Concert review: The New Pornographers

TNP 2014

also appearing: Iron & Wine                                                                                                         Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, Columbus, Ohio – September 20, 2014

Despite five solid years now of reinforcement from the music journalism establishment, I can never quite bring myself to consider Vancouver, BC’s The New Pornographers a “supergroup”. Having read with zeal approximately every article published about them in that period, all of which invoke the label “supergroup”, I can say mine is at least a considered opinion. While technically true, the moniker still strikes me as a lazy sort of shorthand. My relationship with the band stretches from just after the release of the textured, understated (but commanding) Together in 2010 to just after the release of this summer’s celebratory Brill Bruisers, and in that time they went from complete unknowns (mine are the only eyes that matter) to one of my very favorites regardless of genre, a meteoric rise in my estimation that, while not without precedent, still has vanishingly few peers. And yes, I know Neko Case has a terrific, long-running solo career as an alt-country torch singer. I know Dan Bejar is the wellspring of esoteric, critically lauded indie rockers Destroyer. I know Carl (ne: A.C.) Newman and Kathryn Calder each released highly personal, well-regarded solo albums during the interim between Together and Brill Bruisers. I should know. I bought a combined six of their solo works to help pass the time while waiting for the full reconstitution I, admittedly, worried might not ever come. Each and every Pornographer (until recently there were officially eight) already has an established main gig and considers his or her time in this band, ideally, as “a vacation from rock and roll music, inside rock and roll music”, to paraphrase Case, who is the band’s most recognizable member.

But The New Pornographers never sounded remotely like a side project to me. They always sounded like a main gig, one of the more singular in all popular music, a thrilling, oddly timeless-sounding amalgamation of four decades worth of classic rock, college rock and power pop, by turns lush and beautiful or punchy and propulsive, but always meticulously crafted, emotionally rich and resonant, and burnished with arguably the best vocal harmonies (featuring up to six coed singers at a time) widely heard in rock since the late sixties. I fell for their music both instantly and hard, though I recognize that, coming off perhaps a bit precious for some listeners or too polished or idiosyncratic for others, the band is not everybody’s cup of tea. As a music lover historically inclined more toward the metallic end of the spectrum, albeit one with unrestricted license to roam, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain my own extreme positivity toward this one particular band, why it tends to fit and fold into my moods so intricately and make me reliably happy, except maybe to say that, in the end, quality just wins out. Non-answers don’t get much simpler, or more maddening, than that, though one would surely imagine that well-known and regarded indie rock commodities like Case and Bejar must have damned good reasons of their own to keep returning, time and again, to what is, for all intents and purposes, Carl Newman’s band. I think they do. There’s a tangible pride in craftsmanship in this music, plus a joy of discovery and performance that maybe exists on frequencies only I can hear, but I hear it clear and true. “Supergroup” is, in the end, just too easy a label, unless you want to insert a space between the two halves of the word. It’s also kind of a counterintuitively limiting one. What I heard from the start was a band that didn’t seem to have many limits, particularly as its career advanced, its accomplishments piled up, and its songwriting continued to refine itself.

The New Pornographers are bound by the logistical concerns of a supergroup at least. Like Marvel’s Avengers, they must assemble. I’ve seen the band live three times now – once in Cincinnati, once in Bloomington, Indiana, and this latest show at Columbus, Ohio’s first ever (hopefully not annual) “Big Block Party” festival – but I’ve still never seen all eight Pornographers share the same stage. Though the recent announcement that founding drummer Kurt Dahle would be leaving the group* ensured I wouldn’t this time either, TNP live is routinely short either Bejar, the group’s resident eccentric recluse, Case, its overachieving class president-type, or both, as they occasionally skip dates to tend to the responsibilities of their solo careers. The band still capably fills a stage, despite the sense that something is missing. My prior two shows had been pro-Case/sans-Bejar affairs, an alchemic formula to which I’m actually quite receptive. TNP has two core songwriters, see. Newman writes about 70% of the material, on which he strategically splits lead vocal duties with Case, Calder or both, while Bejar writes and sings the remaining 30%. For two such accomplished and prolific songwriters to share the same band, there seems a remarkable lack of tension overall. Everyone basically just falls in line with Newman’s overall vision. I’ve grown increasingly fond of Bejar’s contributions the longer I’ve been a fan (his three tracks on Brill Bruisers are all pretty great)**, but the fact that I am not a professional music critic means that I carry a pesky immunity against the blanket infallibility of Bejar’s material, and therefore largely favor Newman’s songbook. At the Bloomington show, the band minus Bejar still played a handful of his tunes as a gesture of solidarity, and pulled them off well, but the set was mainly a showcase for Newman’s material, one I as a newly budding fan was predisposed to love. In Columbus, TNP flipped the script. This time Bejar had reserved parking center stage – he famously generally only plays on songs on which he sings – and, instead, Neko Case was M.I.A. I’d never experienced TNP without Neko before, and felt a tiny bit deflated as the show began.

*I’ve scoured Google news but have as yet been unable to identify the newest Pornographer, Dahle’s at least temporary replacement. Dahle was a longtime fan favorite and a simultaneous jet propulsion engine and wacky source of gravity. He’s the type of player and presence who can only ever really be succeeded, though the “new guy” did an admirable job on what I imagine was pretty short notice. High energy with nary a misstep, proper groove, even passable backing vocals. I spent the entire first song convinced that the drummer was in fact long-retired R.E.M. sticksman Bill Berry before reality stubbornly sunk in. What a coup that would’ve been.

**Destroyer’s much-ballyhooed 2011 album “Kaputt” was Bejar’s first solo album I was able to fully embrace, in no small part due to its resemblance in style and feel to some of his best work with TNP. I am such a simple creature.

A sound as layered and occasionally labored over as that of The New Pornographers seems like it might be wholly a studio creation, but I’ve found it surprisingly mutable and translatable to a traditional rock stage and audience. In Bloomington, I was in the front row of a theater; In Cincinnati, I was several yards back at a large rock club. Columbus’ L.C. Pavilion was the largest venue of the three by far, and, after “Big Block Party” direct support Iron & Wine finally, mercifully ended his set***, I took advantage of his fans’ exodus from the pit and grabbed a piece of prime real estate along the front rail beside the stacked amps at extreme stage left. The “Big Block Party” was a poorly conceived event from the start –  imagine the logistical fun once it got moved indoors! – but pairing the lazy acoustic folk balladry of Iron & Wine with the full-scale Technicolor assault of The New Pornographers at the top of the same bill was pretty much destined to create a schism in that largest subset of the audience that wasn’t already somehow (and conveniently) huge fans of both acts. It took several songs before the audible crowd was completely on board, though the band paid little heed, coming out immediately, guns blazing, all seven Pornographers (even Bejar) stomping their way through the title track to Brill Bruisers. “Brill Bruisers”, despite being a single barely two months old, is already perhaps the greatest single statement of purpose in the TNP catalogue, with its driving, swinging pulse, and joyous “bo-ba…ba-ba-ba-boo” gang chorus. Newman, justifiably proud of the album – which, if not the best of TNP’s six, is, for my money, still the first to contain no filler whatsoever, and absolutely the best point of entry for a prospective fan – later paraphrased a reviewer who had called the title track an “army of angry angels, descending”. I would liken it more to The Mamas and the Papas reimagined as a Viking raiding party, razing a village in high style. Either way, it made for a fantastic opening.

***Samuel Beam seems a decent fellow and all, but the hour+ I spent listening to him meander-sing as Iron & Wine in no way endeared him to me. Luckily, he has his champions, and, boy, are they throaty and devoted. If it is possible to become high by literally ingesting music instead of drugs, Beam’s stage presence, so laconic that it verges on catatonia, makes infinite sense. Beam solicited requests for almost the whole set, and responded with a fairly mind-numbing procession of songs that, given the rapturous audience response, you’d think would’ve been way catchier, or more moving, or something. By the eighth request, I’d long since mentally dubbed him “Ire & Whine”, and the end still seemed nowhere in sight. Finally, a skinny jeaned representative of The L.C., or perhaps Amnesty International, appeared from offstage and whispered in Beam’s ear that it was way past closing time. He giggled and mumbled something about “the man” whilst his well-wishers booed and my heart began to beat normally again. I don’t mean to belittle Samuel Beam, who, if confronted with my rank and petty criticism, would probably buy me a beer sight unseen and good-naturedly talk my ear off. I did notice that Kathryn Calder appeared out of nowhere to watch half his set from a spot in the crowd near me, and applauded after each song. Beam’s music might well sound pretty good on headphones, or washing over a listener in a still, darkened room, but not in this room, and definitely not for this listener, where for all its doubtless depth and resonance on album, I was only able to see it as a very large, infinitely annoying barrier standing between TNP and me.

Depending on the venue (radio show, concert hall, outdoor festival, late night TV), I’ve seen The New Pornographers stripped down to just Newman, Calder and an acoustic guitar, blown up to a twelve person S.W.A.T. team, and almost all points in between. The more space the band is given, the more diligently, and cleverly, its goes about filling it. First there are the voices, particularly Newman’s increasingly confident and insistent wail and Calder’s lovely, multi-faceted sirenry – by turns feather light and bracing – which was always meant to be a complement to (and often a stand in for) Case’s own inimitable instrument, but has matured into something all its own over the course of her four TNP albums. The two main singers play off Bejar well, treating him almost like a treasured guest star in his own band, and fold his oddball professorial nasality into the immaculate larger harmonies with surprising grace. Brill Bruisers turned some heads by making keyboards and other electronics more of a focal point, and live Calder and multi-instrumentalist Blaine Thurier paint in the margins and take unobtrusive lead with equal facility, particularly on album standouts like “Fantasy Fools” and “Backstairs”. Undergirding everything is the tasty tonal enormity of John Collins’ fuzzy classic rock bass, which, freed from the studio and set loose onstage, swirls and rages like a swarm of bees, reminiscent to me of the way Dusty Hill’s throbbing bass always dependably lifted and powered ZZ Top beneath the flourishes of Billy Gibbons’ guitarwork.

On stage, The New Pornographers are a fully formed, high performance rock enterprise. Their more reflective recorded moments are largely left to the original albums where they belong. The focus instead is on a high energy, well designed set, heavy on classics and new material in equal measure. After the initial one-two punch of “Brill Bruisers” and Bejar’s weird, wonderful “Myriad Harbor”, the band slammed into new raver “Dancehall Domine”, then followed that with 2010’s “Moves”, the ominous and low rumbling album opener that, stripped of its trademark cello in a live setting, sounded absolutely massive and borderline metallic. Great songs abounded, from recent high water marks like Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” and “Silver Jenny Dollar”, to Together’s “Sweet Talk Sweet Talk” with its spectacular, soaring chorus, to mid-period faves like “Twin Cinema” and “The Spirit of Giving”, and further back to the band’s formative years on unassailable classics like Electric Version’s “The Laws Have Changed” and, of course, the evergreen barroom stomp of “Mass Romantic”, which was TNP’s all-important album one/side one/song one introduction, way back in 2000. “Mass Romantic” is possibly Case’s preeminent vocal showcase within the context of the band (practically all of her solo songs qualify outside it), and her boldness, brassiness and utter command of her searing voice sold it, and the band, beyond all doubt. Already an avid fan of Together, I took the fairly unprecedented step of buying TNP’s other four albums all at once, so I could listen to and absorb them over the course of a 7-hour drive to my brother’s wedding in Western North Carolina several years ago. Needless to say, I arrived happy. My journey that Saturday morning began with “Mass Romantic”, and by the end of the first chorus, I already knew I’d be a fan for life. This night, in Columbus, it was Kathryn Calder who sang “Mass Romantic”, not the frankly intimidating Case, something I knew intellectually had happened dozens if not hundreds of times before, but that I braced myself against some weird presupposed let down nonetheless. The New Pornographers are a pretty terrific rock and roll band, and they were all that on this night, but what warts they have, they embrace with self-deprecating charm.

On this song, on this night, Kathryn Calder was absolutely flawless. She kind of achieved the impossible in the process. For four sublime minutes, she made me forget Neko Case’s absence (or was it existence?) entirely.

The New Pornographers did the merely improbable. By strength of set and force of will, they rendered gorgeous traditional encore “The Bleeding Heart Show”, one of my favorite songs of the past decade, something pretty close to anticlimactic. Needless to say, I left happy.

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