I have a pile of vinyl sitting on a chair just waiting to be listened to. It’s time I started to get through to them, I recently reviewed The New Pornographers LP Continue As A Guest, which I enjoyed very much. But I just received the 20th anniversary repress of their 2nd LP, Electric Version, and that reminded me I had the 21st Anniversary repress of their first LP, Mass Romantic. These two records are part of Matador Records' excellent Revisionist History series (and associated podcast).
Mass Romantic was first released in 2000 on the band’s Mint Records label, then picked up and remastered for the Matador Release in 2003. The 21st Anniversary repress was released in 2021 on cool red vinyl, including a 45 of the single ‘Letter From An Occupant’ (a completely different mix) backed by ‘/the End Of Medicine’ (which would be rerecorded for Electric Version) and a true B-side called ‘When I Was A Baby.’ Electric Version was released in 2003 and The 20th Anniversary repress is from 2023 and on an ultra-cool blue vinyl. Listening to these two records gives you a strong idea of what this Canadian ‘supergroup’ is all about. This is a band with a wicked pop sensibility, imaginative and melody-strewn songs, a pronounced vocal attack like the Beach Boys, a penchant for wall-of-sound production, quirky keyboards, very little guitar soloing, puzzling and intelligent lyrics, and stellar vocals (by chief songwriter AC (Carl) Newman and now alt-Americana goddess Neko Case. The band even has its own George Harrison third-wheel songwriter in the form of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who has a couple of songs on each record and by Electric Version is listed as a ‘secret member’ of the band.
So, on to Mass Romantic, both Sides 1 and 2 open with Neko Case singing lead, beginning with ‘Mass Romantic’, an impossibly catchy rocker filled with bubbly keys, then breaking down into Beach Boys style interludes before coming back strong. 'The Fake Headlines’ opens like The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ until insistent guitar chords lead to a soaring chorus, sung by Carl Newman. There’s a prominent accordion, and it's all over too quickly. ‘The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism’ is the bounciest, jauntiest tune about boozing that I’ve ever heard. When Neko joins Carl in the middle of the vocal, the tune lifts off to pop nirvana. ‘Mystery Hours’ is a strident, almost punkish tune screamed by Carl, missing much of the pop sheen of the preceding songs. ‘Jackie’ is a Dan Behar song, his first on the album. With Neko singing backup and Carl singing the bridge, it’s big and unique.
’To Wild Homes’ has saxophones and a Phil Spectorish wall of sound production. It’s another song written by Dan Bejar and sung in his reedy voice, Neko backing and Carl singing in the bridge and end, Side two starts with ‘Letter From An Occupant’, featuring Neko Case with an amazing lead vocal on top of a punchy power-pop crusher. It’s totally irresistible. ‘The Body Says No’ has a Spectorish opening that settles into a Beatley chorus and verses with snakey mellotron-ish
keyboards. ‘Execution Day’ is a weird gem from Dan Bejar, with Carl singing very high above him in unison. It breaks into a second part, like two songs stitched together. ‘Centre For Holy Wars’ is a Newman banger with a twisty melody, Neko backing vocals, and distorted keyboards. It’s also catchy as hell power pop. Next up, ‘ The Mary Martin Show’ takes the power pop to critical levels, a frantic tune with an astounding melody, sax, terrific drums, and pounding guitar chords. It’s a total head rush and probably the strongest tune on the record. “Breaking The Law’ is an old Destroyer song by Bejar that ends the record on a melancholy note.
Mass Romantic is a fine first album, it brings me the flavor of Spectorish pop like The Ronettes, the melody of The Beatles (and Big Star), the reckless antics and sharp lyricism of early Elvis Costello and The Attractions, and the vocal harmonies of Brian Wilson. This record threw down the gauntlet that the New Pornos would be a force for years to come. There are at least five Carl Newman classics and a handful of Bejar’s egghead rock songs, all ruled by the voice, Neko Case.
Electric Version was actually the first New Pornographers record I purchased, or at least listened to. Someone at Horizon Records gave me the Matador in-store play copy, telling me I would like it. Thank the stars for Horizon, because I wore that CD out. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a distillation of everything from Mass Romantic, but clearer and poppier. It’s still up there with Challengers and Brill Bruisers as my favorite New Pornos record. Electric Version has the same lineup, with Kurt Dalhe as the new drummer. And Dan Bejar is now called a ‘Secret Member’, as he continues to lead Destroyer
Side one of Electric Version opens with a Neko Case lead vocal on ‘All For Swinging You Around,’ a groovy West Coast-sounding pop confection, filled with sax, keys, and guitar stabs. This goes into ‘The Electric Version’, Carl straining the high notes at a rocking pace, using very Attractions-like energy (think This Year's Model) with a Beach Boys vocal break. Absolutely terrific. ‘The Laws Have Changed’ is super pop with a strange ascending keyboard fill, turbocharged when Neko takes over the vocal. It's relentlessly catchy and irresistible. ‘Loose Translation’ has distant Carl Newman vocals with a typical rollicking melody, delayed guitar chords, and boppy keys. It’s good, but not the quality of the first three songs. ‘‘Chump Change’ is Dan Bejar’s first tune on the LP, punctuated with “ooh oohs” and lyrics about lesbian rage and drama queens. It's quirky but solid,
one of his better efforts.
Side two opens with ‘The New Face Of Zero And One’, ripping off the drumstick clicks and power chords of Adam and the Ants 'Antmusic’, adding a catchy chorus that slides into a beautiful guitar riff over Carl’s sexy high singing. It’s sly, insistent, and imaginative. ‘ Testament To Youth In Verse’ is Dan Bejar’s finest moment, a multi-part song with breakdowns, his voice just killing the verses, and the big ending: “The bells ring no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no ” This part evolves into a multi-part Beach Boys vocal extravaganza, with a
soaring ending that’s really remarkable. Bejar kills this one. Next up is Newman’s ‘It’s Only Divine Right’, a banger infused with keys and a powerful lead guitar riff. Neko’s “Ah’s” turbocharge the song, along with Carl’s killer melody. It’s power pop heaven.
Bejar’s ‘Ballad Of A Comeback Kid’ is typical yet enjoyable oddball pop, a breather after the first three songs. ‘July Jones’ is another Newman pop tart, with a tremolo guitar riff and “ooh la’s” woven in the thick mix. ‘Miss Teen Word
power’ is another frantic tune with a sharp melody, polished off by Neko singing at the end of the choruses, the keys dance through it among the drum hits and vocals, There’s a guitar break, and it’s all over. ‘From Blown Speakers’ is a Newman tune with e-bow guitars, accordion, and an insistent melody. Another perfect pop gem for a perfect ending. As I mentioned earlier, Electric Version is the sound of the New Pornos sharpening and honing their skills, the record sounds better, the songs are better, and the playing is better. Carl Newman continues his run of wonderful pop gems, Dan Bejar contributes one amazingly good song (‘Testament To Youth In Verse’), Neko Case is Neko, and Kurt Dahle is a big improvement in the drummer seat. I feel that Electric Version is stronger than Mass Romantic, but both records are solid. It’s best to get both. The red and blue vinyl is cool, and Mass Romantic has the ‘Letter From An Occupant’ 45 as an extra bonus. Time to get your fair share of Canadian power pop on the turntable.