A lot less time for a lot more care. So sang the Undertones on 1979s More Songs About Chocolate and Girls, facing the age-old second-album problem: Youve had years your whole lives, in a way to compose that initial public offering, but if it makes a splash, you soon find yourself working on the follow-up at a faster pace, with higher outside expectations. Or, as the New Pornographers Carl Newman puts it, God help bands that are anticipated.
Newman and most of his groupmates are veterans of Vancouvers indie scene, and their songs are more likely to concern the wreck of the soul than adolescence and Mars bars, but the new Electric Version (Matador) finds them in the same uneasy position. Back in 1997, Newman (Zumpano, Superconductor) conceived the New Pornographers as a workshop for unused songs by himself and Destroyers Daniel Bejar, to be sung by a rotating cast including rising alt-country belter Neko Case. Their first four-song demo went unnoticed until Newman placed the hypercharged, Case-fronted Letter to an Occupant on a Mint Records compilation. In 2000, Mint released Mass Romantic, a furiously paced, virulently catchy full-length.
The resulting acclaim was heartening and somewhat shocking: a Juno award (the Canadian Grammy-equivalent), across-the-board critical raves, and a vote of rock-royalty confidence from Ray Davies, who performed the Kinks Starstruck with the band at 2001s South by Southwest festival. Speaking from Vancouver, Newman is forthright about the key to the bands success. We have big drumbeats and a good female singer. It was always my theory that if you had those elements, youd become popular. When I write a song that sounds like a hit, I say, lets get Neko to sing this one.
Calculated? Perhaps but how often has great pop been anything but? With Newmans most immediate melodies again hammered home by Cases rich, knowing vocals, Electric Version doesnt make any radical changes in the New Pornographers recipe. But this isnt Mass Romantic Reloaded, either. Blaine Thuriers keyboards are better-integrated, the production (courtesy of bassist/engineer John Collins) is measurably cleaner, and the median tempo is closer to chop very fine than purée. According to Thurier, On the first album, we were barely keeping our footing; this time, we held on to the banister.
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Still, stacked up against anything but its immediate predecessor, the disc is as sonically and lyrically action-packed as they come. Rock-historical references fly thick and fast: The opening guitar attack of Loose Translation is a dead ringer for Bowies Suffragette City, while The New Face of Zero and One cops Adam & the Ants trademark stick-clicking. More important, Newmans melodies and chord progressions actually develop, making their boneheaded (his word) payoffs that much sweeter. Take the single The Laws Have Changed. Kurt Dahles big drumbeat keeps it danceably direct; Newmans vocal line rises as an organ hook descends, seamlessly giving way to Cases pre-chorus croon, until both singers burst into mysterious instructions: Form a line through here/Form a line to the throne.
Though Daniel Bejars three contributions dont have the tongue-and-groove precision of Newmans, theyre far from filler. (Credited as the New Pornographers secret member, Bejar sings on both albums but rarely joins the band onstage.) This time out, he quotes Wittgenstein (The world is all that is the case) and derails Dylan (Think twice, maybe its not all right) while hotfooting from one musical idea to the next. The arrangements are what make the pieces fit: Chump Change surrounds Bejar with string-enhanced ooh-hoos, while Testament to Youth in Verse builds his refusenik outro (The bells ring no, no, no . . .) build to a five-voiced Brian Wilsonstyle climax.
Though Electric Version is no sophomore slump, its also not quite the lighthearted summertime record early press has it pegged as being. Songs like Its Only Divine Right have a just-discernible sociopolitical undertow that troubles the musics uptempo abandon. Its about the Bush girls scamming liquor at the University of Texas while their father wreaks havoc on the world, says Newman. I had a picture of a decadent, crumbling empire in mind. Too opaque to count as a protest (Come true for the new martyrs/With your hair parted like the Red Sea), the song sounds more like a great lost Cars single than a Canadian screed against American privilege. And thats fine with Newman: I want us to be a party band. Thats all Ive ever tried to do. Theres really no conflict here: What better place to throw a party than a decadent, crumbling empire?
The New Pornographers play the Knitting Factory on Sunday, June 8.