Porn Solo 

New Pornographers mastermind A.C. Newman works the Kinks out of his perfect pop.

Maybe the practitioners of the 19th-century science of physiognomy were right after all: The body dictates the disposition. Witness the textbook-perfect case of A.C. (aka Carl) Newman, whose debut solo album, The Slow Wonder, is packed with music as clean-cut, lanky, and bright as he is. You could watch a video of this redheaded, very white leader of the acclaimed New Pornographers with its volume down and Slayer blasting overtop, and two words will come to mind: "quirky" and "pop."

On first blush, Newman's music perfectly fits that description, with its neon arches of melody and sweet harmonies. He's been making the stuff since he dropped out of Simon Fraser University and formed the ill-fated Zumpano way back in 1992, so it's fitting that he admits his sweet tooth. "I think I'm kind of heavily influenced by music that some people would think is really empty and just kind of silly," the singer-songwriter and guitarist says, while grocery shopping in his native Vancouver. "I'd rather listen to the Monkees' 'Daydream Believer' than John Cage, or, for that matter, Nashville Skyline. My personal taste just kind of runs to a lot of catchy pop music."

But there's a reason physiognomy has gone the way of minstrelsy and the trouser press. You can't tell by looking at a man that he's the perfect indie-popster any more than a prognathous lower jaw indicates sexual degeneracy. While Newman's music bears similar influences to those of his lilting, chirping peers, his unique angle has helped lift the New Pornographers out of the ghetto of jangle-, indie-, and power-poppers of all stripes.

Remarkable for a solo debut (much less a side project), The Slow Wonder bears as many rough-cut gems as either New Pornographers album -- 2000's Mass Romantic or last year's Electric Version. As ever, Newman salts his melodies with enough sharp, frugal riffs and absorbing lyrics to blow his lightweight contemporaries back into the ether from whence they came, but who knew he could do it without the band's well-tempered keyboards or Neko Case's effervescent vocals? And who said a 36-year-old is allowed to write with more emotion than he did in his twenties?

With Wonder's release, it's increasingly clear that three words better describe Newman's skills: "Ray," "Dave," and "Davies." If you've never spent much time with the Kinks, here's the story: Starting in the mid-'60s, Ray Davies' sad, literate pop gardens and brother Dave's rough riffs combined for a sound as tough and tuneful as anything from the British Invasion or subsequent rock incursions. It would be hype to say that Newman carries the Kinks' torch -- whereas Ray could paint the existential blahs as richly in a few couplets as J.D. Salinger could in a short story, Newman is more free-associator than narrator, and his riffs, while honed, are hardly the switchblades Dave's were. But in the underrated balancing act between sweet and sour, Newman's pop is as close to a Kinksy dish as anything that's come along in years.

When the New Pornographers were joined onstage by Ray Davies at the 2001 South by Southwest fest in Austin, it was a neat symbolic coincidence: the selection was "Starstruck." "I don't remember much about it, 'cause it was such a haze," Newman says. "I remember practicing with him before the show. After our soundcheck, he just came backstage and we kind of played some songs acoustically, and that for me was the real experience. We're sitting here just playing guitars and singing with Ray Davies and nobody else is around. It was hard not to go, 'Oh, shit, there's Ray Davies!' -- just stand there and point at him."

As for Newman's own songwriting, "It's more of an unconscious influence," he says of the Davies comparison. "I've never really consciously decided to sound like him, but I've always liked the kind of lazy way he would go into falsetto." Indeed, the Kinks influence comes across most literally in Newman's clipped, laid-back croon; this understated vocal style makes a fine foil for his melodies, which are often infectious enough to melt skulls. Whereas most songwriters are lucky to sign a single melody in indelible ink just once in their career, The Slow Wonder is scrawled in truly original, looping hooks. "That's the one thing I never get blocked," he admits. "I get blocked on lyrics, but melody -- that stuff just seems so easy to spew out."

Lyrically speaking, Newman is less voluble: "'Most of Us Prizefighters' is just mostly about the whole ... I don't know ... the whole musician myth," he shrugs, before adding "I don't know what the hell I'm gettin' at." He's more definitive about "On the Table": "That's just a bunch of bullshit." But while second to melody, Newman's lyrics are light-years ahead of the teenage poetry most indie rockers seem to think they can fart out with impunity. In the opening "Miracle Drug," Newman sings over a crunching guitar figure about some sorry fella tied to the bed with a miracle drug in one hand, and in the other, a rejection letter for his novel, saying, "Thank you for your interest, young man." More affecting than even the best New Pornographers material, "Drink to Me Babe, Then" is a loping lament whose simple recollections -- You were too shy to lie to -- hang on their sculpted melody with far more significance than they do on the page.

"Come Crash," meanwhile, is an affecting enough narrative to cause problems for Newman's own romantic life. "My current girlfriend, she keeps thinking 'Come Crash' is about somebody," says Newman of the skewed ballad, which describes an automobile collision and seems to predict a romantic one. "She gets annoyed with me and says, 'I don't want to hear that song, and I have to go.' I have to tell her, 'Honestly, I just made it all up.'"

With such progress in his craft, it's good to hear Newman doesn't plan on slowing down. "There's always a five- or six-month lag in between finishing a record and going on tour," he says. "So if I could just get a big chunk of a solo record done in that lag time, then I could keep a steady stream of albums coming out." When the New Pornographers wrap up their next album, Newman plans to move to San Francisco to record The Slow Wonder's follow-up. So if you spot a lanky redhead checking out the Monkees vinyl at Amoeba, remember he has far more up his sleeve than mere bubblegum.

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