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13 Years Ago: The New Pornographers’ ‘Mass Romantic’ Album Released

New Pornographers
Matador Records

When ‘Mass Romantic,’ the debut album by the New Pornographers, was released on Nov. 21, 2000, not too many people were familiar with the members of the Canadian collective, even though a few of them had been kicking around the indie-rock scene for years. Much is made of the band’s “supergroup” status now, but at the time, Neko Case was the only one making any noise. (Her second album, ‘Furnace Room Lullaby,’ was released earlier that year and picked up some major buzz.)

But main songwriter Carl Newman’s earlier bands, Superconductor and Zumpano, were hardly household names, even among indie-rock snobs. And Destroyer — fronted by the Pornographers’ third singer and songwriter, Dan Bejar – were known mostly by indier-than-thou types.

So when the group – which counts six members on ‘Mass Romantic,’ though that number would shrink and grow on subsequent albums – started recording its debut in 1998, expectations were low, which meant Newman and Bejar could mess around as much as they wanted. They slowly recorded the album with friends, who became band members by the time the LP was released two years later. The record’s blend of fuzzy power pop and hook-heavy indie rock was as indebted to the past as it was excited for the future.

Newman penned most of the songs, including the album’s only single, ‘Letter From an Occupant,’ a chewy New Wave nugget propelled by Case’s hyperactive vocal. But the record is filled with many moments like this, including the great title tune.

The band would maintain this democracy over the next 10 years and four albums, splitting singing and songwriting duties among Case, Newman and Bejar, as the New Pornographers sharpened their focus and sound. The follow-up album from 2003, ‘Electric Version,’ remains their strongest work, but ‘Mass Romantic’’s rugged, ragged charm yielded some of the group’s best songs.

Critics and brave fans quickly embraced the album, but it took a while for the band to gain a more substantial audience. ‘Mass Romantic’ didn’t even crack the Top 200 (here or in their home country) and still hasn’t sold enough copies to warrant a gold record, but it did win a Juno Award in Canada for Alternative Album of the Year. (The LP was originally released on a Canadian indie label; it didn’t receive a proper U.S. release until 2003, after ‘Electric Version’ came out.) ‘Electric Version’ eventually dented the charts, and their most recent album, 2010’s ‘Together,’ debuted at No. 18. So things have picked up for the New Pornographers in the dozen years since their debut. But they never sounded as unconstrained as they do here.

Watch the New Pornographer’s Video for ‘Letter From an Occupant’

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