FOREWORD: New Pornographers keep delivering good aggressive pop music at a consistent rate. After I interviewed co-leader, Carl Newman, to promote 2000’s indelible Mass Romantic, the casual combo received more than a glimmer of underground fame. So they kept pushing on. ‘03s Electric Version wasn’t quite as great, but ‘05s Twin Cinema really hit the spot. ‘07s Challengers was only slightly less intriguing. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
100 miles north of Seattle lies the bohemian city of Vancouver, home of the New Pornographers. A fabulous underground supergroup featuring Zumpano’s Carl Newman, cartoonist/ digital filmmaker Blaine Thurier, the Destroyers’ Dan Bejar, Limblifter’s Kurt Dahle, and Thee Evaporators John Collins, this Canadian collective makes some of the most exuberant pop in recent memory.
Their hyperkinetic debut, Mass Romantic (Mint Records) grabs hold immediately, whizzing by in an instance without letting go.
From the foot stompin’ melodicism of “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” to the scrappy arena rock of the Cheap Trick knockoff “The Body Says No,” Mass Romantic rolls along at an exhilarating pace. No Depression-linked Country & Western wunderkind Neko Case helps out the boys by singing like a feverish rocker on the vibrant, jangly title track and lending a naive schoolgirl charm to the twee-pop “Letter From An Occupant.”
“I was worried people would think all our songs sounded the same. But Neko was our secret weapon,” the humble worrywart Newman confides. “The album doesn’t let up much. There’s lots of bombastic rockers. We gave them different rhythms and shuffled the tempos to give each song a different feel.”
The omnipresent Neko Case (whose Furnace Room Lullaby with Her Boyfriends and coffeehouse collaboration with guitarist Carolyn Marks as the Corn Sisters were critically hailed in ‘00) proves to be resilient and stylistically flexible whether displaying a rock-edged demeanor or keeping tongue firmly in cheek.
“Neko basically came in, did her part, and left. We labored hard. She was shocked when she heard the album. She didn’t know what it sounded like,” remembers Newman.
Growing up in the late ‘70s listening to oldies radio initially influenced Newman’s musical taste. He was knocked out by catchy one hit wonders and goofy novelties like “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be A Hero.”
“When I became a teenager, I totally flipped for REM. They were the first band I truly admired. But REM seemed too magical. Since I’m not a good guitar player, I then dissected the music of the Pixies. Their guitar parts were simple and cool.” He adds, “People give Nirvana more credit, but the Pixies influenced them profoundly.”
Since Zumpano’s arrangements are more structurally complex and busy, Newman just wanted the New Pornographers to have a simpler, solid-bodied rock foundation.
“I tried to streamline it a bit,” he insists. “We injected weirdness into the strraightahead, driving songs later on. But I tried to hold myself up to insanely high standards. I can’t help but let myself down.”
Although Newman claims he tried to obtain a certain “something” just out of reach, he remains very proud of Mass Romantic.
“It has received good feedback from fans and, believe it or not, Toronto radio,” the defensive Canuck mentions.
Taking the show on the road sans Case and maybe another studio member or two hasn’t hurt the New Pornos sound much, though.
“We realize there’s so many people singing you can take one away without much hassle. We tried to do the songs as close to the record as possible, but that was so overblown. We try to replace the things we can’t do with live energy,” he admits.
As for his full time gig with Zumpano, whose ‘95 debut, Look What The Rookie Did, and its sturdy follow-up, Goin’ Through Changes, turned some heads and created a nice buzz, Newman says, “We have a record that’s 60% done. But we’re in limbo now. We need to hook up and finish it. The Pornos sidetracked it and have taken us by surprise.”