The New Pornographers
First Appeared at The Music Box, March 2002, Volume 9, #3
Written by T.J. Simon
Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart allegedly penned a book called Music: The New Pornography. This was before the world learned that the notorious reverend was partial to the old fashioned kind of porn. With that in mind, it's frankly amazing that it has taken this long for a group of rock musicians to adopt the moniker: The New Pornographers.
That name, however, now has been taken by a Vancouver collective of musical artists who, since 1998, have been joining together at irregular intervals to record the album Mass Romantic. The core of the band is Carl Newman (Zumpano), Dan Bejar (Destroyer) and Neko Case (Neko Case and her Boyfriends/The Corn Sisters). This Canadian supergroup receives musical support from Blaine Thurier (The Crusaders), John Collins (The Smugglers/Superconductor), and Kurt Dahle (Limblifter). Since its release in late 2000, the band has won the Canadian Juno Award (think of it as a frozen Grammy) for Best Alternative Album. In addition, Mass Romantic has received extensive critical acclaim, including appearances on several critics' "Best of 2001" lists — a disturbing trend.
For what it's worth, Mass Romantic consists of a dozen up-tempo, pop songs anchored in the sounds of 1980s new-wave and 1970s prog-rock. The vocals are shared by Newman, Bejar, and Case, and the instrumentation is soaked with keyboards galore. There's a lot happening in the songs including Beach Boys-style harmonies, which soar over pipe organs, wurlitzers, and mini-korgs, as well as a driving drum beat, which maintains the album's rapid pace. The band even enlists the help of a children's chorus for the final track Breakin' the Law.
Unquestionably, the best moments happen when Case is front and center at the microphone. It's rather unfortunate then that she only takes the lead on two occasions — the title track and Letter from an Occupant — for her awesome voice turns heads even when relegated to background vocals as on Centre for Holy Wars.
Buyers beware: this is a great CD, but fans should be wary about doling out money if they are expecting yet another Neko Case album. This is neither the alt-country romps nor the emotional torch songs that have been Case's bread and butter for the past few years. Instead, The New Pornographers is more of a showcase for songwriters Newman and Bejar. When Newman sings (The Mary Martin Show and The Slow Descent into Alcoholism), the disc has a very pleasant Brit-pop feel. It's when Bejar is in the spotlight that problems arise, largely due to the David Bowie (as Ziggy Stardust) vocal style employed on the passable Mystery Hours and the dreadful Execution Day.
Throughout Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers sounds less like a cohesive band and more like a bunch of friends getting together to play the kind of music they have loved for more than 20 years. Generally, this works as each member is an accomplished singer, and the voices mix quite nicely to form a beautiful, but messy, unit. The awards, critical acclaim, and music video for Letter from an Occupant resulted in major-label interest and talk of a second CD, possibly on Madonna's Maverick Records label. All of this makes The New Pornographers' Mass Romantic one of the most memorable side projects in recent memory and an album well worth a listen.
Mass Romantic is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box