One better 

New Pornographers improve on a proven formula

The New Pornographers have been wrestling with some rather critical existential issues of late: how to go forward and prosper without snuffing out the spark that got the acclaimed indie popsters where they are now. How to improve on a highly evolved musical formula that was a hair's breadth shy of perfection to begin with. How to dodge the inevitable comparisons to what came before.

None of which has been fully resolved by Electric Version, the excellent if unsurprising follow-up to the band's much-praised 2000 debut, Mass Romantic. Not that Electric Version doesn't do everything a second album should -- both refining and building upon the promise of its predecessor. Where the jittery Mass Romantic nearly falls over itself in its efforts to challenge and amuse (care to dissect "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" anyone?), Electric Version is (mostly) sober, restrained, comfortable in its own skin. It's the cool-headed post-grad to Mass Romantic's angsty, self-conscious adolescent. As such, that febrile first-time adrenaline rush is largely gone, replaced by smooth execution, measured tempos and, frankly, better songwriting.

It's a trade-off Pornographer-in-chief Carl Newman is willing to live with. "I didn't want us to be a band that grew up in public," says Newman via phone from Vancouver, the city most of the band calls home.

Newman first took his growing pains public with Zumpano, an incorrigible little power-pop unit that went over like ostrich burgers at a PETA banquet in a music industry still grieving over the concurrent commercial deaths of grunge and electronica. Adding insult to insult, the band was on Sub Pop, Nirvana's old label.

Sonically inhibited and willfully introspective, Zumpano's second and last album for the label, 1996 Goin' Through Changes, is not among Newman's career highlights. "That was a painful record to make," he recalls. "It involved a lot of butting heads with other band members in the studio. I felt really frustrated that it didn't come out the way I wanted it to. I can understand why filmmakers want to take their names off the things they wrote and directed."

Worse yet, the final Zumpano album was ill-suited to rocking out. So when Newman convened the New Pornographers a year later, building muscle was at the top of the list. "I really think if I'd been free to just make Zumpano albums like I wanted to, they probably would've sounded a lot more like the New Pornographers," says Newman. "Ultimately, I just wanted to start a new band, and I really wanted it to be my baby. I just wanted to make a record the way I wanted to -- for once."

To that end, Newman assembled a well-rounded supporting cast of people secure enough in their own careers -- musical and otherwise -- to happily defer to their leader on just about everything. Bassist John Collins, guitarist Kurt Dahle and drummer Todd Fancey all have worked with other successful bands in Vancouver, while keyboardist Blaine Thurier is a local cartoonist and filmmaker. When Dan Bejar isn't working with his own band, Vancouver glam-rockers Destroyer, he fills out New Pornographers albums with his songs and vocals. And Canadian alt-country vixen Neko Case has three albums of her own to go with that powerful voice -- one that's relegated mostly to harmonies with the New Pornographers. In fact, Case took up with the Pornographers just around the time her solo career was beginning to grow some legs, which prompted her move to Chicago. So is it any wonder Mass Romantic took more than two years to make?

"I wanted us to come out of the gate fully formed," says Newman. "We could have put out two records at that time, but they would've been two records that weren't as good."

Comparatively speaking, Electric Version was made practically overnight -- recorded in 11 months at two studios in Vancouver. And while it's no less clever in its grasp of guitar pop's past, it feels less fussed-over than Mass Romantic, less like a train wreck of influences. It's also home to "The Laws Have Changed," a delirious convergence of all the elements that make the New Pornographers such a guilt-free proposition. It's the perfect summer hit for an imperfect world.

"We've been getting that a lot," says Newman of the tune's warm-weather aura. "But we never expected it to be any sort of radio hit."

Spoken like a guy who's got nothing to prove.


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