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The CHIRP Blog

Tyler Clark presents: Local Mythologies writesTop Five: New Pornographers Members, Ranked By Solo Work

If you've listened to CHIRP in the last few months, you've probably heard a track from Brill Bruisers, the latest pop statement piece from the New Pornographers. Since forming in 1999, the Vancouver supergroup has been a critical favorite, and currently holds a 79 average on review aggregator Metacritic. The band's success comes from its ability to weave together the distinct songwriting voices of its members, including AM-radio devotee Carl Newman, experimental pop sorceror Dan Bejar, and alt-country maven Neko Case. Today, however, I'm unraveling that careful musical ecosystem. Not counting their work together, which member of the New Pornographers has produced the best work in solo or side projects? Band harmony be damned: which New Pornographer is the best?

A note on methodology: whenever possible, we list three sets of numbers: the Metacritic Metascore, the Metacritic user average, and an average combining the Metascore and reviews from AllMusic for albums not listed on Metacritic. The Metascore takes precedence, with the user average acting as a tiebreaker. The AllMusic scores are there to provide representation for older albums, and paint a (slightly) more complete picture of each artist. Plus, the more scores we use, the more there is to argue about. 


5) Kathryn Calder

Metacritic Average: n/a
AllMusic Average (Immaculate Machine + solo work): 71.7

Kathryn Calder joined the New Pornographers as a touring member in 2005, and most early coverage of her tenure was preoccupied with a) how much (or little) she sounded like Neko Case and b) the movie-plot story of her life as the niece Carl Newman never knew he had. It also shortchanged the facts of her own career; before signing on with the New Pornographers, Calder was already the successful singer of Immaculate Machine, whose just-the-facts indie pop populated the midsections of many a mix CD in the mid-2000s. More recently, Calder's found more success on the singer-songwriter beat, freeing her voice to lilt and meander over slightly more delicate arrangements.

4) Todd Fancey

Metacritic Average:
AllMusic Average: 80

Relatively unheralded when compared to his bandmates, guitarist Todd Fancey has quietly put out two of the best records in all of New Pornographers sprawling side project catalogue. At least, AllMusic seems to think so, awarding above-average marks to both 2004's Fancey and its 2007 follow-up, Schmancey. A worshipper of the same so-square-it's-cool '70s pop as Newman, Fancey deals in hook-laden, heart-on-sleeve tunes so timeless that they almost feel destined to go undiscovered until years after the fact. It's a fact not lost on the man himself, whose own record label bio spends a paragraph talking about life in the shadow of the band's Big 3. However, in that same interview, Fancey takes it all in stride, saying "I’m just lucky to be able to do it all. It’s kind of cheesy, but I look forward to the artistic side of it."

3) Carl Newman

Metacritic Average: 76
Metacritic User Average: 79.3
Metacritic Average + AllMusic Average (Zumpano): 79.4

Carl Newman cut his teeth as a member of Zumpano, Sub Pop's mid-'90s indie pop experiment whose music was as critically lauded as it was criminally overlooked. Thus, his highest scores from those records, with 1996's Goin' Through Changes snagging a 9.0 from AllMusic. His later solo work hasn't quite reach those heights, with both Get Guilty and Shut Down The Streets each failing to crack the 75 mark on Metacritic. Part of the decline may be critics' weariness of Newman's mannered pop, which, as a rule, chooses not to evolve to suit the sensibilities of the day. Part of it might simply be his other band; as the main songwriter for the New Pornographers, Newman may just save his best material for when the gang gets together.


2) Dan Bejar

Metacritic Average: 76.9
Metacritic User Average: 83
Metacritic Average + AllMusic Average (earlier work): 76.3

Dan Bejar has never made a bad Destroyer record. He's made weird ones (2004's synthed-up Your Blues), he's made raving ones (1998's City of Daughters), and he's made sax-filled ones (2011's Kaputt), but almost all of them have ended up at or near the top of critics' year-end lists. If this list were just counting Destroyer records, Bejar clocks in with an 82 on Metacritic, and might have a claim to the top spot. However, past the borders of his work as Destroyer, things go to hell pretty quickly. Bejar's involvement with sickly duds from Swan Lake and Hello, Blue Roses drag his score down by more than five points, robbing him of victory like a tuberculitic center fielder.

1) Neko Case

Metacritic Average: 82
Metacritic User Average: 88.4
Metacritic Average + AllMusic Average (earlier work): 76.25

It wasn't even close. The title of "Best New Pornographer" goes to Neko Case, the only member of the band whose solo output rivals the band's critical or commercial success. Case has added a number of increasingly dark layers to her alt-country sound since the days of covering Everly Brothers tunes on 1997's The Virginian. Instead of recreating a studio-aided vision of the past like Newman or plunging headlong into the sonic unknown like Bejar, Case deals with the present, and all of its bruising realities. Whether she's confronting life as a woman outside of expected gender roles (2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood) or grappling with the conflicting feelings that arise at the death of a parent (2013's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You) Case sews each song with a connecting thread borrowed from the tradition of Lorretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris. She may not be as prolific as some of her bandmates, but when you make music this emotionally rich, you've probably earned a breather or two.

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Categorized: Top Five

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