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A.C. Newman - The Slow Wonder

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Artist: A.C. Newman

Album: The Slow Wonder

Label: Matador

Review date: Jul. 20, 2004

The “A” remains a mystery to me, but the “C” stands for Carl. “AC” are the initials of one Carl Newman, the principal songwriter and usual lead singer for the New Pornographers, a sprawling collective whose first album, Mass Romantic, was released into obscurity in 2000, then became a phenomenal word-of-mouth success during 2001. A second album, last year’s The Electric Version, confirmed their place as one of the most popular independent bands in North America. In addition to their up-from-the-underground commercial breakthrough, the New Pornographers have also amassed numerous critical plaudits, even if the critics usually temper their praise by adding that the music is more catchy and fun than challenging or groundbreaking. Surprisingly, despite being the group’s primary creative force and a bit of a control freak – he’s the subject of his bandmates’ jokes for his perfectionist behavior in the studio – Newman has had to give up a good deal of the spotlight in the New Pornographers to Neko Case and Dan Bejar. The Slow Wonder, written by Newman and produced by John Collins, Dave Carswell, and Newman, doesn’t differ very much from the music of his full-time outfit, but it’s an impressive display of the sort of catchy and fun (natch) music that Newman can make, even without the substantial talents of his usual collaborators.

If The Electric Version was a souped-up, power chord-encumbered version of Mass Romantic, then The Slow Wonder plays like a laid back rehearsal of the same: More melodic, and noticeably less ingratiating. Indeed, the problem (if you can call it that) with the New Pornographers’ albums is that they simply won’t stop; everything’s so relentlessly upbeat that the albums sound like a band of power-pop champions taking on any and all stylistic comers from the last 40 years, bashing listeners over the head with hooks until we cower in submission. Such an approach is great when used sparingly, as it is on The Slow Wonder. Every year needs at least one single as good as “On the Table,” but it’s important to remember a song can stand on its own without a chorus x6, or indeed that something written at mid-tempo can still count as pop music. To which end there’s “Come Crash,” a stop-start ballad that sounds vaguely like something Dan Bejar might write, minus the oblique lyrics, and “The Cloud Prayer,” which slows down enough to showcase Newman’s voice – which in a more limited vocal range shows the first signs of character and shading – and Shaun Brodie’s trumpet, which picks up the simple vocal melody halfway through the song and carries it home. Whether or not The Slow Wonder accurately reflects Newman's abilities more than the New Pornographers I cannot say, but it offers an appealing nuance and a broader set of influences – not just British Invasion acts like the Zombies, but also new wave singer-songwriters like Joe Jackson and Graham Parker (albeit without the hectoring tone).

The Slow Wonder doesn’t shatter any limits or reconfigure any elements. A true pop album released in this day and age has to endure comparisons to some bona fide legends, however. Those willing to face down the anxiety of influence, pore through the encyclopedia of guitar chords, and take up the standard of Chilton and Bell deserves some respect. God knows they are a difficult act to follow. Here’s hoping that, whether it be as AC Newman or the leader of the New Pornographers, Carl Newman keeps writing and recording at his current pace.

By Tom Zimpleman

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