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Unapologetic guilty pleasure

The New Pornographers' variation on power-pop isn't meant to be deep or connect with the disaffected. Just enjoy the sugar-coated tunes.

August 03, 2003|Alec Hanley Bemis | Special to The Times

Before he was caught dallying with prostitutes, one of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's more valiant attempts to acquaint the public with sin came via a call to arms against the evils of rock 'n' roll. He and his circle began to refer to it as "the new pornography." Though the connection to Swaggart's words is hazy, a decade or so later, a group of musicians from Western Canada fell upon a similar label for their work. Enter the New Pornographers.

The name is meant to be more ironic than sinister, but there is something obscenely catchy about the band's music. It's an intensely concentrated variation on the genre called power-pop. Unlike singer-songwriters, rock stars and punkers, power-pop musicians do not aspire to write song cycles, rock operas or generational statements. Self-expression and creative indulgence are not paramount virtues. Pure pleasure for the listener is.

As power-pop adherents, the New Pornographers deliver three- to four-minute songs with verses, choruses and bridges distributed for maximal sugar-rush effect. Filled with driving rhythms and rich melodies, the songs on their debut album, "Mass Romantic," and the new "Electric Version" are defined less by the group's abstruse lyrics than frequent outbreaks of "ba-ba-ba," "la-la-la" and rallying-cry choruses.

A band featuring four singers, two songwriters and two members with thriving solo careers, the New Pornographers released their first album in 2000. "Mass Romantic" became a sleeper hit in indie rock circles after the group's amazing run at Austin's South by Southwest music conference in March 2001.

"It all kind of happened over the course of about a month," frontman Carl Newman says. "Our record got reviewed in Rolling Stone, which blew our minds, and then it got reviewed in Spin. We went to South by Southwest around the same time, and we were shocked at the interest in us. Something weird was going on."

In Austin the band received an official coronation as power-pop saviors when Ray Davies joined them on stage to perform the Kinks' "Starstruck." Publicity from that event developed into a rare instance of critical approbation paying dividends. "Mass Romantic" sold upward of 50,000 copies and was named best alternative rock album in the Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.

When they came together in 1997, the group was but a patchwork collection of unsung musicians from local Vancouver acts such as Zumpano, Limblifter, Maow and the Evaporators.

It took a year for their first gig to happen. Only after a deadline from their label, Vancouver indie Mint Records, were they motivated to finish their album.

"It was a pretty slow crawl into popularity," Newman says. "Three weeks after 'Electric Version' came out, it appears that we've sold half as much as 'Mass Romantic' has in 2 1/2 years! We were hardly a supergroup."

Indeed, only after South by Southwest did their outside careers take off. Today, the group's secondary songwriter, Daniel Bejar, has a well-respected side project called Destroyer. Even more notable is the career of Neko Case. A glorified backup singer in the New Pornographers, she released a wildly popular alt-country album, "Blacklisted," last year. The renown of the dusky chanteuse now outstrips that of the band. Recently she won an online poll at Playboy.com for "sexiest babe of indie rock."

When asked to cite the reason for the New Pornographers' success, Case cites its casualness.

"We're more than full-time musicians, we're overtime musicians," she says. "In this band we don't take things particularly seriously. There's not really much deepness to the whole situation except the fact that we're all good friends and we found a good way to hang out with each other."

Perversely, this laid-back attitude has helped their career blossom. Now signed to U.S. super-indie Matador Records, the New Pornographers have picked up the mantle of power-pop torchbearers from label mates Guided by Voices. The best bits from "Electric Version" mirror the purity and clarity that are hallmarks of the genre.

Case compares the music's simple joyfulness to a childhood memory.

"I always think of skating-rink rock," she says. "It reminds me of being at the rink when I was a kid. Didn't you ever snowball at the roller rink? It's when all the boys and the girls would line up and then somebody would come over and choose you and you'd skate around the roller rink holding hands. It seemed like a very big deal at the time."

One of her star turns on the new record isolates this feeling: "All for swinging you around," she sings. Her blowsy voice rises above the over-driven keyboards and a rat-tat-tat drumbeat recalling jump-rope on blacktop or kids playing patty-cake.

So what do Case and Newman think of the less innocent inferences people have made about the group? Attempts to get Case to discuss her "sexiest babe in indie rock" title are unsuccessful. "I work too hard to be known as the Playboy girl," she says.

Newman, however, sees potential.

"It does seem a little bit too cute, doesn't it?" he says. "It's all kind of absurd, so all I can do is enjoy it. I am really hoping that Neko stays in touch, though. When we pass through L.A. she could be our ticket to get a tour of the Playboy Mansion.

"I gotta have dreams."

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