In the liner notes of the New Pornographers’ debut album, “Mass Romantic,” the anonymous band member who wrote them betrays confidence that the record is a good one while continually confessing that most of the details — such as who played what on which track — are not clear. The album was recorded over a period of four years by various musicians in Vancouver, Canada, all of whom had other, supposedly more stable gigs. Even the cover art, of a man and woman making love outdoors with a ram looking on, was unattributed, bought off a friend who couldn’t remember where he got it.
Accidents will happen, and the fortunate confluence of talents that made “Mass Romantic” a masterpiece also provided the participants with a windfall: They toured the album for two years. With their second record, “Electric Version,” they present themselves as a bona fide band.
Fortunately, the irreverence that made their debut so appealing has not been neutralized by a more efficient production schedule. Centered mainly on the songwriting of Carl Newman from the power pop band Zumpano, the album bristles with fresh melodic ideas and quirky arrangements that do more inventive things with four-part harmonies and keyboard-guitar interplay than anything since Todd Rundgren left the Nazz.
The first cut opens with a Ventures-like drum-and-guitar break, building a huge head of steam that propels the group through 45 minutes and 13 songs without taking a breath. Aided by the clear tones of alt-country chanteuse Neko Case on songs like the fantastically elastic “Laws Have Changed” and the New Wave keeper “All for Swinging You Around,” the album also contains more variety than most groups produce in their entire careers. Folk-rocker Dan Bejar, who is no longer a full-time member, brings his Bowie-esque predilections to the fore in “Chump Change,” which features dense lyrics set to an airy, bouncing guitar vamp and some truly monumental organ.
Though the overall tone is unserious, the songs are played and sung with the intensity of street punk, a feat that’s all the more impressive considering Newman’s penchant for stuffing as many chord changes as he can justify into a classic three-minute pop song. By the tenth cut, “It’s Only Divine Right,” if you’re not bouncing off your bedroom walls you probably should see a doctor. By the last cut, you’ll probably need one. (Philip Brasor)
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