A Canadian indie-rock supergroup led by Carl Newman (previously of Zumpano and Superconductor), the New Pornographers produce totally over-the-top power pop, saturated with nearly every exciting trick in the rock songbook. Stop-start turns, Beach Boys harmonies, squiggly synthesizers, fuzzy guitar chords, layer upon layer of sound — the New Pornographers pack songs with maximum pop pleasure. No matter that Newman came up with the band name before he learned that Jimmy Swaggart once called music “the new pornography”: their music offers an obscene amount of fun. Primary songwriter Newman is joined by Dan Bejar (who leads the excellent Destroyer), alt-country singer Neko Case and three other Vancouver indie-scene vets in this side-project that rapidly turned permanent after the accolades that greeted Mass Romantic.
An instant classic, Mass Romantic is a breathless race through a dozen exuberant gems, with layers of soaring vocal harmonies and borrowings from smart ’70s pop like ELO, Sparks and early Roxy Music. Newman, Case and Bejar trade lead vocals, with Case’s performance on “Letter From an Occupant” the standout. Case belts the tune with glam- rock enthusiasm that’s far from her usual torchy country style. The song twists and turns on an insistent, trebly guitar hook, moves through smiling woo-woo harmonies and ends with a series of stuttering machine-gun riffs. The album has a self-reflexive quality; Newman’s lyrics reference the pop process that the songs exemplify but without a shred of irony. Bejar’s songs, such as “Jackie,” are wordier and weirder but no less elaborate. From the piano trills in “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” to the galloping drums of “The Body Says No,” Mass Romantic is irresistible.
Incredibly, Electric Version is even more so. One of those rare pop creations that exists on multiple levels (like the best of XTC), it’s an immediately winning explosion of hooks that retains a deep and elusive element of mystery. Listen to “From Blown Speakers,” “Testament to Youth in Verse,” “It’s Only Divine Right” or “Miss Teen Wordpower” once and you’ll have to hear them again; a dozen spins later, you’re no closer to grasping all of the ingredients that went in or discerning the thought behind any of it. Enigmatic phrases (often sung with eccentric emphasis) and licks leap out and flash by like flotsam held aloft in a cartoon twister; getting a firm hold on any of this uber-nerd madness is nigh on impossible as speeding choruses and verses leap out of the way for surprising bridges and digressions of the sort usually uncontainable in pop songcraft. Increasing the achievement, the music never sounds fussed-over or even especially careful; the group doesn’t rely on anything more complex than guitars, organs, piano and drums, occasionally fractured rhythms and great singing. The vocal diversity, both in person and approach (including a fair amount of airy falsetto), is especially potent — Case’s twang (as in “All for Swinging You Around,” where she takes the verses, joins others for the chorus and then tartly answers back alone) sends the already vertiginous balance off on a dizzy carom. Although the album doesn’t exactly flow smoothly from one end to the other, occasional bouts of theatricality leave it imaginably the score of an extremely weird musical. Amazing.
Newman’s brief solo debut, co-produced (fairly simply) by Dave Carswell of the Smugglers, is happily of a piece with the Pornographers’ work, minus Case’s distinctive vocals. Frenetic (“Miracle Drug”), measured (“Drink to Me, Babe, Then”), bizarre (“On the Table”), baroque (“The Cloud Prayer”), serious (“Come Crash”), dramatic (“The Battle for Straight Time”) and droll (“The Town Halo,” complete with sawing ELO-style cellos), The Slow Wonder is further proof of Newman’s offbeat ingenuity, both in melody and lyric. The challenge of recalling whether a given Newman song is from this record or Electric Version reflects both the consistent quality and the creative diversity of his work. Its existence probably has more to do with the difficulty of scheduling Pornographers sessions than any limitations imposed on Newman by the group’s structure.
While the band’s first two albums could be considered uniform to a fault (though it’s hard to fault a formula that works so well), Newman, Case and Bejar freed their individual personalities more for Twin Cinema. The result is a more challenging and dynamic album — but a darker one as well. Newman’s redirection here is reminiscent of the shift Zumpano took on their second album, Goin’ Through Changes: while the off-kilter time signatures still abound, the melodies are subtler and the production, by Newman alone, is less overwhelming. Bejar’s three songs are less of a departure, but his standout is a duet with Case on “Streets of Fire,” a song included on a Destroyer album more than a decade earlier. For her part, though, Case seems uncomfortable taking the reins, and the two songs on which she sings lead are tinny and plodding, with mannered vocals and none of the raw power that made “Letter to an Occupant” and “The Laws Have Changed” so irresistible. She seems much more comfortable providing warm harmony vocals on a third of the songs, which would be reasonable if she hadn’t already set the bar so high.
Prior to the release of Challengers, Newman said that he’d never envisioned the New Pornographers as a power pop band, but rather “power-folk.” While this may smack of revisionist history, it does explain some things about the fourth album. The album is by far the band’s most sedate work, which is mostly not a good thing. It barely works up a pulse until four songs in, with Bejar’s first contribution, the call-and-response “Myriad Harbour.” Bejar’s requisite three are the best songs of the album, as most of Newman’s are slow, boring and repetitive by the high standards of previous efforts (the standout exception being the flute-driven “Mutiny, I Promise You,” the only track here that breezes past mid-tempo). While it’s hard to fault a band for trying to extend a well-honed sound, Challengers is for the most part a dud.
As if to shake off Challengers‘ folky plod, Together kicks off a conscious return to form with the crunchy ELO-style cello lead of “Moves.” But the band retains one element from the previous album and, to a lesser degree, from the one before it: a subtly darker, sadder, more reflective sound and vision. It’s obvious they’ve matured together, but they’re not too crotchety to kick up the tempo to match even their earliest work. “Crash Years” is a thing not heard on a New Pornographers album since Twin Cinema: a kickass Neko Case song. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that track, as it’s representative of the album. Bejar here is by turns playful (“Silver Jenny Dollar”), coyly winsome (“If You Can’t See My Mirrors”) and elegiac (“Daughters of Sorrow”). Newman brings all the elements together with some of his strongest, most varied songs in years. That’s the hard-earned beauty of Together, and of the New Pornographers themselves. Somehow, three of the greatest songwriters and performers in indie rock have managed not only to coexist but to create a varied, evolving body of work none of them could have produced on their own.