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On super groups…

August 28th, 2007

Everything I’m reading about “Challengers,” the latest album from The New Pornographers, assures me that yes, Neko Case is still with the band.

I suppose this is what happens when a member’s popularity equals or eclipses the band (The Fugees, anyone?).

For a band like The New Pornographers, nothing is a given — just about every member of the eight-piece Canadian band has a side project — or the band is their side project.

In other words, they’re a super group.

The Wikipedia.org entry on super groups — a band made up by members of other bands — while by no means accurate, is fairly revealing: most modern super groups only stick around for a couple albums. The fact that The New Pornographers just released a solid fourth is fairly impressive.

(In fairness, their entry includes a footnote — they don’t consider themselves to be a super group because they’re not well-known outside of Canada). 

“Challengers” tries to strip away the band’s power-pop label. It lacks the big rock numbers that made 2005’s “Twin Cinema” so exciting. But “Challengers” is about melodies and harmonies. Sure, the hooks are still there, but it’s a much more understated album. Case steals the show with the title track, but from “All the Old Showstoppers” to “Adventures in Solitude,” there’s really not a bad song.

Scouring the Wikipedia.org list of recent super groups, there aren’t too many that I could say nice things about their later albums (if they even still exist).

That’s the problem with today’s super groups — they’re about as reliable as “Chinese Democracy.”

Do you really expect Audioslave to get back together now that Rage is reunited? Do you really expect Velvet Revolver to keep it together and keep Scott Weiland clean? Do you really expect The Raconteurs will eclipse The White Stripes? And, while we’re at it, what ever happened to The Breeders?

In many cases, it’s more about the personalities than it is about the music — and that’s what makes super groups so interesting — and frustrating.

(There are, of course, exceptions. I don’t think anyone would argue that Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies exist for any reason other than fun).

But part of the fun of super groups is the odd combinations of personalities and sounds — from the captivating (The Postal Service) to the unlistenable (The Good, The Bad, The Queen). Bands like The New Pornographers make interesting music, but they’re not headline fodder. Pairing Chris Cornell with the abandoned members of Rage was a surprise that demanded attention.

And that’s why there will always be super groups, not just for economical or artistic reasons, but also for the fans — the rock music equivalent of picking your favorite all-star team.

So here’s my super group (and welcome to Planet Josh):

Acoustic guitar/lead vocals – instead of Simon and Garfunkel, let’s recruit Adam Duritz (Counting Crows) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie, Postal Service), two of the best lyricists working today to trade verses and harmonize.

Piano – Ben Folds (Ben Folds/Five), Andrew McMahon (Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin), Amanda Palmer (The Dresden Dolls). I love piano rock, so my super group will have three, simultaneously. Folds can handle the high-octane solos on lead, McMahon can play rhythm piano (if such a thing doesn’t exist, this band just invented it) and Palmer will play the bass parts, as well as backing vocals.

Auxiliary instruments – Jenny Conlee (The Decemberists) knows the accordion, but she’s also adept at just about any weird instrument that grandma would have lying around.

Drums/percussion – you’ll need a trained jazz drummer with a background in rock to anchor this and keep up with the weird time signatures. Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins) can deliver the goods.

Producer – no one understands a perfect pop song like Adam Schlessinger (Fountains of Wayne), so it’ll be his job to keep everything from becoming an overblown mess.

Mix that up and overnight it to Kanye West.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

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