Leader of those ambitious, brainy Canadian power-poppers The New Pornographers, A.C. (né
Carl) Newman retains his band's best attributes (except for an almost-missed Neko Case) on his solo debut. At an economical thirty-three minutes, it effortlessly packs in a heck of a lot of ingenuous little melodies and hooks, but the key word here is little
. True to its title, The Slow Wonder
is a much more relaxed and toned-down, yet no less complete listen than Electric Version
or Mass Romantic
Just don't expect a meek, singer/songwriter-ly outing. Half of the songs here are as perky as anything Newman has ever done. Buoyant opener "Miracle Drug" practically begs you not to break out a tambourine and shimmy along to its vigorous beats and guitars. The more deliberately new wave-flavored "Secretarial" is yet another song in Newman's canon that seems a tad too sophisticated (but not by much) for an early '70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. "35 In the Shade" (that's Celsius, by the way) leads a rumbling, cascading charge like ABBA's "Waterloo" given a glam makeover. "The Town Halo" sounds delightfully bratty, as if a high school cast of Godspell got mad as Hell and couldn't take singing another chorus of "Day By Day", opting instead for this song's brash grandeur and gleeful, incessant, six-note cello hook.
You get the impression that Newman thought all these larger-than-life songs were too good to save for the next New Pornographers disc, but the solo album format gives him more room to experiment with a few low-key, less tightly-wound settings. "Come Crash" and "The Cloud Prayer" exhibit a warmer, softer, but still focused side, decelerating the tempos and adding horns while not entirely playing to balladry conventions (note the former's slightly off-center sci-fi tinge). "Drink To Me, Babe, Then" (only Newman could pull off such an awkward title) makes for a likable and oddly restrained Wings pastiche, and "The Battle For Straight Time" gracefully stitches together a seemingly dissimilar verse, chorus, and coda until they make sense, displaying uncommonly dynamic range for a pop song in the process.
By now, listeners expect as least one euphoric, near-perfect track from Newman per record (see "Letter From an Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed"). "On the Table", its individual parts falling into place like a painstakingly conceived but easily solvable puzzle, tops Newman's best work. Immediately infectious and still magnificent after a dozen spins, it's the sort of song you can't imagine hating, ever -- even in the unlikely event that it becomes an oversaturated breakout hit. To a lesser extent, the rest of The Slow Wonder sounds just as timeless.