Monday, August 9, 2010

A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004)



Carl (A.C.) Newman is the mastermind of one of the best rock bands in the world, the New Pornographers, as well as the less celebrated Superconductor, and probably a dozen or so other projects we don't even know about. Newman's celebration of self-contained, hook-filled joy in pop music has made his work a constant pleasure. Few rockers can lay claim to anything like his capacity to connect a catchy melody straight to the heart and gut.

After two records with the New Pornographers, Newman decided to put out a solo record in 2004, and this brief (just over thirty minutes) explosion of pop bliss is the result. The Slow Wonder is the kind of unassuming, buried-treasure power pop record you might've found in some dusty bargain bin in the mid-'80s, and if you dropped the 99 cents you'd take it home, fall in love with its unpretentiously free-flowing delights, and promptly begin championing it to a bunch of skeptical pals.

Kicking off with a drum-guitar-belting attack, "Miracle Drug," The Slow Wonder proceeds to run through a tour of every trick of economical Anglophile guitar rock, all driven by great songs that always fade or cut early enough to leave the listener bewildered with excitement. The barest roots of rock & roll -- even if a gentle version -- are adorned with versatile, feverishly enthusiastic vocals; listen to the way he generates drama from simplicity in the irresistible "On the Table," covered in sweet, stirring piano. The Beatles and Big Star comparisons are bound to pour forth from the new convert, but Newman has tricks up his sleeve to prevent any straightforward imitation, which makes him perversely a perfect imitator of those bands' appeal: the unorthodox keyboard-and-whistling break on "Drink to Me Babe, Then," the stark desperation hidden politely within divinely restrained balladry in "Come Crash," the stop-start-shuddering and atonal vocals of "Battle for Straght Time." And on "Better Than Most," Newman twists what could be an honest-to-god lost Beatles track just downbeat enough, alternately sweet and difficult, to make it deliriously complicated and addictive.

Newman is hardly the only singer-songwriter of this period to make some kind of populist perfection his mission; you don't even have to look far to find Robert Schneider, whose entire modus operandi is informed by his obsession with hits of the past. And of course, Rivers Cuomo once held a well-documented fixation with the minute details of hook composition. Part of the reason Newman stands apart is that although his openness to stylistic renovation is seemingly a constant, he also holds a direct fondness -- not an obligation toward -- strangeness. "Most of Us Prizefighters" might sound like some mid-'90s modern rock hit at first, but Newman's vocal melody twists and turns unpredictably, chasing this disorientation until it becomes something profoundly catchy. Finale "35 in the Shade" (the title a Third World gag?) has Newman living in his vocals and songs that way he's so good at, engaged in music and melody like he's running a marathon, but even it breaks form with a bombastic instrumental tension, inflected with melodramatic flourishes from piano and drums, placing our fearless hero on top of a kind of aural mountain as he shouts downward.

Even so, it's obvious that Newman is capable of writing songs that fall on the ear like cotton candy all day long -- and occasonally does, as on the Beulah-worthy slow one "The Cloud Prayer" -- but he resists the temptation far more even on this high-energy, accessible recording than on the Pornograhers' albums. As if to deliberately set this album apart, it's full of strange little tricks, some spectacularly ingratiating, and some that seem almost too calculated -- the opposite of bubblegum? "The Town Halo," with its easy progression from menacing shouted vocals to the cheering, pounding chorus gives a better idea of Newman's alarming capacity for pop form. But no track here calls the New Pornographers to mind quite like the 2:34 juggernaut "Secretarial," and it may be the classic of the LP, ingeniously fusing '70s AOR with punk aggression and wit, like a cerebral Cars... although the drama Newman generates, here as with his band, sends him beyond his sources.

If there's anything worth criticizing on this very fun record, it's only the faint feeling that this is all quite easy for Mr. Newman, that he could knock out five albums like this in a year if he felt like it. There's charm in the simplicity of the arrangements, but for the most part, the fire and bite and brilliant restlessness of the New Pornographers at their best are muted here. Who cares, though? This entire album is still a wonderful gift.

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