It’s early November, 2000. You’re visiting a city, walking downtown, towards one of the finer record stores the city has to offer. You head in, dodging the crowds of people buying whatever flavor-of-the-year that’s popular at the time, and wait for whoever’s blocking the “N” section to take their piddly little CD and go the hell away. You scan the CD’s, and there, right beside the New Order albums, is an untouched, front-faced stack of digipaks with a bright red border and a strange, amateurish painting in the center. After spending the entire year in a small town reading about a supposedly amazing song called “Letter From an Occupant” by a Vancouver indie rock collective named The New Pornographers, your curiosity growing stronger and stronger as the months go by, there it is, beckoning. You grab a copy, head back out, and the first chance you get, you tear off the cellophane, figure out which song to skip ahead to (crap, no track numbers . . . onetwothreefourfive . . . six), and press the play button. Now skip ahead an hour. You’ve listened to “Letter From an Occupant” close to 20 times, and you won’t stop playing it for weeks, months even. You love the song so much, you want it to be Canada’s de facto national anthem, replacing the theme from Hockey Night in Canada, even though you think you’ll never figure out all the lyrics. The rest of the album starts to sound as great, and every time you listen to it, it’s like a musical sugar rush, like overdosing on Pepsi and Pop Rocks.
Today, Mass Romantic is regarded as a bit of a Canadian indie rock classic. Originally just a one-off project by a group of Vancouver musicians from such bands as Zumpano, Destroyer, Limblifter, and The Evaporators, The New Pornographers decided to keep going after the release of Mass Romantic, touring relentlessly, building up a following in the US and a fiercely loyal fanbase in Canada (despite laws that require Canadian radio stations to play mostly Canadian content, the band has had little to no airplay on commercial stations in their home country), and have shown everyone that they’re here to stay. Now, with their new album Electric Version, their first in two and a half years, they’ve set out to prove that their debut was no fluke.
Fans will be pleased to hear that Electric Version is more of the same, and maybe even a little bit better than the first album. They’re now a well-oiled band, anchored by singer/guitarist Carl Newman, bassist John Collins, drummer Kurt Dahle, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, and guitarist/keyboardist Todd Fancey, and as on the debut, are joined by a couple of moonlighting singers along for the ride, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and the inimitable alt-country chanteuse Neko Case. As a result, you feel it’s more of a band effort on Electric Version than on Mass Romantic, the production sounding much fuller, a bit more up front, and the band sounding a lot tighter. But who cares if they sound tighter; the songs have got to have the catchy hooks, right? After all, that’s what we all want from a New Pornographers album. Well, believe me, there are hooks aplenty.
Continuing right where Mass Romantic left off, the new album has the same combination of influences such as The Cars, The Go-Go’s, Cheap Trick, The Beach Boys, Klaatu, and Devo, along with plenty of enigmatic song titles and lyrics that sound straight from 1970s progressive rock. “It was crime at the time, but the laws, we changed ’em,” sings Newman on the stupendous “The Laws Have Changed, as Case joins in with her full-on Belinda Carlisle voice (there’s no need for country crooning here), “Sing all hail, what’ll be revealed today, when we peer to the great unknown, from the land of the throne.” What it means, we don’t have the foggiest; instead, you let the melody and those layers of “na-na-na” harmonies take you away, as the song astonishingly matches the euphoric glory of “Letter From an Occupant”. “All For Swinging You Around”, also sung by Case, soars just as high, sounding as if The Archies went prog-rock (“Can’t tell if this is fantasy or culture shock”), while the synth and vocal harmonies of “Miss Teen Wordpower” makes you think The Buggles haven’t disappeared after all. The hooks just keep coming: the wistful “July Jones”, “The End of Medicine”, with its stream-of-consciousness verses, the guitar-oriented fun of “The New Face of Zero and One”, and the tribute to the transcendent qualities of great music, “From Blown Speakers” (at least, I think that’s what it’s about), all wash like waves over you, one after the other.
If Neko Case stole the show on Mass Romantic, Electric Version belongs to Dan Bejar. Bejar, who opted to stay with Destroyer instead of tour with The New Pornographers, is now listed as the band’s “secret member”, and rejoins the band on the new record, contributing three phenomenal tracks. His songs combine those same infectious pop hooks with some dryly hilarious lyrics, as evident on “Chump Change”, where he sings in that nasal voice of his, “Saw the pics from your book/And a line from your page/And flew into a lesbian rage.” “Testament to Youth in Verse” gets downright enigmatic, as Bejar sings, “Should you go looking for a testament to youth in verse/Variations of the age-old curse/You blame the stations when they play you like a fool/And like a fool you get played with,” but no matter how strange and mushmouthed the lyrics get, it morphs into an oddly tender song, and by the time you get to the odd coda of “The bells ring/No no no no . . .”, you’re singing along without hesitation. Bejar reaches Wayne Coyne-like heights on the Flaming Lips-ish character sketch “Ballad of a Comeback Kid”, which could be the finest song he’s ever written, as the rest of the band pull back the reins on the Adorable Factor, and give a more subtle (for them) performance.
More jaded indie rock hipsters will probably cringe at such shameless harmonizing for harmonizing’s sake, and might accuse The New Pornographers of trying way too hard to impress listeners with their puppydog sweetness, but seriously, to not like this stuff is like hating the sun for shining. The lyrics might not make much sense, and there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but with songs as ridiculously catchy and fun as these, who cares? This is the album most perfectly suited for the summer of 2003. The New Pornographers are the greatest thing to come out of Western Canada since Old Dutch ketchup potato chips, and like the red goo you lick off your fingers after eating a bag, you just want to sit back and savor this band all day long.