April 17, 2010 / 1:46 AM / 10 years ago

Will star power eclipse New Pornographers?

TORONTO (Billboard) - The presence of a star in a band is a double-edged sword — on one hand, the artist can provide valuable creative input and help draw interest. But if the person starts to eclipse the band, it can go from being a group in its own right to simply a side project.

Carl Newman (R) and Kurt Dahle (L on drums) of the New Pornographers perform as other members of the band are projected on a video screen behind them at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland September 23, 2006. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

That’s the dilemma facing the New Pornographers as they prepare to release their fifth album, “Together,” May 4 on Matador in the United States.

The band’s most prominent member, singer-songwriter Neko Case, saw her last album, “Middle Cyclone,” hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 last year. According to Nielsen SoundScan, it has sold 191,000 U.S. copies and 17,000 in Canada. But solo success notwithstanding, Case remains a part-time member of the New Pornographers, whose last album, “Challengers” (2007), hit No. 34 on the Billboard 200, selling 109,000 copies in the States and 16,000 in Canada.

The power-pop band’s main singer-songwriter, Carl Newman, calls Case “a great strength and great weakness” in the New Pornographers. “She’s this great force in the band, but sometimes she’s not there,” he says. “People will say, ‘Why isn’t Neko there?’ And I’ll explain that’s the nature of our band.”

Case usually appears only on the band’s initial tour dates after an album release. The group contains up to eight members that include another part-timer, Dan Bejar, who sings and occasionally tours with the act when not fronting his own outfit, Destroyer, which is signed to Merge Records.

“Together” rocks a little harder than its predecessor, and in the past, Matador general manager Patrick Amory says, Case and the band appealed to “totally different” audiences. “But as the New Pornographers have started making better-recorded albums, containing less frenetic music, there’s definitely been some crossover.”

“Challengers” focused on elaborately arranged slower songs, whereas “Together” adds more of the group’s hook-laden, melodic guitar rock, from the Black Sabbath-esque “Your Hands (Together)” to Bejar’s idiosyncratically poppy “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk.”

Licensing deals — including placements of “The Bleeding Heart Show” (from 2005’s “Twin Cinema”) in a TV campaign for the University of Phoenix and the title track from 2003’s “The Electric Version” in the “Rock Band” video game — have helped foster new fans, but Amory and Newman agree that more extensive touring will be vital if the band is to heighten its profile.

“Touring’s not the only driver, but it is key,” Amory says. A European tour kicks off May 19 in London. North American shows start June 7 in Calgary, Alberta, and run through August 4.

Newman says the new album’s direction wasn’t a reaction to the more muted critical and retail reception for “Challengers” compared with “Twin Cinema,” which has sold 138,000 stateside and 20,000 in Canada.

“From the beginning, we didn’t stand a prayer, so we just did what we wanted to do,” Newman says. “That attitude helped us become successful, so that’s what we continue to do.”

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