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May 9, 2003

Canadian supergroup lays it on too thick on new Version

It's tough to formulate general principles with regards to something as ridiculously subjective as pop music, but something along the lines of a Supergroup Principle seems safe: no supergroup will ever equal the sum of its parts. Don't believe me? Try this: can you name three Traveling Wilburys songs? How about three Dylan songs? Three Tom Petty songs? How often do you spin CSNY instead of CSN? Oysterhead instead of Phish? It works for other collective endeavors, too: Can you name who won last year's NBA championship? How about the All-Star game?

In the context of CSNY and the Traveling Wilburys, calling the New Pornographers a supergroup is something of a stretch. More accurately, they're a Canadian indie rock supergroup with a slightly higher profile as a unit than with their individual endeavors, save for guest vocalist/quasi-member Neko Case. As a result, they're somewhat exempt from the Supergroup Principle, as their combined powers add something to their respective careers: Destroyer's Dan Bejar gets other people without pinched, squeaky voices to support his songwriting, Neko Case gets pop boys to break her out of the alt-country ghetto, and Zumpano's wonderfully talented Carl Newman, gets, well, an audience. Their second album, Electric Version, features some bang-up pop rock. It's not totally exempt, however: like a conversation between acquaintances instead of friends, it's homogenous and sort of weightless.

The opening/title track sets the general form for Electric Version, and the success or failure of the following songs really just depends on how well they work with this template. Interlocking Kinks guitar and organ run the melody, there's a big chorus followed by an equally big bridge, and a coda of some sort with sweet, if somewhat kitschy harmonies. In "Testament to Youth in Verse," it's "The bells ring no, no no no," etc. etc. in, guess what, three-part singsong harmony meant to sound like bells. We're bordering on novelty song territory here, inching across a big glowing line that separates good sugary pop from bad.

And then, after the shaky beginning of "The Electric Version," they make you believe for two songs. "From Blown Speakers" starts with their now-familiar organ-guitar lead, but one that's borne by a more interesting funk-bass that lends some variety to the song's power chords. The expected coda this time rushes in from a near stop, and sounds the more dramatic and gripping for it. The New Pornographers have a tendency to layer on guitar, organ, and multi-tracked vocals until it crushes the listener, as if Brian Wilson had finally gone off his meds and went off to destroy a mixing board. It's an effective tactic if contrasted with moments of reserve that give the song time to breathe.

"The Laws Have Changed" follows, and it's the high point of the album, the perfect pop song. The organ and guitar are there again, only this time the organ is supporting the melody instead of playing around it. Newman's high vocals start the song, distant and scratchy as if sung through a Walkman. Case follows him in reprocessed, overdubbed two-part glory. But the harmonies and guitars instantly fall away, and she takes the next verse with just drum, bass and electronic filigree. The disconnect between the vocal stylings give their typical sound a third dimension, and "The Laws Have Changed" makes the leap from listenable to good.

Case is otherwise underutilized on the album. Newman has a very nice voice, a take-home-to-mom voice, but there's something deeply frustrating about the fact that he takes most of the vocal duties on Electric Version while Case lurks back singing harmony on the chorus. When a staggeringly gorgeous woman has Case's voice, both clear and powerful, and remains committed to the indie ranks, she ought to be able to do whatever she wants because she's doing us all a favor.

What's worse is that her harmony vocals are regularly thinned out to blend better with Newman's, which goes beyond frustrating to insulting. The fear of her vocals dominating Newman are legitimate--their big single off of their first album, "Letter From an Occupant," proves that she can consume a song and all the instruments Newman and Bejar can throw at it. Nonetheless, it was their most successful, and best, song. And when Case is let loose on Electric Version, it provides for the album's best moments.

Throughout the album, there's a fear of letting one element dominate, and the all-sounds-to-the-front production and songwriting diminish the beautiful pop moments that should be isolated and highlighted. My instinct is to attribute this to the Supergroup Principle. Anyone who's ever watched an all-star game in any sport knows that the lack of role players makes it hard as hell to please everyone. Too much virtuosity is ultimately numbing. The New Pornographers want not only virtuosity, they want you to hear all of it--Organ! Guitar! Two-Part Harmony! Overdub! Three-Part Harmony!--on every song. There's just too much talent here, too many vocalists, too many hooks, too many instruments, and too many great pop moments--so many as to stop noticing them altogether.