Sunday, February 7, 2010

AC Newman and His Very Special Episode of Friends

Previously on Buffy: It's a young man's game, and young is a passing phase.

I'm about to delete seven paragraphs that have been written and re-written ten times. I'm going to do this because this piece has become a microcosm of why I stopped writing about music. Searching for some sort of "in" I've muddied the waters entirely. There's no clarity at all. I started with a simple premise. After sorting through my preliminary "best of" lists for the 2000s, I found a godawful number of records attributable, more or less, to AC Newman. I wanted to call out the fact that between four excellent New Pornographer discs and his two solo albums, Newman had released an ass-ton of quality music over the decade and should be lauded accordingly.

Then I got sidetracked. I got off topic for a while on Newman's pre-Pornos work with Zumpano. Somehow that led into a tangent about SubPop's search for a post-grunge identity at the end of the 90s, and then all of a sudden I was talking about the Shins. What the fuck? This is why I stopped writing in the first place. I found myself tossed between repeating the same stock judgments over and over - "AC Newman is a pop genius and the new album is fantastic!" - or searching endlessly for some hipper-than-thou twist that would blur the repetition some subtle bit. I got to the point where I hated to read my own work, and that's not a place any writer should be. I have no intention of going there again. So I'm deleting all of this shit and starting over.

AC Newman released six albums in the last ten years that I would say he "owned" creatively. As the driving force behind The New Pornographers, he owns their sound. Yes, the band builds in layers on the "supergroup" concept, mixing Dan Bejar's avante pop with Neko Case's indie-twang chanteuse voice, but the crux of the matter has always been Newman's 60's era counter vocals and interwoven melodies. To understand this, one need only listen to a solo album by the three primary contributors. Bejar and Case each have very distinct solo sounds. An AC Newman record is basically a New Pornos disc with other players filling in for Bejar and Case.

Of the six Newman led albums of the decade, you could have a raucous debate for supremacy. While I might be convinced that 2005's Twin Cinema is the most fully realized of all the work, at the end of the day I always return to the record that originally sold me.

Mass Romantic is probably the decade's most revered album that absolutely no one listened to when it came out. Released in the holiday dead zone of 2000, on tiny little Mint Records out of Vancouver, the disc floated aimlessly in no man's land for most of the winter. But word of mouth kept building about this so-called "Canadian supergroup" and their sold out tour dates. I eventually picked it up on the strength of Stomp-n-Stammer's recommendation (itself driven by the Jeff Clark's drop-jaw lust for the much ballyhooed Case). At the turn of the century Mass Romantic's intricately layered combination of crunchy, fuzzed-up guitars, light, intertwining synths and over-dubbed vocal melodies was a revelation.

The album kicks off with the title track, an infectious little pop number with more hooks than that guy from Hellraiser. The first thing you hear is Kurt Dahle counting off, sticks clicking out an up tempo in standard time, then the immediate kick of the rhythm guitar, slightly distorted, curt and syncopated, hitting on the half beats. Duh-unh, duh-duh-unh... Behind it a synthesizer tweets out a little riff designed to sink into the listener's reptilian brain. (This before "tweet" became associated with public sharing of insipid half-thoughts by a generation of ADD sufferers.) Twelve bars in and there's Neko, singing out something completely indecipherable. "Mass romantic fool wears Foster Grants his books on tape rings true, like everyone wants to say I love you to someone on the radio (radio.)" Indecipherable, not such that you can't understand the words, but in the sense that until Turing did his maths Enigma was indecipherable. I challenge anyone to make sense of this code.

But that's the beauty of the project. You don't need it to make sense. You have the hooks, thrown at you in such numbers as to assure something catches your skull broadside. You have those damned rhythm chords chunking out the time. You have the synths snaking there way around your spinal cord, leaving a cottony, novocaine numbness in their every wake. And then, just as you're beginning to realize that you're already caught, they throw Neko at you.

Until Mass Romantic Neko Case was thoroughly pigeonholed within the alt-country scene. Her work to date had been a mediocre debut, The Virginian, followed up by the thoroughly excellent Furnace Room Lullaby (we'll come back to that one later). Her fame and popularity, such that it was, rested on her status as the underground's new Patsy Cline, belting out torchlight standards atop steel guitars in smoky backroom bars. Also, she tended to disrobe during her shows. We indie rocker dorks, we do love it when a pretty woman strips while singing for us. I'm pretty sure that Case puts on extra sweaters prior to shows just to facilitate this sort of semi-burlesque, but I digress.

The point is that up until the thirteenth bar of the self-titled opener of Mass Romantic no one south of Minnesota had ever considered Case as a *pop* singer. We were young and foolish I suppose.

I am thoroughly convinced that, had Newman not had the foresight to open this record with a Case song, The New Pornographers would not have been the sensational success they turned out to be. Certainly, as we move further into the record we find gems being led, vocally, by Newman himself. The second track, "The Fake Headlines," is a Newman song. But our willingness to listen hinges on the insane catchiness of the opener, and that relies notably on our preexisting love affair with Neko Case. (The term "Beatles-esque" gets thrown around so often in writings about music as to make it nearly meaningless, but if you want to know what it *should* mean, listen to the intro to "The Fake Headlines.") By the chorus Case has melted back into the mix and we're presented with the most unexpected of things: a band, rather than a collection of contributors. And then we swing, fully immersed, into the strongest track on the album.

I'm not sure, exactly, how to convey my love of "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" without falling into the same sort of cliched hipsterisms that drove me to stop reviewing music in the first place. There's that bended synth intro bit, just those three or four seconds of warped up, computer generated growl before the rhythm section and accompanying keys kick in. There's the catchiness of Newman's vocals. There's the subject matter of the lyrics with their happy conveyance of a life lived in scenes drowned in more than sound. And then there's the falling bridge that drops you into the first chorus. Mostly, it's that bridge. Pick it up somewhere near the 50 second mark and listen: "I say my, my, my slow descent; into alcoholism it went..." and it's right there, that guitar+snare run of sixteenths dropping you bodily onto the chorus as Neko rises to the fore vocally. "Something like THIS song; something like this song; something like this song...." Salvation holdout central indeed. I am a simple man with simple needs. I love this damned song.

It doesn't let up. The first eight tracks of the album are all outstanding, the run from "Slow Descent" to "Jackie" and "Letter From An Occupant" never lets go. You're all the way to track nine, "Execution Day," before you get to a song that is merely good. And that's it. That's the low point for the entire album. "Centre* For Holy Wars" grabs you by the lapels again, immediately tossing you defenseless and gasping for air into the maw of "The Mary Martin Show," a song that competes with "Slow Descent" in stupid, glittery brilliance. The Pornos at least let you down gently with the closer, "Breakin' The Law."

As I said, Newman would go on to spin this sound into six high quality releases over the course of the decade, all of them worthy of a few bucks tossed across the counter culture. As I said, as I always do, I tend to gravitate toward the albums that first hooked me - Mass Romantic and 2003's Electric Version. That's just me. I know folks who could argue convincingly that 2005's Twin Cinema is the best album of the decade. (I have my own thoughts on that.) 2004's solo, The Slow Wonder, is a fantastic record. All of them work on that same 60's pop "wall of sound" thing. Taken as a whole, you're talking about six releases of high quality and merit. It's rare that you stumble onto an artist that can turn out two or three. Here's looking forward to May's release of New Pornos #5.

Mass Romantic (2000) - 7sponges**
Electric Version (2003) - 5sponges
Twin Cinema (2005) - 6sponges
Challengers (2007) - 5sponges
The Slow Wonder (2004) - 5sponges
Get Guilty (2009) - 4sponges

*They're Canadian. They spell things funny.
**For better or worse, I will always default to the EvilSponge rating system.