A.C. Newman

Slow Wonder

(Matador; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 8 June 2004

I’m weary of using the term “supergroup” to describe any band short of my time-defying dream concoction of a young Brian Wilson fronting a group backed by peak-era John Lennon, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm. But, until time travel and some serious begging gets that plan rolling, it seems ridiculous to assume that any group has a talent pool deep enough to be considered, of all things, “super.”

Though we have our one-off gimmicks and week long Phish-and-Friends jams, very few groups can actually make an argument for themselves as being a remarkable combination of talent that has proven themselves outside of their current group. But the New Pornographers—featuring country-rock chanteuse Neko Case, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, ex-Zumpano leader Carl Newman, ex-Limblifters Kurt Dahle and Todd Fancey, along with long-time producer John Collins (the man behind some of the best Canadian indie records of the late ’90s/early ’00s) and his fellow Evaporator’s mate Blaine Thurier—are certainly one of the few groups someone could actually make an argument for. Although the group is filled with largely unrecognized artists (by a mass audience, at least), each member has spent time, before and after the start of the Pornographers, proving their talent on solo and full-band records alike. In some cases—Neko’s Furnace Room Lullaby, Bejar’s Streethawk: A Seduction, and Zumpano’s Goin’ Through Changes being prime examples—even resulting in some equal, if not superior, material.

And so, not to be outdone by nearly ever other member of the group (even guitarist/keyboardist Todd Fancey recently released his own debut solo record, simply titled Fancey), Carl Newman has finally decided to add another branch to the Pornographers tree. With enough songs saved up from and after the Electric Version sessions to undertake his own solo record, he spent a brief period in the studio in late ’03 to make Slow Wonder—released under the somewhat-of-a-pseudonym A.C. Newman, the initials standing, of course, for his full name: Allan Carl Newman.

But even with the slightly altered name on the cover, this is unmistakably the work of the same artist that had cemented both Zumpano and the majority of the Pornographers records as some of the finest indie-pop (a contradiction of terms, I know, but does anyone even pay attention to these genre names anymore?) this side of the UK. In fact, there isn’t much of a shift from his usual power-pop fare from Electric Version, though the noticeably production, once again at the hands of fellow Vancouverites John Collins and Dave Carswell, is much closer the glossy feel of Electric than the lo-fi edges of Mass Romantic. That said, there is more variety to this record, even with its brief thirty-three minute length, than usually can be expected from Newman. Though there’s still the upbeat power pop numbers like “Secretarial,” “Most of Us Prizefighters” and “Miracle Drug,” we also get to hear the extremely rare Newman ballad with a cover of his own Superconductor track “The Cloud Prayer”; the best rock-cello riff you’ll hear this year on the incredible “Town Halo”; and even his most indie-rock cut yet, the home-recorded “Better Than Most.”

Like every other significant Carl Newman related release of the last decade, Slow Wonder will, very likely, take a handful of listens to really attach itself to you. Just as both New Pornographer’s records (or Zumpano’s Goin’ Through Changes, perhaps the better example) went from “pretty good” to “fucking amazing” for most of its biggest admirers, the more subtle aspects of the record really begin to surface in time. The saccharin “The Cloud Prayer,” for instance, will probably sound a little flat and boring the first time around, while “Most of Us Prizefighters” will likely come across as a lazy Electric Version b-side (it did almost get inclusion on that record, mind you). Even standouts like “On the Table” will probably take some time to warm up to.

Thankfully, though, much like those previous records Newman is able to include enough immediate tracks to keep the listener around long enough to truly appreciate the entire effort. The explosive opener “Miracle Drug,” mid-tempo haze of “Drink To Me Babe, Then,” career highlight “Battle for Straight Time” and the massive, cleverly arranged “Town Halo” (already a Song of the Year candidate) all get straight to the point and are able to immediately dissolve any doubt about Newman’s ability to hold an entire album together without the songwriting or vocal help that is usually afforded to him.

And, with the strength of these tracks scattered evenly across Slow Wonder, it doesn’t take long for the rest of the record to fall into line. Avoiding the solo album cliches of excess and introspection that usually plague these kinds of outings, Newman rivals his usual power-pop fare with a good majority of these tracks, though it’s really the left-field additions—the aforementioned “Better Than Most,” beautifully arranged and structured “Come Crash” and the “Cloud Prayer”/“Town Halo” one-two—that make Slow Wonder more than just a by-the-books reminder of Newman’s writing skill and more a promise of things, of new avenues and styles, to come. Not that he really needs to add to his repertoire to win us over, but hey, he’s got a “supergroup” to keep in top shape for, and if this is any indication of what to expect from the next Pornographers record (which the group is currently working on for a spring ’05 release), his best may very well be still to come.