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The New Pornographers: Go Electric

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With a name like “The New Pornographers,” they have to be begging for it. No matter how scholarly or how juvenile any music writer may be, you can count on the fact that he or she will be looking for ways to hit the band from the pornography angle. It doesn’t help that they speak of lesbians in their lyrics (“Chump Change”) and name songs with things like “The Body Says No.” All of their songs begin to grow subtext that is probably not intended to be there; all of their album artwork will be overly scrutinized; all of the band members will be looked at in a different light.

Take Neko Case, for example. She’s been around for a while, gaining popularity by herself with last year’s Blacklisted or from as far back as 1997 with Her Boyfriends (as in “Neko Case & Her Boyfriends”), but it was only a mere three months ago that Playboy named her the “Sexiest Babe in Indie Rock” and tried (unsuccessfully) to goad her into posing for them. To be fair, the “Sexiest Babe” award was voted on by readers of Playboy, but how did they come to find out about her in the first place? I doubt it was as a result of her alt-country solo career. My guess is because of the pornography.

In the end, though, and probably only because I and every other music writer don’t want to make ourselves sound like 13-year-old boys, we use the pornography lead to bring us to what a great band they are. Band member/mastermind Carl Newman, previously known for being a member of the band Zumpano, says that he’s seen his share of reviews that say, “These guys have a stupid, terrible name; but I love them.” You know that the band has to be doing something right if the only valid criticism a rock critic can give them is in regard to their name. Besides, if it hadn’t been for that blunt-ass moniker, it might have taken a lot longer for everyone to take notice of them. After all, they are (by the most unbiased and straightforward description only) a stereotypical supergroup composed of people who were just one step away from being name musicians at the time of the group’s formation, and the style of music that they play is a very done-before brand of power pop. There wouldn’t be any reason to pay much attention to them if they didn’t have a funny name.

Once they have their foot in their potential listener’s door, though, it is a different story. First of all, their songs waste no time filling in those little crevices in your brain that house catchy songs and play them back to you all day. For the most part, the band’s method is simple, and their sound is stripped-down; the songs are just concerned with putting you at the mercy of their hooks, of which no song is completely lacking, and often have upwards of two. Second, if you are listening to their CD, you will never get bored, even if you were to put it on repeat and leave it on all day (it might make you tired, though). There are four distinctive, prominent vocalists in the band (in addition to Newman and Case, there are Dan Bejar of Destroyer and Kurt Dahle of Age of Electric), and they are rotated from prominence to backup to nonexistence in each song in such a way that the CD gels somewhere in between a really good compilation album and a release from a band made up of godlike deities.

This lead singer musical chair concept was one of Newman’s many original decisions when they were still trying to decide which direction to take. Of his decision to organize the band in this way, Newman explained, “Well, if I was singing and if Neko was singing and Dan was singing, and we all have such radically different voices, I thought it would give the record an interesting feel. You get a sense of joy from a lot of people singing together.” It is really only appropriate to call the feeling that results from listening to a New Pornographers song “joy” if you listen to just one track; after an entire album, you’re aggressively happy, and everyone around you had better look out.

By the way things are going, everyone is going to have to look out all the time, as the New Porn’s popularity seems to be growing exponentially with each passing week. Their first CD, Mass Romantic, was released on the Canadian label Mint Records, and it wound up a surprise success (and a massive success, at that) on the indie rock circuit back in 2001. While all of the press was eating them up and all of the fans were trying to find a retailer who wasn’t sold out of their CD, the band began recording Electric Version. Newman and the rest of the band never broke a sweat over having to fulfill everyone’s unrealistically high expectations for their follow-up, though. When asked about what it was like to have to follow up Mass Romantic, Newman said, “It was a little intimidating, but we didn’t really think about it, you know? We had no choice. It was strange because we didn’t have the surprise factor anymore. We couldn’t be the band that just pops out of nowhere; we had to live up to this record that a lot of people liked. But we were the same band, so it didn’t seem like it was a big problem. It just seemed to me like we should keep doing what we were doing.” By the time that Electric Version was completed, indie rock god label Matador agreed to release it in the United States and in the U.K.

It might be because of Matador’s sway in the music world, but with Electric Version, the Pornographers have gained even more popularity than they had with Mass Romantic, including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in June. “I appreciate Matador because I think they have their act together,” Newman said by way of explaining how the label was able to infiltrate the last holdouts of the indie rock crowd that had somehow not yet heard of the band. Matador is now, no doubt, looking for further conquests, such as the territory of the non-indie rock crowd or those who have grown to love Case’s handful of solo albums.

One of the problems of being a Pornographer (too bad I can’t start every sentence with that phrase) is that they are, in fact, a supergroup, or a band made up of members of other popular bands. This circumstance seems as if it would make it difficult to write new songs, practice, and, God forbid, tour, especially with Case’s success, which is growing at about the same speed as the Pornographers’. “The hardest part was getting Neko into town,” a not-bitter-at-all Newman explained, but he didn’t make it sound as if getting everyone together in the same room with the intention of recording an album was all that hard. With Zumpano now defunct, the only other member of the band who might be difficult to track down is Bejar, who, aside from being in Destroyer, is becoming a more and more notorious recluse who never tours or grants interviews. “Basically, all we had to do was get him to drop into town and record with us, so that was easy,” Newman said of securing Bejar for recording the album, so perhaps he is only reclusive at the prospect of having to face fans and media, and he can hardly be blamed for that. “As for the rest of us, I mean, we might do other things, but The New Pornographers is our main band.” If things keep on going the way that they have been for the Pornographers, the band will become everyone’s main band, both for the band members and for everyone else in the world.

While it may look like the steadily growing solo career of Case may put a damper on the band’s ability to crank out the records and tour all over everywhere, she is, in many ways, the band’s most powerful weapon. For one thing, she has the most immediately enthralling voice of all of the many singers. Take the track “The Laws Have Changed” from Electric Version, for example. The song is split over the band’s many singers, but Case’s voice is the most resonant, and the song winds up seeming as if it was hers all along. Second, the supergroup mechanic does have its benefits, one of which is that hardcore Case fans, or Zumpano fans, or Destroyer fans, etc., will track the New Pornographers down just to see what their favorite musician is up to, and since Case has the biggest individual fan base of any of the Pornographers, she is making the most use of this particular mechanic. And the final reason why Case is the band’s not-so-secret weapon is because, well, she is The Sexiest Babe in Indie Rock.

With a note of “you are the biggest idiot who has ever interviewed me” in his voice, Newman responded to my query regarding whether Case’s growing status as a sex symbol would help or hurt the band by saying, “You think Neko becoming a sex symbol will hurt the band?” His hardly masked contempt in this case was perfectly valid, as when has having a sex symbol as a band member ever hurt any band? It might distract everyone from how respectively good or bad their music is, but there are worse things that could happen. Regardless, once he calmed down a little, he went into it a little further: “It’s funny having known Neko for so long, seeing her kind of morph into what people think is this indie rock sex goddess…all of what happens to us and to her are all of the old music traps, and it seems kind of absurd, you know? All you can do is just sit back and enjoy it.” Spoken like a true pornographer.
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