Zumpano and New Pornographers

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Look What The Rookie Did, 6/10
Goin' Through Changes, 6/10
New Pornographers: Mass Romantic , 6.5/10
New Pornographers: Electric Version , 6.5/10
Sparrow: Sparrow (2003), 5/10
A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004), 5.5/10
New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005), 5.5/10
New Pornographers: Challengers (2007), 4.5/10
A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009), 5/10
New Pornographers: Together (2010), 5/10
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (2014), 5/10
New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017), 4.5/10
New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (2019), 4/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Canadian band Zumpano (formed in Vancouver by Michael Ledwige on guitar and Carl Newman of Superconductor on vocals) applied a postmodern revision to the more carefree 1960s of high-school party music.

The references on the debut, Look What The Rookie Did (SubPop, 1994), are slow dancefloor (Evil Black Magic), Burt Bacharach (Snowflakes And Heartaches), Merseybeat (the Hollies-esque march of The Party Rages On), and "ye-ye" girls (the exuberant Petula Clark-esque swing of Jeez-Louise). Wraparound Shades is the hit single. The reconstruction is also faithful in the lyrics, steeped in the blissful nescence of 1960s adolescence, and in the arrangements, which incorporate pastoral flute, surf organ, trumpet section, vibraphone, and so on.

On the follow-up, Goin' Through Changes (SubPop, 1996), the slyness of imitation is no less impressive, but what succeeds are the imitations of the individual constituent elements rather than the whole. The songs are drab. The only exception is Here's The Plan, the summa of their pop mannerism.

After leaving Zumpano, Carl Newman restarted the New Pornographers, a project that he had envisioned with Neko Case and assorted friends, and released Mass Romantic (Mint, 2000), one of the poppiest albums ever. It includes the 1998 single Letter From An Occupant, possibly their masterpiece. The official line-up was completed by Thee Evaporators' bassist John Collins, Destroyer's vocalist Dan Bejar, Limblifter's drummer Kurt Dahle and filmmaker Blaine Thurier on keyboards. Sloppy vocals, amateurish guitars, atonal sound effects and hard-rock riffs bestowed on the sprightly Mass Romantic a garage-like flavor. The psychedelic merry-go-round Mystery Hours, the Merseybeat joke of The Body Says No and the electronic rave-up of Centre For Holy Wars display plenty of verve and humor. It takes massive doses of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann and Good Vibrations to come up with something like The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism.

The New Pornographers' second album, Electric Version (Matador, 2003), presents a more cohesive band. Increased doses of gleeful melodies, more prominent retro` postures, enhanced Hollies-ian harmonies, bouncy guitars, and peppy rhythms, promote them to top Fastbacks imitators. The divine hooks of The Laws Have Changed, All for Swinging You Around, and The Electric Version update the canon of Sixties music, while the loud guitars of The New Face of Zero and One and the relentless boogie of It's Only Divine Right approach power-pop from a different angle.

Jason Zumpano's first solo album, Sparrow (Overcoat, 2003), is devoted to orchestral pop in the vein of Abba and XTC. The Early Years (2005) was also rather undistinguished. Zumpano then returned to orchestral pop with a new project, The Cyrillic Typewriter (Jaz, 2011), while the instrumental vignettes of Room And Mansion (Inflight, 2010) were a bit more experimental.

Showing off his arranging skill, Carl Newman's solo album The Slow Wonder (Matador, 2004), credited to A.C. Newman, is as refined as any of the New Pornographers albums (The Battle For Straight Time, with a powerful guitar riff reinforced by a flute, On the Table). The only problem is that there is precious little to say in the realm of this kind of synthetic pop muzak for one who has already surveyed the entire genre on two New Pornographers albums. All these echoes of the Mersey-beat and of XTC can get quite tedious if you can't find something new to add to the basic canon. Alas, the rocking Miracle Drug and the psychedelic litany Come Crash, i.e. the non-pop songs, don't quite stand up on their own. The loud and driving The Town Halo (propelled by a piano boogie figure and a dancing cello figure) does succeed in transcending the pop model, and ranks among his most energetic songs.

The New Pornographers' Twin Cinema (Matador, 2005), featuring new vocalist and keyboardist Kathryn Calder, is another impeccable pop collection. Whether it's catchy tunes that evoke the Sixties (Twin Cinema, similar to the hard-rocking ditties of the Smithereens, Stacked Crooked with Beach Boys-esque harmonies and a Syd Barrett-ian space refrain) or a new degree of ballad sophistication that redefines the 2000s as a less gloomy age than it was (The Bleeding Heart Show, a continuously morphing song, Falling Through Your Clothes, that invests in ethereal repetition sounding like a mantra), Newman and cohorts compose and perform like machines programmed for maximum pop efficiency. Sheer melodic virtuosity continues to be their quintessential quality. Alas, some of album's songs sound like filler to justify an album for the three/four that really stand out.

Challengers (2007) is a rather tedious experience, devoid of the elegant exuberance of the first two albums. One has to admire the degree of artifice that the band injects into the march-like All The Old Showstoppers and the swirling All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth, which make Brian Wilson look like an amateur, but the album leaves little behind beyond cold admiration. The ballad The Spirit Of Giving benefits from a charming instrumental break with trombone, accordion and harp, and from the choral coda, the whole vaguely reminiscent of 1970s glam-rock, e.g. Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes.

Vancouver's Thee Evaporators, formed by members of New Pornographers (bassist John Collins), Smugglers (guitarist David Carswell) and Slow, released United Empire Loyalists (1996), I Gotta Rash (1998), Ripple Rock (Alternative Tentacles, 2004) and Gassy Jack And Other Tales (Nardwuar, 2007) in a garage-rock vein.

Carl Newman's second solo album Get Guilty (Matador, 2009) was more pensive than soulful. It is terribly difficult to create something original or hummable that hasn't been done yet in the realm of pop ditties, and most of these songs are neither catchy nor intelligent. A handful are decent additions to his canon: The Palace at 4 AM, Like a Hitman Like a Dancer, The Heartbreak Rides and Submarines of Stockholm. These are refrains for people who haven't listened to too much music, or for people who like to hear background music that recycles stereotypes of their youth.

While Carl Newman and Dan Bejar still get the lion's share of the songwriting on the New Pornographers' fifth album Together (Matador, 2010), the voices of Neko Case and Kathryn Calder get more room and freedom at the same time that the orchestration moves centerstage. The voices and the arrangements are the good news, the songwriting is the bad news. Strip away the makeup and The Crash Years is just loud country-pop, Your Hands Together is just old-fashioned hard-rock, and the rest is mostly the usual exercise in Sixties revival (the waltz-like Daughters of Sorrow, the march-like Moves).

Their sixth album, Brill Bruisers (Matador, 2014), used the same formula: a lot of facile filler around two really good tunes: Brill Bruisers, basically a slower and symphonic version of the Mamas & Papas' Go Where You Wanna Go, and the feverish power-pop of Dancehall Domine. Other songs are interesting only insofar as one spends a few seconds trying to find out "where did i hear this before?" Fantasy Fools has something of Fleetwood Mac's Second Hand News, and so forth. There is no sophisticated songwriting, except maybe when Case's sweet naive romantic elegy is laid over galloping guitars and synth in Champions of Red Wine. The disco beat of War On The East Coast probably signals a new career for the band in the age of synth-pop revivals.

Electronic arrangements embellish Whiteout Conditions (Concord, 2017), which is also the first album with new drummer Joe Seiders and without Bejar. It is mostly a throw-back to the 1980s (Whiteout Conditions has echoes of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Enola Gay) (and sometimes even futher back to Abba, like in This is the World of the Theater), to a music scene flooded by languid melodies and throbbing synths. If High Ticket Attractions is more typical power-pop, Avalanche Alley is purely electronic elegy with country-psychedelic vocal harmonies We’ve Been Here Before.

The New Pornographers's In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord, 2019) is a less electronic album, but shows even more of a decline of inspiration. It's a mess of tentative songs that rarely amount to anything of substance. Dreamlike and on the Rush has echoes of Tommy Roe and The Surprise Knock oscillates between the Kinks and the Monkees. Way too little to justify an album.

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