Country singer/songwriter Neko Case owns one of the more creative minds in the New Pornographers — a pop group of sorts, comprising mostly Canadian artists, who launch a 10-date tour Friday (February 16) with Midwest, East Coast and Canadian stops.
But for the band's debut album, Mass Romantic, Case said she was eager to turn off her creative tap and simply belt out what her friends asked her to.
"I just went into it very open-mindedly," said Case — who last year released her own acclaimed Furnace Room Lullaby — from her home in Chicago. "I was really excited to do it that way. Just to have somebody be my Svengali and go, 'All right young lady: Sing like a Germanic space babe from 1981.' "
"Germanic space babe" may not be the first thing that comes to mind with the songs on the album, unless that suggests ultra-melodic, richly produced power pop.
Mass Romantic, which has been steadily finding an audience since its quiet release in November, cascades with sing-along choruses, reams of backing vocals and off-kilter keyboards.
Case's fellow Pornographers include fellow singers, songwriters, guitarists and keyboard players Carl Newman (Zumpano) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer), bassist and producer John Collins (Thee Evaporators), keyboardist and filmmaker Blaine Thurier (Thee Evaporators) and drummers Kurt Dahle (Limblifter) and Fisher Rose. The bunch started laying down tracks informally several years ago, without knowing at the time they'd eventually have enough for an album.
"The whole record is about some vague kind of search for salvation, I suppose," Newman said recently from Vancouver, British Columbia, where most of the players are based. "It's about drugs and alcohol. Staying up all night. Looking for answers in strange places."
Newman peppered the songs with "yeah"s, "ya know"s and "man"s to create a party-rock vibe, but the lyrics between are more elliptical. "Mass Romantic," powered by a snappy guitar riff, closes out on a vague refrain about "this boy's life under the electrical lights." Buried in the middle of the song is the title character, a Foster Grant-wearing, books-on-tape-listening fool "speaking on the themes of stolen virtue missing from the radio."
"In a way, maybe that line's about the record itself," Newman said. "I guess good songs are missing from the radio, in my opinion. Also, once again I come back to it: [It's] a good combination of vowels and consonants. I'm really into the sounds of words before the meaning. To me that's the most important part."
The album is just one of numerous recent projects for Case, who launched her music career as drummer for the punk band Maow. At the same time the New Pornographers disc was released, she returned to her drumming roots to put out The Other Women by the Corn Sisters, her country duo with guitarist/singer Carolyn Mark. Meanwhile, she just finished recording an album of her own work with Giant Sand and Calexico.
While Case sings lead on several of the New Pornographers' tracks, she splits her time onstage between the spotlight and her role on backup vocals. The band is touring the United States and Canada through the end of February.
Singing a quarter of the band's four-part harmonies "requires a lot of presence of mind, so I have to be careful," she said. "And I also play tambourine, which I vowed I would never do. When you're young and in a band, you're like, 'I'm not gonna be the guitar player's girlfriend holding that tambourine. Gross. I'm gonna play the drums.' "
On the Beach Boys-y "Body Says No" Case and the band weave verses about aliens, history and psychedelia among the soaring chorus of "Man, can you believe/ She didn't need me — / Anymore than I need needed her, too?
"The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," a song as catchy as a tune from a Broadway musical, pits a jaunty pop melody against lyrics about a guy in "salvation holdout central" refusing help for his drinking.
Not that he necessarily needs it, Newman said.
"I didn't think anybody had ever written a song that really captured the joy of being really smashed," he said. "I think there's a reason people become alcoholics, so I thought I'd show the other side of the coin. It's not all just sadness. It's also fun. Some people think it's a ridiculous subject matter for a bouncy pop song, but not to me, really."
New Pornographers tour dates, from the band's publicists: