Okay, so the name change might not be such a great idea. Carl Newman released two weird, wonderful but criminally underappreciated albums in the mid ’90s as the lead singer/songwriter of the now-defunct Zumpano. He resurfaced in 2000 and 2003 with another pair of idiosyncratically delightful, but still largely unknown power-pop albums as part of Vancouver supergroup The New Pornographers. Now he’s back again as A.C. Newman because he likes the rock ’n’ roll connotations, perhaps, although his music is a pretty far cry from AC/DC. Underneath Newman’s flimsy disguise lurks the heart of a pop magician.
The Slow Wonder, his short (barely 30-minute) solo debut is a miniature pop masterpiece. In the space of 11 concise pop gems, Newman manages the considerable feat of recalling every maddeningly infectious riff you’ve ever heard, careening effortlessly between melodies and chord changes you’ll swear you’ve heard a thousand times, while creating utterly new, adventurous soundscapes. Every time you’re ready to play Spot the Influence, his music twists and turns in surprising directions.
Like Beck, Newman has the uncanny ability to blur genre lines indiscriminately. The musical ingredients here will sound instantly familiar to anyone who’s bothered paying attention to the past 40 years of pop music—the power chords of The Who and Kinks, the frenetic vocal energy of David Bowie’s early albums, the faux-British-Invasion harmonies and pop hooks of Beatles knockoffs like The Raspberries and Badfinger, the New Wave synth lines of The Cars, and the keyboard-driven melodies of sadsack romantics like Todd Rundgren and Ben Folds. The key is in how Newman mixes the influences, then blows our preconceived notions to hell and back.
Take for example, “Drink to Me, Babe, Then”— as dreamy a mid-tempo ballad as you’ll ever want to hear. In the middle of the psychedelic Beatles flourishes, a chorus of whistlers enters and harmonizes with itself before a fuzzed-out guitar enters in counterpoint, creating a sort of loopy pop symphony that is simultaneously bracing in its creativity and utterly beautiful. “Secretarial” has a sunny, synth-driven melody, and with its chorus and the furious drumming underpinning it, it’s pure early Who in all the group’s Mod glory. “The Town Halo” features a menacing hook played lustily by a cellist who sounds like she wants to replace Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath. Even “Miracle Drug” and “On the Table,” the two most straightforward rock songs on the album (and the songs most closely resembling Newman’s work in The New Pornographers) spin dizzily off into jagged guitar solos and rollicking piano fills.
Only the slight misstep of “Better Than Most” mars the pure, power-pop perfection. Ten of these 11 songs deserve to hover near the top of the singles charts, and would considerably brighten the neighborhood if they did. Call him A.C. or Carl. Call him Angus Young if you prefer. But don’t forget to call him a pop genius.