Warning: Buckle up when listening to the New Pornographers’ second album, Electric Version, it’s a wild ride. The Vancouver indie supergroup sets up a world of circus organs and beach blanket beats as it takes the listener through musical twists and turns. When you’re expecting a climatic chorus, the band delivers a soft whisper; when you think a strong drum beat is coming, the bass throws you a great line. This roller-coaster ride of an album keeps me guessing, and I’m captivated.
The album, the band’s first release on Matador Records, couldn’t start any better. “The Electric Version,” full of ’60s drumming and sing-along bah bahs, sets the carefree mood of the album. But then “From Blown Speakers” comes along, completely unexpected with its organ-centered opening and jagged one-word lines. This song takes everything the listener expects to hear, and does the exact opposite. Ready for one vocalist? They’ll give you several. Think you’ve mastered the song structure? They’ll throw in a chorus that slowly grows to three-ring-circus tent sizes. Just as the spindly voices of Dan Bejar and frontman Carl Newman become predictable, Neko Case takes over on “The Laws Have Changed,” fantastically moving the song in a different direction. Case’s voice, much stronger than many of today’s female voices, acts as the strong base for the album. But it is only showcased randomly, making her entrances all the more wonderful.
There is no single era of reference for the New Pornographers; instead, they take bits of ’60s pop, new wave and British Invasion and make them sound modern. This method of captivation is important for the New Pornographers, especially when the creativity runs dry, as it does occasionally here. Take the opening line from “Chump Change,” the album’s weakest track: “Stole the page from your book/ And a line from your page/ And flew into a lesbian rage.” The track continues on with a distracting mish-mash of sound, drawn from the Who to the Shins and everything in between. Here, though the New Pornographers are often successful in fusing several different sounds together, all the listener hears is an awkward and forced combination.
But attention spans are short on Electric Version, and the group quickly moves on from this rock-tinged song to the pony-dance worthy “All for Swinging You Around.” Again Case and her disarmingly strong voice takes center-stage, almost overcoming any previous awkward moment. Not that lyrics are ever the focus for the New Pornographers, as they are often buried under layers of tambourines, organs and a backing chorus. This is the one characteristic that is no surprise; Mass Romantic, their first, wonderfully sweet album, is drenched in sounds as well. If the New Pornographers tickled your fancy the first time, they’ll probably get away with doing it a second time. And they’ll do it with a huge grin on their faces, giving you the ride of your life while, as the song title goes, swinging you from surprise to surprise.