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Sweet and sexy, the New Pornographers make pop that sticks

Wednesday, Jun 4 2003
"Aw, fuck off!" explodes Carl Newman, the singer/guitarist behind Vancouver pop combo the New Pornographers. He's just been informed that his band will have some stiff competition on its upcoming tour -- across Denver that same night another venue will be hosting none other than the Flaming Lips. "They're the best band in the world," he laments. "I'm going to start crying. You could write an article about how scared I am to be competing against the Flaming Lips."

Newman shouldn't sweat it. Sure, the Lips may be one of the most lauded and legendary acts around, but the New Pornographers are no slouches themselves. Assembled as a side project in 1997, the Pornographers have emerged as an endearingly humble supergroup: Newman once led the lush, soft-pop group Zumpano, guitarist Dan Bejar fronts the Bowie-meets- Guided by Voices outfit Destroyer, and Neko Case is, well, Neko Case -- the scruffy altcountry diva who now sings chanteuse in the New Pornographers, wrapping tendrillike harmonies around the supple, chirpy voices of Newman and Bejar.

"I definitely wanted it to be more rock," says Newman of his impetus for forming the New Pornographers. "I wanted to be in a band that wasn't afraid to be propulsive. The song 'Letter From an Occupant' off our first album is like that. I thought I couldn't take it to Zumpano; it was too boneheaded. So it became a New Pornographers song."

The group -- which also includes keyboardist Blaine Thurier, drummer Kurt Dahle, guitarist Todd Fancey, and bassist John Collins -- released its debut full-length, Mass Romantic, in 2000. Its vintage power-pop punch landed on the world's chin like a stolen kiss. "Letter From an Occupant" turned up in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and the whole record won a Juno Award -- the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy -- for Best Alternative Album. It's not hard to see why. Listening to Mass Romantic is like skipping barefoot across hot asphalt: It makes you burn. It makes you yell. It makes you move. Sweltering melodies buzz underneath chunky chords and pingpong keyboards, while voices smooth as melted ice cream drown everything in a gluey sweetness.

"Sometimes I think my biggest influence might have been watching Monkees reruns when I was a little kid," Newman says. "I think there was some point when I was a teenager where I was a little bit ashamed of liking '60s pop music. I just kind of thought of it as a guilty pleasure. But then around 16 I suddenly went, 'What is there to be guilty about? I'm going to like this music proudly.'"

Newman envisioned the New Pornographers as sort of an indie rock clubhouse version of the Brill Building ('60s New York's music-business epicenter), a hit machine running on bubble gum and firecrackers. "Aside from the music itself, there are other things from the '60s that I really would like to bring back. I'd love to have a team of the best songwriters working to write songs for us," says Newman. "These days it seems like if you don't write all the songs on your album, you're somehow not doing your job -- even though you're influenced by old '60s records where they brought in other people to do everything."

"I think that's one of the reasons I was so into having Dan's songs in the New Pornographers," he continues. "Dan's songs tend to have a lazy kind of bombast to them, a kind of swagger to them, whereas I think my songs tend to just chug along. His songs are easily transformed into these kind of anthemic epics."

Electric Version, the Pornographers' new disc, traffics in epics. Veering from such influences as Blondie to the Zombies to the Sweet, the songs are perfect, trapped-in-amber samples of power pop. "People talk about various forms of music dying," Newman comments, "but I think people do that just so they can talk later about how it's coming back." On the title track, helium-filled riffs twist with new wave torque, while "The Laws Have Changed" bubbles with syrupy synths and Case's honey-toned vocals. Bejar -- whose commitment to Destroyer limits his participation mostly to the studio -- clocks in with three compositions, the standout being "Testament to Youth in Verse." With its tangled guitars and soaring harmonic intensity, "Testament" might just be that apocryphal missing link between the Soft Boys and ELO.

"I want the songs to be catchy, but I want to make them kind of strange at the same time -- something that appeals on a very simple, surface level but is actually a lot deeper," says Newman, who arranges and conducts the band's surplus of compositional electricity. "If you dig into it you find lots of things. I think a lot of it is just to please myself. I always want to fill in every crack of every song with something, put lots of strange noises on it."

The power of pop is the guiding force behind the New Pornographers. Immersed in the lexicon of popular music, Newman pays homage to the heroes of the past (indeed, the group has even appeared onstage with Ray Davies, backing him on a version of the Kinks' classic "Starstruck" from The Village Green Preservation Society) without sounding too retro. The New Pornographers tap into the collective unconscious, tickling the peripheral vision with hints and scraps and afterimages of all the great pop archetypes from the Beach Boys on through to the Shins.

"I think ultimately they're just loved-up folk songs. There's nothing really profound about it. They're just catchy tunes. It's just entertainment," says Newman. "With having to do interviews a lot recently, I started thinking a lot more about our music. I've realized that what we do isn't art in any way. I feel like we're just craftsmen, you know? I think it's equally as impressive to make a really nice, well-built chair."

So after half an hour of dissecting his band and delineating its philosophy, does Newman feel a little more confident about his upcoming showdown with the Flaming Lips?

"No," he replies modestly, downplaying the joy and energy and sheer pop majesty of the music of the New Pornographers. "We haven't got a prayer."

About The Author

Jason Heller


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