1998: Songwriter Carl Newman, who has recently left an underrated band called Zumpano, gets together with his friend Dan Bejar, who records under the moniker Destroyer and has recorded two lo-fi albums. They invite a few other friends from the Vancouver music scene — producer/bassist John Collins, guitarist Todd Fancey, keyboardist (and freelance filmmaker) Blaine Thurier, and drummer Kurt Dahle — to form a band without any expectations… just to have fun. Newman has recently recorded some vocals on an album called the Virginian by a talented alt-country singer named Neko Case. She comes along to add some female vocals.
This “supergroup” was named the New Pornographers, after the song “The Pornographers” on Destroyer’s first album We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge. The “supergroup” name came with a little irony. Newman, Bejar and Case would later go on to become indie rock icons. But when they recorded Mass Romantic they were working Vancouver musicians who converged at the right time with the right sound to pioneer the indie rock revolution of the early 00’s. They were only destined for success after this.
Mass Romantic was recorded over a two year period, finally released in 2000. The same year, Bejar’s Destroyer would release Thief and Neko Case would release Furnace Room Lullaby which would put both artists on the map.
This is an album consisting of perfect pop songs, influenced by Big Star, Cheap Trick, The Cars and other late 70’s/early 80’s power-pop masters. Using songs filled with tasty guitar hooks and swirling keyboards, The New Pornographers weren’t trying to be profound or make any kind of musical statement. Mass Romantic was simply a brilliant collection of songs by talented musicians at the top of their collective game getting together and creating some fun music. They could not have imagined where it would take them.
The later albums were more musically complex. Kathryn Calder was added to the mix in 2005 to bring another element to the vocal harmonies. The band become tighter and more polished. However, there is a rawness and passion in Mass Romantic that was never duplicated. Probably because they had nothing to lose.
The New Pornographers — Mass Romantic: Track-by-track review
1. “Mass Romantic”
“One… two… three… four…”, “Mass Romantic” kicks the album off with a bang. A classic hook, a thundering drum riff by Kurt Dahle, and the vocals of Neko Case come in. Those who knew Neko for her country twang were probably shocked and surprised by her rock chops. I still am when I compare her solo work to her work with the New Pornographers.
This is a stellar opening cut — passionate, heavy, and with a riff that sticks in your head.
In the middle of the song, they bring in a great Brian Wilson-influenced refrain by Newman and the sparkling keyboards of Blaine Thurier.
This is also an example of Newman’s brilliant lyricism. The best songs are those which draw us in lyrically but leave us to find our own interpretations.
“Mass Romantic” remains a staple of their live shows and one of their classics.
2. “Fake Headlines”
“The Fake Headlines” draws you in with a solo acoustic guitar riff and slightly off-key vocal by Carl Newman. You aren’t sure where this song is heading until the rest of the band comes in and brings the harmonies with them. Containing a superb bass line from John Collins and the dual riffing of Newman and Todd Fancey, this is an underrated gem.
3. “Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”
One of the New Pornographers’ standards, although I have still been trying to interpret what “Salvation Holdout Central” actually means. I’m still waiting for a band to call themselves this.
This is a classic power-pop tune from start to finish. Neko Case’s harmonies add so much to this song.
4. “Mystery Hours”
A song that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album from 1979, “Mystery Hours” is highlighted by Blaine Thurier’s brilliantly retro synthesizer lines.
It also doesn’t hurt to add some powerful guitar riffs and a passionate vocal from Carl Newman.
Dan Bejar’s first cut from the album, “Jackie” remains one of his best New Pornographer’s songs and is played regularly live, especially when Bejar is among the band.
So different from the first four cuts, it also highlights what a different songwriter Bejar is from Newman — a little quirkier, a little jazzier, but just as smart. Lyrics even more ambiguous…
When the male vocal harmonies come in on Are you going to stop the sunshine?, the Brian Wilson influence is once again heard.
6. “Letter From An Occupant”
The centerpiece of the album and one of the New Pornographers’ best songs of all time. It is a shame that this one is performed so sporadically during their live shows.
Neko Case has never sounded like this — her voice is in full rock and roll mode. Her voice gives me chills everytime I hear this. Newman’s “ooohh ooohh”‘s in the refrain are also so very right.
I’m told the eventual downfalls
are just a bill from the restaurant
You told me I could order the moon, babe,
Just as long as I shoot what I want.
Completely ambiguous lyrics. Newman himself has stated these lyrics don’t make any sense. But boy does this song rock!
7. “To Wild Homes”
A wonderfully quirky tune where the songwriting critics are shared between Bejar and Newman, “To Wild Homes” features three-part harmonies by Case, Bejar and Newman and could be notable just for that, since this is a rarity.
It is also a pretty great tune, and one I would love to see performed live.
The big acoustic guitar riffing and Thurier’s humming synthesizer lines are also a highlight of this tune.
8. “Body Says No”
Another stellar Newman power-pop tune. Thurier again shines on this song, adding “horn” riffs and gorgeous lilting synthesizer lines.
9. “Execution Day”
This wonderful tune by Dan Bejar starts off typically quirky:
Oh blast I drank the wrong draft down, two sips from your crown, the drops you left for me, am I so easily appeased?
Madrigal, why didn’t you come out today, you promised to play.
Marigold, why didn’t you come out today, we promised to play fair.
It then flows into a wonderful harmonious chorus:
On this day that began as execution day, and sure enough became execution day.
One of the few Dan Bejar songs with the New Pornographers that is almost more of a duet (with Newman) than one where Bejar is in the forefront.
10. “Centre For Holy Wars”
Containing one of my favorite lines:
Hope grows greener than grass stains, “Centre For Holy Wars”
11. “Mary Martin Show”
12. “Breakin’ The Law”
A song from Destroyer’s first album We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, “Breakin’ The Law” is revived as a completely different New Pornographers tune. (They would later revive the same album’s “Streets of Fire” for the 2005 album Twin Cinema)
It is well worth noting that the chorus of this song was performed by each member of this band — Newman’s intention was to make it sound like a children’s choir. And it amazingly sounds just like that!
Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers
“Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”
“Letter From An Occupant”
“To Wild Homes”
“Body Says No”
“Centre For Holy Wars”
“Mary Martin Show”
“Breakin’ The Law”