erasing clouds

Lone Pornographers: New Discs from New Pornographers Alumni Carl Newman and Dan Bejar

by paul jaissle

Sure, we all love the crystalline pop perfection of the New Pornographers: the polished production and carefully tuned arrangements propelled last year's Electric Version onto numerous Top Ten lists. But roping in all of the collective's members must be difficult given that they all have their various other projects. This obviously begs the question: what have the group's songwriters been up to lately? Why recording their own albums of course. So while we must wait for Neko and the crew to get back together, right now we can enjoy new songs from Carl Newman and Dan Bejar as they explore their own unique muses.

First up is Your Blues (Merge), the sixth album released by Bejar under his real name, Destroyer. Now, I have always been partial to Bejar's tunes on the Pornographers' albums ('Testament to Youth in Verse' and 'Ballad of a Comeback Kid' are obvious highpoints on Electric Version), so I find it interesting that most of his Destroyer material is a little disappointing. It is his penchant for unconventional song structures and wildly surreal lyrics that I like, but they become much too disjointed without the arrangements of the other Pornographers. That being said, the new Destroyer album is one of the best things he has ever done. Why does this album succeed where his others have failed? Simply put, it has everything that makes Dan Bejar Dan Bejar and nothing else: the breathy, Bowie-esque vocals, random song structures, and stream-of-consciousnes lyrics and that's it. Check the liner notes. What do you see listed? Just acoustic guitar, percussion, and synthisizers. And for the most part, the guitar is just used for effect. Remember the music in the first Zelda game? Or the synth string parts on Quadrophenia? How about those cheap keyboards they sell at Toy-R-Us that have options like 'Ahh Voice' on them? That's bascially what this album sounds like. Oh, and Bejar delivers every line in an overly-dramatic, musical theatre sort of way. Sound like fun? Well, surprisingly, it works incredibly well here. This simplicity offers a level of freedom next to impossible working with a full band. The songs and melodies shapeshift and twist around themselves while synthetic sounding trumpets soar over a bed of acoustic guitar and electric piano. All the while, Bejar winds tales of dragons and notrious lightning with an earnesty that makes even lines like 'Now I'm facing twenty years for every night I tried to ingest the snow so lightly! (huh?)' take on a level of emotional weight. More straight forward tunes like 'Don't Become the Thing You Hated' and 'What Road' will capture the listener immediately, but the rest of the album will eventually open and expose itself with repeated listening. Dan Bejar has always cast out conventional songwriting like old bathwater, but now he has done so to make room for something that is wholly unique and may one day be considered, in itself, classic.

As for Carl Newman, who writes a majority of the New Pornographers' tunes, he embraces his mastery of the pop music form. His debut solo disc, The Slow Wonder (Matador), which was released under the name A.C. Newman (obviously due to his love of grindcore legends Anal Cunt), showcases him doing what he does best: spinning tales of confused depression with the sunniest pop melodies he can muster. Opening track 'Miracle Drug' couples both jangling acoustic guitars and punchy electrics powering a mountain sized hook. Obviously, this stuff doesn't wander to far from his Pornographers' material, but there are some notable differences: the songs aren't all as gloriously upbeat and manic as the songs on Electric Version and there are a few nice sidesteps into quieter territories. 'Drink To Me Babe, Then' and 'Better Than Most' offer mid-tempo breathers from the more up-beat numbers and 'Come Crash' is Newman's attempt at the Beatle-esque pop of vintage Big Star which he succeeds perfectly at emulating. In fact, The Slow Wonder comes much closer to the glory days of '70s power pop than even the New Pornographers have by marrying the Beach Boys melodies and arrangements with guitar punch of mid period Beatles. I know these are all big names to throw around, and that shouldn't be done lightly, but what Newman has done here may rank among the best approximations of these pop glories without sounding derivative. So, if you like your pop music with a little muscle and slightly off kilter delivery and lyrics, this is the album for you. Again, here we have a wholly unique effort that both celebrates what the artist does best without repeating him or his influences. The Slow Wonder practically outshines the Pornographers' material, which is no easy feat, and certainly should not go unnoticed.

Issue 25, July 2004

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