Out of all the once-in-a-lifetime jams at this year's South by Southwest festival, the New Pornographers' show was the best. The band had just played its last song when lead singer and guitarist Carl Newman nervously stammered something into the microphone about a special guest. The next minute Ray Davies from the Kinks was standing beside Newman, and the New Pornographers launched into the first bar of the Kinks' "Starstruck." The crowd erupted, Newman looked like he might faint, and afterward most of the audience scratched their heads, wondering what a rock 'n' roll legend was doing with a bunch of nobodies from Vancouver.
The head-scratchers, it is safe to say, haven't heard Mass Romantic. The New Pornographers' first record neatly bridges the worlds of late-'60s England and early '00s America, connecting the warm surf harmonies of the Beach Boys to the buoyant AM radio hooks of Cheap Trick and the glam vision of T. Rex to the haphazard guitar bursts of Pavement's Steve Malkmus.
Davies' attentions were a pretty good coup for a band that was unknown outside of Vancouver a couple of years ago. In fact, the New Pornographers -- composed of hometown heroes from Zumpano, the Evaporators, Destroyer, and Limblifter, and alternacountry starlet (and one-time Vancouver resident) Neko Case -- were just a low-profile side project prior to 1998, when the group released its first song, "Letter From an Occupant," on the Mint compilation Vancouver Special. Suddenly the combo was deluged with requests for a full-length record. Unfortunately, it took the band three years to complete it.
The delay stemmed partly from Newman, a songwriter with a reputation for being a perfectionist in the studio. But however many takes and tweaks Newman imposed on the rest of the band, it appears to have been time (and studio dollars) well spent. Mass Romanticfeatures a sort of overdub-intensive mayhem where fuzzed-out guitar lines, bouncy keyboards, and shouted harmonies are all perfectly in place.
Newman also gets kudos for writing bizarrely imaginative lyrical non sequiturs that somehow make beautiful sense. Whether it's Case singing "You told me I could order the moon, babe/ Just as long as I shoot what I want," or Newman yelping about homecoming queens and inflation, the poetry on Mass Romantic is as expansive and hard to pin down as the music itself. The lyrics, along with the high-speed musical twists and turns of the songs, keep Mass Romantic fresh even on repeated listens. The record is a power pop magnum opus, one that may have left some South by Southwest attendees wondering how Ray Davies got to be backed by such a promising young band.
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