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New Pornographers, Electric Version

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Hard to imagine a group with a better Critics Band name than the New Pornographers. See it on a CD cover and immediately images of some Robitussin-swigging would-be Lester Bangs – one-hand typing on a beat-up Smith-Corona as he fondles himself with the other – emerge. Without listening, you can imagine what the band sounds like: some grungey misbegotten blend of Ministry and the Cramps, perhaps.
Except. . . this band of side-projecting Canadians sound nuthin’ like you’d expect. Sophomore release, Electric Version (Matador), is of a piece with the group’s 2000 debut, Mass Romantic: alterna-pop based around strong guitar and carnival keyboard work, mildly off-kilter harmonies and run-on Van Dyke Parks-y lyrics that may make sense after six months of attentive listening to ‘em, but I wouldn’t count on it. Primary vocalists Carl Newman, Kurt Dahl and alt-country babe Neko Case (along with “secret member” Dan Bejar) are such fun to hear that this meaning junkie doesn’t really mind if he never fully gets what “will be revealed today.”

Face it, when one of the highlights on a song like “Testament to Youth in Verse” is a contrapuntal group sing of bell sounds, who cares what the words preceding it are about? The New Pornographers craft songs that hearken through the history of pop-rock – from glam through new wave, from Spanky & Our Gang through the Velvets – without ever sounding like pastiche-mongers. Concise and sparkly keyboarding, an occasional startling guitar flare-up (“It’s Only Divine Right”), deft drumming: it’s the kind of astute art pop that bands like the Jayhawks have attempted (c.f. Smile) without fully achieving, yet this patched-together group has somehow managed it twice. Which says a lot about the unpredictable nature of pop craft.
As a lover of guitarcentric poppery, I’ve been listening to a load of new releases in the past six months (I ain’t complaining: even the most simplistic and familiar power chording has its pleasures if it’s played with enough hookish commitment). Of ‘em all, however, Electric Version is the one that answers every anti-pop poop’s grouses. It’s the disc for up-and-coming would-be pop-rockers to beat, though that’s definitely gonna take some doing. . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.