Great Fucking Albums #23: Electric Version

Since my little hiatus, I’ve stuck a bunch of creative irons in the fire, many of which have something to do, at least tangentially, with Bollocks! I realized yesterday that it’s been a while since we’ve had an installment of Great Fucking Albums and I happen to think that’s a goddamn shame because 1) I really like talking about Great Fucking Albums and 2) I’m willing to be that I’m not the only one who enjoys listening to them.

On a long enough timeline (like another year or two), the New Pornographers could find themselves discussed in this feature at least three times. Their first two albums, Mass Romantic and Electric Version, were excellent and last year’s Together saw the New Pornos knocking it out of the park once again. That means fully sixty percent of the New Pornographers’ albums are Great Fucking Albums and the other forty percent are still pretty goddamn good. We’ll set aside their other work for another time and focus our attention on Electric Version for today. Why? Because I’ve been listening to it almost nonstop the last few weeks and if I can’t stop listening to something, that usually means it’s time to write about it.

For starters, the album lives up to its name, consisting of thirteen breezy tracks of electric pop (we don’t like to say “power pop” here at Bollocks!), more manic and bouncy than even Mass Romantic managed to be. The first six tracks are as unrelenting and indelible as anything you will hear on your Top-40 radio stations but I’ve only ever heard the New Pornographers on NPR. Why is that? Because commercial radio fucking blows, that’s why.

The album opens with a great pair of tunes, “The Electric Version” and “From Blown Speakers”, both of which make specific allusions to sound that, for me, outline the album’s ethos. “The Electric Version” talks about screeching tires being the sound of God and “From Blown Speakers” suggests the proper volume at which to listen to Electric Version – “it came out magical/ out from blown speakers.” And indeed, Electric Version is best heard at the loudest volume permitted by law (and your neighbors, I guess). Though wrecking your sound system might actually inhibit your enjoyment of the New Pornographers quite a bit. Use your own discretion there.

I forget where I read it, but someone once described the New Pornographers’ songwriting style (Carl Newman and Dan Bejar wrote all of the tunes on Electric Version) as “chorus-chorus-chorus” as opposed to the standard “verse-chorus-verse” style employed by your less catchy performers. I’m pretty sure the person who made that assertion was listening to Electric Version when that thought occurred to them. It’s as though the New Pornographers tried to craft an album made entirely of hooks. Rhythm guitar parts from this album get stuck in my head (especially the parts on “From Blown Speakers” and “Chump Change”) from time to time, as do Newman’s insane background vocals on “The Laws Have Changed.”

And I still haven’t mentioned one of the New Pornographers’ biggest assets. Dan Bejar and Carl Newman wrote the songs and sing lead on many of them, which is cool. I like bands with more than one singer. But the New Pornographers are not content to employ just two formidable vocalists. They also have Neko Fucking Case, who is arguably the best female vocalist doing music right now. She is easily in the top five. Or, if she’s not in your personal top five, I will accept two excuses as valid: 1) you have never heard Neko Case or 2) you hate joy. I suppose you could hate joy and that’s why you’ve never listened to Neko Case. But it’s your loss. Case contributes stellar background and harmony parts (particularly to the outro of the Bejar-fronted “Testament to Youth in Verse”), sure, but when she steps to the front on songs like “The Laws Have Changed” and “All for Swinging You Around,” all the other would-be awesome pop bands pack up their shit and head home. It was gonna be tough for them to run with the New Pornographers in the first place, but what could they do against a band that writes songs like those and has a singer like her? If you guessed “fuckall,” you guessed right.

I’ve probably argued a million times (and once in this post) that the New Pornographers make exactly the kind of music that the radio ought to be playing and one of the trillion or so reasons I think so is because the New Pornos are precisely 95 times more clever than your average pop group. Electric Version is littered with great lines, like this couplet from “Miss Teen Wordpower” – “This kind of blank adventure happens all the time/ because nobody knows the wreck of the soul the way you do.” I am also quite fond of Dan Bejar’s casually delivered, “I don’t know much/ but other singers know less” on “Ballad of a Comeback Kid.”

For all the winking humor of their lyrics (Dan Bejar seems to save his best lines for New Pornographers songs, which is why I want to like Destroyer more than I do), the New Pornographers, at their best, are a band that delivers incredibly well-crafted pop songs to your brain with almost alarming frequency. It’s not one singer (although, I feel it prudent to point out one more time that one of their singers is Neko Case. Neko Case!) or a flashy guitar player that makes Electric Version great. It’s the fact that you can listen to it just once, say to yourself, “This is really fucking good,” and then proceed to listen to it again and again and again.