean Fun today without some evidence of this.  But the basic idea was good and the design mightily impressive.

The front cover shows a cartoon illustration of three Victorian figures seated in what looks like a railway carriage.  The young lad in the middle closely resembles Lord Snooty from The Beano comic and, as if to pinpoint the demographic the compilers were aiming for with this sampler, the boy is holding a copy of the notorious underground magazine Oz, while the older men look on.  Fun fact: The copy of Oz shown on the sleeve is the genuine issue #33 with a cover date of February/March 1971.  Articles listed on the front of that issue include “Farmer’s Daughter Rapes Hog – Exclusive interview”, “Angry Brigade’s Bible” and “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”.  The cover of issue #33 used an illustration by Australian artist Norman Lindsay.

Containing 23 tracks by 20 artists, the double LP featured an interesting mix of established names (Canned Heat, Groundhogs, If, Eric Burdon & War, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and newer bands including Man, Hawkwind, Amon Duul II, Brinsley Schwartz and B.B.Blunder.  Three bands (Canned Heat, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Morning) were represented by two tracks each.

To promote the album Man, Help Yourself and Gypsy embarked on “The All Good Clean Fun Tour” of Switzerland.  This gave rise to the song “All Good Clean Fun” on Man’s 1971 fourth album Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In?

In 2004 a cumbersomely-titled 39 track triple CD All Good Clean Fun – A Journey through the Underground of Liberty/United Artists Records 1967–1975 was released.  Although the cover artwork was remarkably similar, the CD featured fewer than half the tracks included on the original 1971 double LP.

GUTBUCKET (AN UNDERWORLD ERUPTION) (Liberty LBX3) 1969

SON OF GUTBUCKET (Liberty LBX 4) 1969

Formed in 1955 as a pop/easy listening/film music label, Liberty records almost went out of business in the mid-60s before the UK arm was aggressively re-launched in 1967.  Liberty then began to assemble an impressive roster of diverse rock/blues talent before finally crashing and burning in 1971, with most artists being transferred to the United Artists parent label.

But it was great fun while it lasted, and in 1969 Liberty issued a pair of much-loved sampler albums.  The first of these, Gutbucket (An Underworld Eruption), has achieved legendary status with an eclectic mix of blues, psychedelia, and underground rock.  Here was Captain Beefheart, the Bonzo Dog Band, Canned Heat and the Groundhogs rubbing shoulders with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Alexis Korner, Hapshash & the Coloured Coat, and the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation.

A German pressing of Gutbucket was released with only 10 tracks (instead of 14) and a different back cover.  In fact, only seven tracks correspond with the UK version, as a different Canned Heat song was used (“Catfish Blues” replaced “Pony Blues”) and tracks by German bands the Motherhood and the Petards were substituted elsewhere.

Later in 1969 came Son Of Gutbucket.  Once again Canned Heat, the Groundhogs and Aynsley Dunbar were featured, along with Roy Harper, T.I.M.E, Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jeff Lynne’s band Idle Race. 

Both albums were reissued in 1994 on the EMI CD Gutbucket (An Underworld Eruption), but minus six of the original 31 tracks.  Gone were cuts by Roy Harper, CCR, Famous Jug Band, Ian Anderson’s Country Blues Band and two by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation.

A “gutbucket” was an improvised bass made by attaching a broom handle to a metal washtub.  It was similar to the tea chest bass which was popular during the UK skiffle craze of the 50s.  The word was later used to describe any music of a raw, bluesy nature.

The New Pornographers emerged in 2000, a conglomerate of talent from regionally successful Canadian bands like Zumpano, Destroyer, and Limblifter. Led by A.C. Newman, the band spotlighted Neko Case’s warm, sumptuous voice and Dan Bejar’s offbeat songs on a handful of tracks each album. They had their winning formula in place right off the bat – upbeat songs with complex chord changes, ornate harmonies, and clever arrangements. You could call them indie pop, power pop, pop/rock, but if you’re a fan of intelligent studio crafted guitar pop, The New Pornographers are one of the leading exponents of the genre in the 21st century.

There’s one thing to get straight about the New Pornographers. Even if you’ve ever listened to Limblifter, Immaculate Machine, the Evaporators, and yes, Zumpano, enlisting one member apiece from these bands does not make Carl Newman’s reigning power-pop coalition a “supergroup.” The New Pornographers, long-shining indie stars themselves for 17 years now, contain exactly two members whose solo fame is comparable to or larger than that of the New Pornographers: alt-country brainiac Neko Case, and Dan Bejar, who enjoys rapturous critical acclaim as the simultaneously showy and esoteric Destroyer.

The band is also known for Newman of course, but that ain’t because of his Zumpano work. He earned his winning reputation as a magician of hooks through this very band, and sure, the PR boost from being an alleged “supergroup” (albeit one comprised of artists no one had heard of in 2000) helped that legend in ways that don’t quite make sense in 2017. But ultimately this outfit, currently stocked with eight people, is famous for doing one thing: making loads of catchy, well-harmonized tunes whose often mysterious lyricism genuinely appears to have meaning to it, even if it’s often hard to decipher.

By contrast, their hooks are some of indie-rock’s most roundly pleasurable: “The Laws Have Changed,” “Use It,” “Letter From An Occupant,” “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” Even though this quirky but profoundly normal band has never enjoyed a level of influence to match say, Animal Collective or Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ respective moments in the sun, few recent rock fans dispute the fact that the New Pornographers have made seven albums of rarely challenged listenability. Only Spoon get talked about with such matching consistency, and frankly, their formalism is a lot warier of the sweet spot; even if you disagree, you’re less likely to sing along with long stretches of a Spoon album. This is partly unfair, because the New Pornographers have so many voices emphasizing and counterpointing their most brilliant moments that they’re pretty much showing you how a crowd would already sound chanting them. But rock ‘n’ roll is unfair.

Together (2010)

You’d be hard-pressed to find much of a narrative that explains why six other New Pornographers albums worked more than this one. There are clear anthems (one that even goes “put your hands together”) and the same three Dan Bejar contributions as usual. Even trying to explain why the usual brightly lit Neko Case single “Crash Years” has some weary element to it is hard; the band’s two most recent albums stake out fairly familiar territory and yet they don’t feel like they’re falling back on something. The New Pornographers’ fifth album just has some unmistakable “another one” feel to it despite plenty of legible hooks and an emphasis of string instruments on the steady-climbing opener “Moves” that should stand out more than it does.

It’s only in the album’s second half that anything emerges that could compete for territory on a best-of: the rollicking “Up In The Dark” with its rousing “What’s love? What’s love?” choruses, the gorgeous, banjo- and piano-employing ballad “Valkyrie In The Roller Disco” with its Fripp-and-Eno-esque guitar solo, and Dan Bejar’s electric orchestral waltz “Daughters Of Sorrow” that finally puts those grandiose strings to memorable use.

The New Pornographers continued the mellower sound of Challengers with their fifth album. Songs like ‘Valkyrie in the Roller Disco’ and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’ are gentle and low key. Challengers is notable for the high number of guest appearances, including St. Vincent, Will Sheff, and Zach Condon, although the guest appearances are subdued enough not to overly influence the sound of the record.

Favourite track: ‘Silver Jenny Dollar’ (Bejar)

Twin Cinema (2005)

For many, the New Pornographers’ third album is the New Pornographers album. That’s largely due to the extravagant goodwill afforded by four of its tunes: the rickety shuffle and heavenly chorus of “Use It,” the chugging, psychedelic ’60s garage of “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras,” the insistent and inextricable-from-your-cranium momentum of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” whose riff you’re singing along to well before the band adds their own “Listening too long/ To one song” lyric overtop, and, finally, the penultimate “Streets Of Fire,” which is probably the friendliest melody Bejar has ever composed. These are four of this band’s greatest, most joyful successes ever, layered precisely with parts that are in no way simple, yet go down like chocolate to the ears.

Then there are the 10 other songs, such as “Three Or Four” or “The Bones Of An Idol,” which top out at “interesting,” none less than pretty good and none with another hook again as all-encompassing as “Use It.” The bookends “Twin Cinema” and “Stacked Crooked” come closer than others, but the title tune is a particular harbinger of the other thing wrong with the band’s most explicit batch of hits-and-filler to date: Its crude banging and narrow audio scope portends this album’s shocking downgrade in production quality from the band’s first two albums. There’s never a moment that truly bursts from the speakers, and if there’s something else as good as the four best songs here, blame the flat, vaguely cavernous sonics for half-burying anything on the premises that isn’t surefire.

It’s reasonable to categorise The New Pornographers’ first couple of albums as high velocity, and their later albums as more ornate and subdued. Third album Twin Cinema captures them at the perfect place in their evolution between youthful enthusiasm and adult sophistication. And it’s full of great songs like ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, ‘The Bones of an Idol’, and ‘Jackie Dressed in Cobras’.

Challengers (2007)

In total contrast to Twin Cinema, its follow-up, Challengers, is the New Pornographers album that’s most guilty-till-proven-innocent. It’s easily the band’s least immediate album, with even fewer obvious hits than Together. But they’re worth finding: The opener and single “My Rights Versus Yours” echoes the widescreen gallop of “Use It” with even sweeter backing vocals and “Mutiny, I Promise You” is an addictive Rubik’s Cube of a rocker, equally punk and prog in its wall-slamming chord changes and sudden rhythm stops due to its bizarre time signature that switches between 4/4 and 2/4. Best of all may be the title track, a swirling Case-sung ballad that somehow employs the only prominent acoustic guitars in the New Pornographers catalog. Fan favorite “Myriad Harbour” is here too, if Bejar’s idea of a silly song is yours, too.

A.C. Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder joined the band in time for their fourth album, adding a second female voice. While there’s upbeat power pop like ‘All The Old Showstoppers’, the meat of Challengers is in the mellow tunes like ‘Go Places’ and the title track, while Bejar shines with ‘Myriad Harbour’ and ‘Entering White Cecilia’.

But more importantly, Challengers’ filler is just more interesting and harmonically diverse than that of its predecessor. Check out the low-buzzing horns on the bluesy throwaway “Failsafe,” or the multiple hoop-jumps of the key-switching orchestral passages of “All The Old Showstoppers.” This is the band’s least comforting album, as many sequences don’t land where a trained pop ear would expect them to, but the adventurousness has aged better and sounds less aimless than it did 10 years ago.

Brill Bruisers (2014)

Behold, the synths. By 2014, it was declared law that any respectable indie-pop stalwarts still kicking around had to buck up and get a sequencer in the mix. But that’s just décor; it’s the songs that dazzle, the chord changes that spin your head, the harmonies that soothe and formed a backbone to the Vancouver ensemble’s most captivating album in years.

Strong from start to finish, Brill Bruisers uses every weapon in the band’s arsenal, whether charging hard (“Dancehall Domine”), glistening placidly (“Another Drug Deal Of The Heart”), throwing memorable obliqueness into the air (“You’re gonna need your body,” chants the gorgeous “Fantasy Fools”), or a slogan worthy of their craft (“They say we can’t make this stuff up/ But what else could we make?” inquires Case on the candy-coated militaristics of “Marching Orders”). Even the stuff that seems a little annoying at first — the “bo-ba-bo-ba-ba-bo” hook of the title tune, Dan Bejar’s goofy-serious delivery on the burbling “War On The East Coast” — accrues heft over time. If only the last few tunes (hi, “Spidyr”!) didn’t trail off slightly.

I enjoyed the more mellow New Pornographers albums that preceded Brill Bruisers, but the return to a high energy approach is welcome here. The opening track is irresistibly upbeat and energetic, and Newman stated that “I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down and the music reflects that.”

Favourite Track – ‘Brill Bruisers’ (Newman) – but let’s watch Bejar’s ‘War on the East Coast’, where Newman lip syncs all the lyrics on Bejar’s behalf.

 Whiteout Conditions (2017)

Except for Together, which is kind of a reheated mush of every New Pornographers album, the group’s other six albums all divide neatly into pairs, thusly: Mass Romantic and Electric Version as uncorked power-pop fizz with barely a moment to catch one’s breath, Twin Cinema and Challengers as two different sides of a more prog- and art-rock-informed version of same, and finally, Brill Bruisers and Whiteout Conditions injecting synthesized rhythm elements into a trickier and more urgent version of the formula. Call these most recent triumphs more horizontal and propulsive forward as opposed to the grand architecture of how the older releases stacked up vertically.

The New Pornographers most recent album is their only record not to feature Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and it feels incomplete without the three quirky songs he usually contributes. But it’s still a very strong record, updating their sound with more electronics, but not departing from their core strengths of melodic, harmony filled songs.

Favourite track: ‘High Ticket Attractions’ (Newman)

Whiteout Conditions is the most monotonous New Pornographers album by some distance, as Carl Newman explicitly stated it’s chiefly influenced by the train-like motions of Krautrock. It’s also the most explicitly political, because even Canadians can’t keep their jaw from dropping at Trump’s blatant atrociousness. So repetition plus conviction equals, what, punk? Not quite, not on a record whose big showstopper is entitled “This Is The World Of The Theater.” But you can hear it foaming around the edges, in the chunky T. Rex-goes-Magnetic Fields groove of “Darling Shade,” in the robotic, distorted squeal of Neko Case’s glorious opener “Play Money,” or the chugging call-and-response of the anti-Trump single “High Ticket Attractions.” There’s a hard-driving relentlessness to the band’s seventh album, even on a moment of relief like “We’ve Been Here Before,” that hasn’t been heard on a New Pornographers album since their debut 17 years ago. It’s also their least complicated and most explicit record by some distance. So, punk? Maybe.

Electric Version (2003)

For some reason, the New Pornographers never again utilized the grand and vacuum-packed production of their first two albums. Just compare the bleeding-decibel straightness of 2017’s “Play Money” with the beautiful full-room-yet-tight-and-close drum sounds that kick off 2003’s “The Electric Version” and the parent album of the same name. Electric Version is the band’s shiniest record, which doesn’t mean it’s slick. It’s just one of the most wonderfully produced indie-rock albums of all-time, with keyboards sizzling in and around the mix, every lead vocal distinct and upfront, every drum hit bouncing and echoing off what appear to be walls and a floor, while guitars crunch and punch like boxers in a ring.

You can hear every distinct element on Electric Version perfectly balanced with loads of density and space in tandem: the glammy riffage and “woo-hoos” of Bejar’s surprisingly sassy “Chump Change” (though that “lesbian rage” line might scan more groaningly of late), the arcade-game bloops of “From Blown Speakers” that give way to full-chorus chanting, the ear-massaging organ and keyboards all over the place. And Case positively shoots out of the mix on the explosive, strutting “The Laws Have Changed,” which is arguably the most perfect song these unencumbered perfectionists have ever constructed. The others aren’t far behind.

The New Pornographers added more punch to their intricate songcraft on their second album, adding lead guitarist Todd Fancey to beef up their sound. The best known song is ‘The Laws Have Changed’, where Case, as she often does, steals the show, but I’ve always been partial to the tension build and release of ‘From Blown Speakers’.

Mass Romantic (2000)

Bands that write songs this fully realized tend to make their masterpiece down the road after the initial clamor of the debut has died down, and it’s true, Whiteout Conditions and even Brill Bruisers aren’t far from being Mass Romantic’s equals. Electric Version might’ve easily occupied this spot as well, and on the right day it does, though its more than the sum of its parts due to its gorgeous production. Mass Romantic has the parts, the whole, and a desperation that storms the castle like few other power-pop records; compare the seasick churn of Weezer’s “My Name Is Jonas,” for instance, to the way the song “Mass Romantic” kicks like a mule from the speakers.

Unsurprisingly, the band’s finest album is the only one to feature songwriting credits from the ever-clever Case, whose sardonic power helps the title track rocket off into Newman’s unfortunately relevant “The Fake Headlines,” and the windmill strumming of “To Wild Homes,” the only New Pornographers song to feature credits from all three of its expert principals: Bejar, Newman, and Case. Every tune on Mass Romantic sizzles and gallops: the bouncing dizziness and endless surprise codas of “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” the spinning-off-a-cliff drumrolls of “The Body Says No,” and Neko Case’s breathless, hiccupping rocker “Letter From An Occupant,” an even rawer example of diamond-hard songwriting in its shining final form than “The Laws Have Changed.” Every chorus on this record is topped by another hook, higher and higher, and when the impossibly stacked plates all come crashing down, that’s just as life-affirming. It’s no wonder that on this evidence no one questioned that supergroup thing. Maybe they are one after all.

I’m aware that this is the most controversial placement on this list, placing the band’s popular debut in the bottom half. Mass Romantic is full of creative songs that are much more sophisticated than the usual I IV V chord progressions of power pop, but it lacks stylistic variation – it’s relentlessly uptempo – and feels a bare without a lead guitarist.

thanks to Stereogum

The Explorers Club mark their return with “Together”, the quintet’s third album of harmony laden sounds. Hot off the heels of “Freedom Wind”, their first release which showcased their Beach Boys influences, and the triumphant follow-up “Grand Hotel”, an exploration of Classic soft pop ideals, “Together” is sure to bring you a little of summer in your mind as we approach these cold wintery days.

Jason Brewer, founder and visionary of the band, has patterned the album in the mold of post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys classics such as Friends, Sunflower and Love You, while adding his own unique touches and flourishes of inspiration with his band mates.

Listeners can expect exquisite harmonies, tight musicianship, flowing melodies, and gorgeous vocals. Standout tracks include the modern sunshine doo-wop of “California’s Calling Ya”, the bouncy pop of “Once In A While” and the contemplative “Quietly”.

“Together” is a must for fans of well-crafted pop music.

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THE EXPLORERS CLUB ARE:

Jason Brewer – Vocals, Guitar, Synthesizers, Fuzz Guitar,
Rock-Si-Chord, Maestro Rhythm King
Paul Runyon – Vocals, Piano, Hammond Organ, Rock-Si-Chord,
Synthesizer, Guitar, Wurlitzer
Michael Willamson – Vocals, Lead Guitar, Fender Bass, Organ,
Upright Bass, Acoustic Guitars
Wyatt Funderburk – Vocals, Fender Bass, Rock-Si-Chord
Kyle Polk – Drums and Percussion