"Mass Romantic" is one of my favourite records of all time. It lies in somewhere in the top 5 of that mythical "desert island" group that music collectors obsess about. The first New Pornographers album found me at a time in my life when it most needed it and it has since engrained itself into my consciousness. A supergroup of Canadian indie rock veterans and a Virginian alt-country singer, The New Pornographers recorded extremely hooky, lyrically playful power-pop that somehow straddled 60s British invasion, 70s glam and 80s new wave in an entirely believable way. Think the Pixies, hyper-caffeinated and jamming on The Beatles' "Paperback Writer." That's the best I can describe it.
The above scenario logically makes "Electric Version" one of my most anticipated records ever.
Funny then that on first listen I all but ignored it.
That first spin perplexed me to no end. The amount of times I had listened to "Mass Romantic" built a barrier that simply wasn't expecting or immediately accepting of new material. The New Pornographers had changed, they had become denser, slightly more layered but with less immediate hooks (relatively of course, as this band still fits more in a few songs then some bands do across entire records).
As I commuted back and forth for the next week, "Electric Version" was constantly spinning. I wasn't entirely conscious of it but I may have listened to it exclusively for days. By the weekend, entirely to my surprise, the songs had fully permeated my mental blockage and I had once again sold my soul to this band.
"Electric Version" is a fantastic record.
While Carl Newman is now firmly in the drivers seat of the group, the other members contribute enough character and charm to keep this from becoming the next Zumpano record. Destroyer's Dan Bejar is far less involved for this album. While he only contributes three tracks, his stream-of-consciousness lyricism and less-structured compositions still loom large in the Pornographers' overall sound.
While the band's signature layered harmonies are still present, they're more realistic and becoming of a live performance this time around. In fact much of the record seems less studio-dependent than the band's debut. In particular, Kurt Dahle's drumming seems particularly well done and is quite engrossing. The addition of guitarist / keyboardist Todd Fancey brings the band a fuller sound as well. Tracks like "It's Only Divine Right" with screeching guitar solos is definitely something new for a band formerly reliant on synths, korgs and Wurlitzers.
After "Electric Version" had time to sink in plenty of brilliant moments came forth. Everything Neko Case contributes her vocals to on the album is golden. From the sweet chorus of "All for Swinging You Around" to her duets with Newman on "Miss Teen Wordpower" she proves to be the heart of the band. There's a little vocal inflection she throws in during the later half of "The Laws Have Changed" that completely owns me. Newman's start-stop vocals and timing dynamics in "From Blown Speakers" make it one of the record's best moments. The distorted upstroke guitars of "July Jones" interact with swirling keyboards as the backing for an interestingly downbeat version of Newman's indie-pop.
"Electric Version" is less instantly gratifying as "Mass Romantic," but may turn out to be more satisfying in the long term. With the band's solidified lineup and constant touring, what was at first a brilliant side project looks like it'll be around for a while yet.