Accidental Saviors 

Indie-rock “supergroup” The New Pornographers save pop by not even trying.

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These days, the term “supergroup” is more likely to illicit groans than glee from serious music fans. On paper, the idea looks good—a bunch of independently brilliant musicians get together to jam out equally brilliant songs—but in practice you end up with Damn Yankees. Toss “indie” in front of the whole thing and that just means it’s a group full of people you’ve never heard of, from bands you don’t care about, noodling around instead of finding a real hobby.

That’s what Vancouver, B.C., native Carl Newman originally intended The New Pornographers to be—a part-time lark where he could flesh out his idea of the perfect pop group with little interference from things like fans. In 1995, when he started piecing together the band, he was still fronting the overlooked and underrated Zumpano. He didn’t need another real group to furrow his brow over. He just wanted an excuse to get together with his friends, which might explain why, when he was asking buds like Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar and a pre-twanged Neko Case if they wanted in, Newman also drafted Blaine Thurier, a filmmaker who’d never played keyboards in his life.

But after the release of the group’s debut, Mass Romantic, in 2000, The New Pornographers became much more than a distraction; they were pop saviors. It was a bit freaky. “I remember reading one Mass Romantic review a couple months after the album came out,” Newman says. “It called the disc a once-in-a-lifetime record. This was just something that started in my basement. I was really surprised by the whole thing.”

Part of the reason for the shock was the fact that The New Pornographers were in limbo a couple of years prior. The band had recorded the Mass Romantic demos in 1997 hoping to get a label to pay attention. No one did, not even Sub Pop, Zampano’s home. So Newman put the tape in a drawer and forgot about it. Soon after Zampano imploded, and Newman took a day job on a guitar assembly line. The Pornographers were downgraded to an occasional diversion, a little party Newman would throw so everyone could get together, drink and maybe bang out a new song.

It would have stayed that way if Mint Records hadn’t asked Newman to contribute a song to a local benefit compilation. While most of his aspirations for the band had withered—“I just wanted to finish the album on principle, and that was it,” Newman says—he did realized that the right song might jumpstart things.

He offered up “Letter From an Occupant,” a Case-sung pop bomb that hits with the force of a thousand sugary hugs. The track scored some initial airplay around the Vancouver area, prompting Mint to offer The Pornographers a chance to put out a full album.

“We never had any plans that when the record came out it was going to be hugely popular,” he says. “I just wanted it done. So when the album finally did come out it was an instant success for me because, holy shit, it was finished.”

But after Canadian radio picked up several songs, Mass Romantic turned out to be one of the Great White North’s biggest albums of the year. The disc pulled in a Juno Award—the Canadian version of a Grammy. In the lower 48, it melted every critic who heard more than a few tracks. Even the Kinks’ Ray Davies was impressed, the notorious curmudgeon opting to play a song with the group at the 2001’s South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin

Yet all that praise and success does have a downside. When the group finally coordinated schedules to work on a sophomore record, Electric Version (Matador), Newman says there was a certain pressure for The Pornographers to prove they weren’t flukes. “All the really good pop bands manage to shake the sophomore slump and release brilliant records,” Newman says. “We didn’t want to end up just some footnote with one album.”

The Pornographers have nothing to worry about. Electric Version is like mainlining chocolate while licking an outlet, the band boosting its already lush arrangements with layers of jangly guitars and the kind of syrup-thick harmonies the Beach Boys went bonkers over. Sixties flower-power pop crashes into Cars-era keyboard lines. T. Rex riffs skip around with absurdist lyrics and truck-sized hooks.

Songs like “The Laws Have Changed” and the title track are pop protein shakes, full of enough wholesome goodness to satiate even the biggest geek. “July Jones” adds a bit of pseudo-reggae to the recipe, and “The New Face of Zero & One” serves up a solid reminder of why Adam Ant was so damn fun.

Whatever you do, don’t insinuate that it’s all product of Newman’s evil genius. Despite the rumors, he insists, The New Pornographers are more than just slaves to his vision. “People like to write about me like I’m some sort of weird Brian Wilson character,” Newman says. “The vocals and the songs, that’s me. I’m allowed to be in control of that. The rest of it I don’t have a clue about.”

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Jeff Inman

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