Picking up precisely where his winning 2004 solo debut, The Slow Wonder, left off, New Pornographers leader Carl Newman (aka A.C.) has created another platter that sounds stripped-down next to the over-the-top bustle of his regular band. Still, there are pleasing orchestral flourishes, squirrelly keyboards, wintry reverb, and affable vocal harmonies on Get Guilty, thanks to guests including Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and both members of Mates of State.
Newman's songs have always worked on two levels: the cerebral burn of his cleverly cryptic lyrics, and the immediate jolt of his glaring pop melodies. In nearly anyone else's hands, songs about "Submarines of Stockholm" or "The Palace at 4 A.M." would come off as precious or pretentious, but with Newman you have the choice of dwelling on the lyrics, the music, or the savvy intersection of the two. Get Guilty is mostly a mid-tempo affair with few hard-charging moments, and there are several tear-jerking ballads, notably the closing "All of My Days and All of My Days Off," a valentine to his wife. As sharp as it is, Newman's formula feels somewhat pat by the end, between his offbeat intonation and the careful crashes of instrumentation. Thus it takes a leftfield lob like the seedy Spanish vibe and eerie guitar distortion of "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" to shake him — and us — out of his comfort zone.