There is a common Pavlovian trend in record reviews to substitute references for analysis. A band featuring a singer who can carry a tune, a drummer you can hear, and two electric guitar players will often be described as “Kinksy,” “power poppy,” or “Cheap Tricked-out,” even if the band actually sounds like a passable Tall Dwarfs rip-off. (Who? Well, that’s the point.) This tactic spares the reviewer precious effort, makes the reader feel relieved to know the references, and gives the artist unearned credibility by association. The New Pornographers’Electric Version—one of the year’s best; buy three, put two in the bomb shelter—could actually survive this process. New Pornographers songwriter Carl Newman has done his homework four times over, and if a couple of decades of history hadn’t moved the goalposts, he’d do pretty well as an understudy for the Kinks’ Ray Davies or Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen. At a raw materials level, some of the songs on Electric Version have so many hooks that they become bouillon— listen to how “The Laws Have Changed” keeps kicking in, over and over. Added to water, it would yield three perfectly good pop songs.
In the past five years, there have been approximately 6,756 records based around loud guitars and multipart vocal harmonies, many of them referencing music of the ‘70s and ‘60s. To be reductive about it, because you have things to do, where overrated bands like Olivia Tremor Control and underrated bands like the Shins are still hung up on the Beach Boys and pot, Newman is nostalgic for the first five Elvis Costello and the Attractions albums. And I’m guessing he pounds the coffee. (There is also a reference to Adam and the Ants’ “Dog Eat Dog” drum part on ” The New Face of Zero and One.”) [Correction, May 28, 2003: The reference is to “ Antmusic.”] What Newman takes from Costello is a preference for vigorous tempos, rapidly changing chords, information-packed melodies, and a commitment to execute, execute, execute. (Newman’s sole innovation for indie rock, stolen 50 years after pop established it, may simply be that he has tossed out the romance with lousy singing and playing as proof of some unspecified authenticity.) Newman, like Costello, prefers double-decker lyrics that swipe at 10 things instead of grabbing one. From the opening track, ” The Electric Version“: “The card you’re dealt by the crowd goes wild, make believe you are an only child./ Here are the clothes, please put them on. Still to come/ a new parade of faith and sparks, the electric version harks back to the day/ when there was no wrong just as long as it sounds lost/ streaming out of the magnets.”
This style doesn’t mean Newman gets called the “literary” one. That’s Dan Bejar, who plays Colin Moulding to Newman’s Andy Partridge, contributing three of Electric Version’s 13 songs. Bejar’s songs are more narrative and easier to understand but shorter on high-octane singing. He’s the conversational singer. (REFERENCE ALERT: Bejar’s own band Destroyer is the place to go if you thought the late Pavement records beat the early ones but should have been sleazier and catchier.) Both Bejar and Newman are perfectly talented all by themselves, but the New Pornographers are better than Destroyer, and they’re better than Newman’s other bands, Zumpano and Superconductor. That’s not just because Bejar and Newman have grown as songwriters. And it isn’t because everyone involved is from Vancouver, B.C., though that is astonishing and true. Neko Case is why the New Pornographers are the bestest.
Case’s voice is slightly too big, as if she can’t quite handle it. This makes her a great rock singer and a bit lost when she makes country albums, a genre concerned with controlling and conquering things (heartbreak, booze, pitch) before they control you. Strictly a singer in the Pornographers, Case has described herself as Newman’s “puppet,” though he prefers the term “robot.” Newman is smart enough to double-track her voice when the song needs it, and his own reedy voice blends perfectly with Case’s double-barrel alto. When these voices get up high, the record goes with them. Where other records have all the references down pat, Case makes Electric Version the thing, instead of about the thing. (Nirvana? Same thing. Start and end with the voice.) Newman’s sweat-soaked take on arranging means the album’s parade will move along nicely, but Case is where the music spins out and you get inside, a little bit in love with yourself for being smart enough to play this, rather than another, record.
I am going back to “The Laws Have Changed,” because you are going to. Many times. It will become a problem. When I thought the song was about The King and I, I was already transported. When I realized it’s a parable linking primogeniture of pharaohs and the collapse of democracy under the Bush dynasty, I got so happy I just about wrenched something. Let’s quote: “It was crime at the time but the laws, we changed ‘em/ though the hero for hire’s forever the same one./ Introducing for the first time, Pharaoh on the microphone.” This is the only good thing to happen this year featuring the plural word “laws.” Cheap Trick does have a new record, which we don’t need to discuss, and if you got stuck with major label power pop newcomers Rooney, you’d be fine for three or four songs. But the New Pornographers have this nervous pop thing on lock right now. Only effort can displace effort.
[Correction, May 28, 2003: The reference to an Adam and the Ants song on “The New Face of Zero and One” is to “Antmusic,” not “Dog Eat Dog.”]