Somewhere there’s an alternate universe where Jeff Lynne is considered the quintessential rocker, a rugged genius whose white-hot decade of hits put symphonic rock in its rightful place in the heavens. In this far-off dimension, Electric Light Orchestra is God’s house band, and the Almighty addresses the blessed with the chorus, “Do ya, do ya want my love?”
Once in a while, the New Pornographers sneak into that universe, steal a hunk of sonic taffy, and then drop back into the real world before Lynne and God realize that the perimeter has been breached. Electric Version, the mostly Canadian indie supergroup’s second album, is proof that the most ambitious pop techniques of the ’70s can be enjoyed safely more than two decades after Lynne’s synth-driven juggernaut ran out of juice. Sure, it’s a rec-room record, but one that’s fully aware that people now smoke better weed, wear stretchier jeans, and have much smaller back seats. The unspoken thesis is simple: Multitracked, well-produced rock opuses must be aggressively contained. Any other approach is just an exercise in irony.
The band’s full-speed-ahead debut, 2000’s Mass Romantic, made the same point in a punky way and almost by accident. That disc was the product of songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar’s collaboration with a rotating cast of Vancouver scenesters over the course of a few years. Despite the disconnections in the creative process, the record sounded seamless. Butta-voiced alt-country diva Neko Case was the vocal star, tearing it up during two of the high points, the frenzied “Letter From an Occupant” and the clangy title track. But Newman (the traditionalist) and Bejar (the visionary) proved they were full-fledged indie-rock maestros.
On Electric Version, Newman seems more in charge, and the songs are less frantic, more deliberate, and rarely overwhelmed by the need to cram every moment full of hooks or surprises. Even when it’s rolling at top speed, the disc echoes with a yearning for a world less entropic than the one we live in.
The prime example is Newman’s “From Blown Speakers,” a minimasterpiece of simple riffs, clipped harmonies, and understated keyboard accents. It’s tight and well-paced, and it oozes with shaggy ’70s-style charm. Lyrically, Newman is slightly abstract, but he easily communicates a clash of experiences: “When the contact high/From the real-life adventures wear off/You find in the tiny moments that bomb/Your old files rain down from the sky/And would they fall down, like cymbal crashes/Would the alarm bell sound?” The all-together-now chorus, somewhere between ELO and Stars on 45, erases any uncertainty about what gets him off, though: “It came out magical, out from blown speakers.”
Despite such efforts, the enigmatic Bejar steals the show later in the disc. Listed in the liner notes as a “secret member,” he delivers two above-average songs: “Chump Change,” a cute power-pop number in which he mentions something about flying into a “lesbian rage,” and “Ballad of a Comeback Kid,” a vaguely pastoral ditty with a thoroughly rocked-out chorus. But his “Testament to Youth in Verse,” is, for all intents and purposes, a fuckin’ classic.
The song kicks off with a skinny-tie guitar riff and a midtempo snare rhythm, with Bejar commenting on the fruitlessness of listening to modern pop radio: “Should you go lookin’ for a testament to youth in verse/Variations on the age-old curse/You blame the stations when they play you like a fool/And like a fool you get played with.” Soon the song shifts to a double-time bridge held up by an understated Supertramp-ish keyboard riff, and Bejar intones in his best Al Stewart, “Baby, think twice, maybe it’s not all, maybe it’s not all right.”
The impending left turn is silly in its perfection. Tension builds with the lines, “Oh my sweet witness, can’t you hear the voices?/They’re telling the children to rock for their choices,” and then the song blasts into la-la land, with Bejar and the other Pornographers harmonizing like a demented college chorale: “The bells ring no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….” After a few blissfully timed drum fills, it’s hard to shake the feeling that in some future Wayne’s World-style parody of indie-rock culture, the film’s lovable work-shirted heroes will cruise their hipster ‘hood in a well-stickered Hyundai, singing that coda with big shit-eating grins. And the whole thing is only 3:57 long. Take that, Queen.
The rest of the disc is consistent in its catchiness and conspicuous in its sporadic use of Case’s full potential. With Newman, she gets half of the head-bobber “The Laws Have Changed” and shares the shout-out chorus on “Miss Teen Wordpower,” which recalls the over-the-top rockers that gave Mass Romantic its momentum. The surfy, Merseybeat-ish “All for Swinging You Around” is her only solo turn, and it’s relatively subdued. Even so, her tough, lost-girl delivery transforms the track into more than the sum of its willfully retro parts. Elsewhere, she’s just an accent.
It’s easy to understand why Newman didn’t give Case more time at the mike: Underneath all of its instantly appealing AOR gloss and confident pop revisionism, Electric Version is a record for the heads, the record geeks, the folks with the time for musical treasure hunts. Case can overpower just about any song, and Newman and Bejar have learned a valuable lesson from Lynne: Understated voices don’t compete with their arrangements. And any self-respecting rock nerd will discover that mentally deconstructing Electric Version can be just as fun as reveling in its melodies. It’s both restrained and adventurous, and two decades from now, it will sound free of any era. CP