Whatever the Vancouver-based New Pornographers' actual expectations were for their 1999 debut, Mass Romantic, it sounded like an album they recorded for their own amusement. Not that it's lo-fi--far from it--it just emanates a secret mirth, as if they'd just invented a machine capable of tweaking TV theme songs into perfect indie anthems.
The Pornographers sort of were that machine at first: a "supergroup" comprising mainly Canadian indie-rockers most Americans have never heard of, with a glut of talent to draw on and no one's expectations to live up to but their own. That sort of uninhibited ease, like someone's brilliant, lighthearted singing in the shower, sounds like something we were never supposed to hear. And for a while, only a lucky few did; the album came out on Vancouver's praiseworthy-yet-pint-sized Mint Records and suffered from distribution problems in the States.
But a band whose super-catchy, patina'd guitar pop wraps the Beach Boys' Smile sessions in "My Sharona" couldn't languish long in obscurity. By the first tour, Matador Records was on the case; a couple of years and a ton of converts later, the Pornographers have a Stateside record deal and a second effort, Electric Version, that's no less enjoyable for seeming much more carefully calculated.
The fact is, even without breakout country singing star Neko Case (whose live presence with the band is indescribable if you omit the word "fiery"), or John Collins of the Evaporators, filmmaker Blaine Thurier, or Kurt Dahle from Limblifter, the Pornographer songwriting tag team of Carl Newman and Dan Bejar (Zumpano and Destroyer, respectively) would be almost too much talent for one band. Add pressure to succeed, and the band's second record could easily have become a master's thesis in Pop Rock. As it is, there are moments on Electric Version where the chord changes are on overdrive, where the crisp, organ-laden verses interlock so intensely it feels like that moment when you give up on a game of Tetris; the game accelerates joyfully without you, expertly completing its own complicated masonry.
Yet for all their skill, the New Pornographers are irresistible mostly for their implicit self-effacement, which Newman and Bejar illustrate by writing themselves parts they shouldn't be singing; these are guys whose lovable falsettos don't soar, they skid. And whenever their songs become too inscrutable, they turn a corner into a pop-melodic epiphany that saves them from self-indulgence at just the right moment.
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