The New Pornographers
In this era of musical overproduction and a thousand blooming indie scenes, catchy pop-rock records just aren't that hard to come by anymore. But somehow the New Pornographers, a seven-member indie-rock "supergroup" (composed of people from bands --Zumpano, Destroyer --the Pornographers have since surpassed on the recognizability scale, with subcultural celeb and solo star Neko Case as a ringer) are different. A onetime side project for nearly everyone involved, the band (named after a Jimmy Swaggart book that proclaimed rock-and-roll "the new pornography") emerged as an instant cult fave with their 2000 debut Mass Romantic, a title that captures the band's giddy sound better than a thousand words ever could. And while the follow-up, Electric Version, may not contain anything quite as striking as Mass Romantic's standout single "Letter from an Occupant," it is perhaps a fuller, more consistent record.
But what makes Electric Version a great pop-rock record isn't what it sounds like --on one level it sounds like a lot of other good pop-rock records you've heard --or what it says (the lyrics are literate, elliptical, worth puzzling over, and almost entirely beside the point) but what it feels like, which is a contact-high based on an ecstatic illusion of discovery. What comes out magical in the music made by these seven people is their enthusiasm for and delight over their own mastery. They clip off riffs, dive into choruses, high-step through bridges, fall in love to the sound of their own vocal harmonies, and lean hard into hairpin hooks not just like hearty explorers trekking through virgin territory but as if they're actually inventing all these familiar pop-music tropes on the fly. And they seem so wrapped up in what they're doing that they inevitably win the listener over in the process.
But there is one element to this musical mix that is formally extraordinary, and that's the egalitarian group vocals, Case sharing the mic with male singers Dan Bejar, Carl Newman, and Kurt Dahle. Almost every song on Electric Version features a multiplicity of voices, with the background vocals dipping in and falling back in ways that seem entirely instinctual and spontaneous. The most ear-popping example of the band's vocal interplay is on the relay-race vocals that drive "The Laws Have Changed." One of the male voices sings the first two lines; then all the singers drop in for the next line, Case's crystalline siren-call shooting across the top; then, suddenly, every voice except Case's drops out, emphasizing the beauty of her voice in this setting all the more. And this effect, in different permutations, is repeated throughout Electric Version.
And the appeal isn't just sonic: There's a sexual utopianism, a palpable agape, in this mix of voices that one realizes is extremely rare in all of pop music. The only other examples I can think of are a few other fine indie bands (Imperial Teen, Papas Fritas), a few Sly and the Family Stone singles, and some very old-school hip-hop. (Let us now pay respect to "That's the Joint" by the Funky 4 + 1 and "Zulu Nation Throwdown" by Afrika Bambaataa.) I cherish, to one degree or another, all of that music (especially the hip-hop), but Electric Version is the first record to make me understand why. Maybe someday I'll figure out exactly what they're singing about, but I doubt it'll matter. -- Chris Herrington
Five years ago we would not be speaking of Cave In within the context of MTV2 daytime programming, Clear Channel rock radio, or malls. The once thudding, screaming, metalcore band has now entered the vocabulary of the undiscerning alt-metal fan. The transition was an almost brazen commercial makeover, but the members of Cave In were not handpicked from a Slipknot concert and assembled into a band by an impresario. Cave In spent a few years eating crow as a ludicrously heavy, inaccessible, and somewhat intellectual alternative to Eyehategod. Then, on 2000's Jupiter, they befuddled longtime fans by adding a shiny coat of Radiohead to the package. There will be no longtime fans sticking around for Antenna.
Antenna was assembled for mass consumption, right down to the free-CD contest spots running on MTV2 as you read this. It's heavy for listeners who don't want, or don't know, real heaviness, and there is nothing on this CD that even remotely recalls metal. The vocals are a precise synthesis of Queens of the Stone Age croon, emo-boy yelp, and early-'90s grungeternative snarl. It's almost as if somebody loaded all of that crap into a computer program. There is even an acoustic/electric ballad (the strategically placed centerpiece "Beautiful Son") that rips off Soundgarden's initial major-label sound. Oh, how times do not change.
Because Cave In are not a band that fell out of a tree yesterday, the songwriting is above average and on par with the Foo Fighters or the Deftones. Well-crafted for what it is, and if the street team pulls its weight, Cave In will be unavoidable in a matter of months. -- Andrew Earles
The Dirty Three
(Touch and Go)
On their last two albums, Australia's Dirty Three seemed determined to get as close to silence as they could while still making a sound. Ocean Songs and Whatever You Love, You Are were quiet, soft, and textureless, abandoning the noisy intensity of the band's self-titled album and their semi-breakthrough, Horse Stories. They were focused more on sound than on song and sorely in need of vocals to liven things up -- the kiss of death for an instrumental band.
If the Dirty Three's sixth album, She Has No Strings Apollo, isn't a return to form, it's a tremendous step in the right direction: Measured and restrained, it nevertheless captures the bracing tension of their best material but with a firmer sense of purpose in each song. Tracks like "She Has No Strings" and "Sister Let Them Try and Follow" churn and eddy around Warren Ellis' rasping violin. The closer, "Rude (And Then Some Slight Return)," builds on Mick Turner's expressive guitarwork, which goes from graceful understatement to blistering dissonance and back again as it rises to the album's dramatic climax.
As with their best work, She Has No Strings Apollo lives up to the band's name: messy, jarring music that sounds like the work of three distinctive musicians. -- Stephen Deusner