"A lot less time for a lot more care." So sang the Undertones on 1979's More Songs About Chocolate and Girls, facing the age-old second-album problem: You've had yearsyour whole life, in a wayto compose that initial public offering, but if it makes a splash, you soon find yourself working on the follow-up at a faster pace with higher outside expectations. Or, as the New Pornographers' Carl Newman puts it, "God help bands that are 'anticipated.'"
New Pornographers Cinerama, The Organ Showbox, 206-628-3151, $14 9 p.m. Sat., June 14
Newman and most of his groupmates are veterans of Vancouver's indie scene, and their songs are more likely to concern "the wreck of the soul" than adolescence and Mars bars, but the new Electric Version (Matador) finds them in the same uneasy position. Back in 1997, Newman (Zumpano, Superconductor) conceived the New Pornographers as a workshop for unused songs by himself and Destroyer's Daniel Bejar, to be sung by a rotating cast including rising alt-country belter Neko Case. Their first four-song demo went unnoticed until Newman placed the hypercharged, Case-fronted "Letter to an Occupant" on a Mint Records compilation. In 2000, Mint released Mass Romantic, a furiously paced, virulently catchy full-length.
The resulting acclaim was heartening and somewhat shocking: a Juno award (the Canadian Grammy equivalent), across-the-board critical raves, and a vote of rock-royalty confidence from Ray Davies, who performed the Kinks' "Starstruck" with the band at 2001's South by Southwest festival. Speaking from Vancouver, Newman is forthright about the key to the band's success. "We have big drumbeats and a good female singer. It was always my theory that if you had those elements, you'd become popular. When I write a song that sounds like a hit, I say, let's get Neko to sing this one."
Calculated? Perhapsbut how often has great pop been anything but? With Newman's most immediate melodies again hammered home by Case's rich, knowing vocals, Electric Version doesn't make any radical changes in the New Pornographers' recipe. But this isn't Mass Romantic Reloaded, either. Blaine Thurier's keyboards are better integrated, the production (courtesy of bassist/ engineer John Collins) is measurably cleaner, and the median tempo is closer to "chop very fine" than "puree." According to Thurier, "On the first album, we were barely keeping our footing. This time, we held on to the banister."
Still, stacked up against anything but its immediate predecessor, the disc is as sonically and lyrically action-packed as they come. Rock-historical references fly thick and fast: The opening guitar attack of "Loose Translation" is a dead ringer for Bowie's "Suffragette City," while "The New Face of Zero and One" cops Adam and the Ants' trademark stick clicking. More important, Newman's melodies and chord progressions actually develop, making their "boneheaded" (his word) payoffs that much sweeter. Take the single "The Laws Have Changed." Kurt Dahle's "big drumbeat" keeps it danceably direct; Newman's vocal line rises as an organ hook descends, seamlessly giving way to Case's pre-chorus croon, until both singers burst into mysterious instructions: "Form a line through here/Form a line to the throne."
Though Daniel Bejar's three contributions don't have the tongue-and-groove precision of Newman's, they're far from filler. (Credited as the New Pornographers' "secret member," Bejar sings on both albums but rarely joins the band onstage.) This time out, he quotes Wittgenstein ("The world is all that is the case") and derails Dylan ("Think twice, maybe it's not all right") while hotfooting from one musical idea to the next. The arrangements are what make the pieces fit: "Chump Change" surrounds Bejar with string-enhanced "ooh-hoo"s, while "Testament to Youth in Verse" builds his refusenik outro ("The bells ring no, no, no . . . ") to a five-voiced Brian Wilson-style climax.
Though Electric Version is no sophomore slump, it's also not quite the lighthearted summertime record early press has it pegged as being. Songs like "It's Only Divine Right" have a just- discernible sociopolitical undertow that troubles the music's up-tempo abandon. "It's about the Bush girls scamming liquor at the University of Texas while their father wreaks havoc on the world," says Newman. "I had a picture of a decadent, crumbling empire in mind." Too opaque to count as a "protest" ("Come true for the new martyrs/With your hair parted like the Red Sea"), the song sounds more like a great lost Cars single than a Canadian screed against American privilege. And that's fine with Newman: "I want us to be a party band. That's all I've ever tried to do." There's really no conflict here: What better place to throw a party than a decadent, crumbling empire?