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Neko Case is hosting her fellow New Pornographers with care. Maybe it's because five of them have flown in from Canada for a photo shoot, instead of her making the less costly trip to meet them, but I sense that she wants the evening to go well.
Moving away from the Pacific Northwest can't have made it any easier for the alternative country chanteuse to feel connected to her power-pop bandmates in remote Vancouver. Spin's request is a useful pretext, then, an excuse to become reacquainted on Matador Records' dime. When I join them at a crowded nightspot (Case asks that I not disclose her home for security reasons, and I respect her request), delays in the shoot itself seem to come as a relief. Case, an increasingly successful solo artist and songwriter, is conversing intently with the band's multi-instrumental impresario Carl Newman, while the rest of the touring New Pornographers -- bassist John Collins, drummer Kurt Dahle, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, and guitarist/keyboardist Todd Fancey (singer Dan Bejar doesn't travel with the band) -- comment wryly on their surroundings.
As I follow along, my ears are still ringing from listening to the band's new album Electric Version on the drive downtown. The memory of it makes a nice counterpoint to the Clash songs coming over the club's tiny loudspeakers. The New Pornographers are more pop than punk, but they share with the recent inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame talent for making music strong enough to transcend an imperfect sound system. The songs are almost too detailed to appreciate in high fidelity, where they separate into a collection of thoughtful fragments that the brain strains to connect. "I think they're kind of meant to be played on AM radio," notes Newman later in the evening, "I think I hear songs that way." Some contemporary pop masterminds, like the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne or the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, welcome the logic of the headphone. But despite Newman's notoriously compulsive behavior in the studio -- the band's own press clippings are liberally sprinkled with the word "tyrant" -- the New Pornographers have a different goal in mind for their "more is more" aesthetic. Picking up on Newman's comment, drummer Dahle conjures an ideal metaphor. "We stack it high. It's kind of like going to Arby's." The New Pornographers make dance-friendly music that sounds a little different with each listening, a Rorschach test for people who aren't too proud to get sweaty. Equations are arguably the toughest part of music writing, but it's easy to hear musical generations at war in each song: the Beatles with Elvis Costello, the Beach Boys with Squeeze, the Zombies with Blondie, the Kinks with the Cars.
Their sublime fusion is already clear three tracks into Electric Version, when the pulsing combination of New Wave chords, clipped beats and sci-fi organ notes of "The Laws Have Changed" pries you away from your hipster complacency long before Case's transcendent voice introduces "for the first time, Pharaoh on the microphone." It's hard to tell what the song is about, but when the falsetto chorus enjoins listeners to "form a line," you can't help but think that it's an invitation to worship at the New Pornographers' altar.
But devotion depends on mystery. Nobody seems to want to talk about the record, and yet there's no shortage of talk. The band is happy to analyze anything but the music. The mood is wrong. It's the Monday before the war in Iraq is set to begin. We've all missed President Bush's speech earlier in the evening, but the Canadians make their reservations known as they periodically glance up at the bar's television. Case sports the anti-war buttons. Discussing the "threat" that France poses to the U.S., Newman tries to soothe American anxiety. "Don't worry, the U.S. still has enough warheads to destroy the world many times over."
Later, when I ask the New Pornographers what their goals were for Electric Version, Newman starts with "to sell a moderate amount" and then stops. "No, wait, we already achieved our goals for this album!" Newman then refuses to go along with the music business's version of planned obsolescence, in which each new record is said to mark a dramatic departure from its predecessor. "People liked the first one, so we gave them exactly what they wanted. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he says. But he does proceed to detail, grudgingly, some minor differences between Electric Versionand 2000's Mass Romantic. "I think it's got a little less of the la-la-la choirboy harmony stuff." He takes pride in the dueling guitar solos at the end of "It's Only Divine Right" and other rock moments on the record, which provide a pleasingly sour counterpoint to the sugary vocals and keyboards that have become their signature sound. Overall, he agrees with Dahle and Collins that Electric Version goes a little lighter on the excess. "I think that was kind of on purpose, trying to give the whole thing a few more valleys." He pauses. "And peaks."
Before the band goes upstairs for the last session of the photo shoot, Case makes an offer. "I know this is hard. We're going to dinner afterwards. Why don't you just come along and do the interview there?" Fast-forward 90 minutes: I'm seated at a long table in a loud Mexican restaurant. It's difficult to hear, but Newman is sitting on my right. Once again, the conversation turns to serious thoughts about war and the merits of American policy. "Somebody in Vancouver made a tee shirt that says I'm not an American' in 10 different languages superimposed over a Canadian flag," notes Newman. He does make a momentary detour off-topic to reminisce about a recent trip to Norway, one of those all-expenses-paid deals that only seem to happen in Europe. "We were only there two days, but I left missing the people." He and Collins praise their hosts, particularly "the Norwegian woman with the raven hair." Collins finishes the thought. "And the hot appearance." At the end of the table, Case hears "hot pants"; that leads to considerable merriment.