Carl Newman

The New Pornographers, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

It’s always a treat to see The New Pornographers live, and with the full crew* available for Wednesday night’s show, Portland was in for a treat.  Their potent brand of fun power-pop is the kind of music that’s perfect for sharing with a crowd.  In theory.

The Crystal Ballroom took the band's name off the marquee as soon as possible.

The Crystal Ballroom took the band’s name off the marquee as soon as possible.

In theory, a feedback loop should develop wherein the band’s bright, sugary melodies inspires the crowd to respond with some noise and movement, which in turn invigorates the band to play with more energy, exciting the audience even more, and forever and ever amen.  However, last night’s crowd was possibly the deadest group I’ve ever seen at a show in this town, and stood in stark contrast to the music being played on stage.  There was perhaps no better illustration of this moment than when the band hits the chorus to the frenetic “War on the East Coast”, about three people jumped in the air ready to dance as soon as the crunch of the downbeat hit, only to find that they were alone in their enthusiasm (granted, I was one of those three).  And don’t blame it on poor set placement–the band saved their latest single for the second-to-last spot of the main set, so the crowd should’ve already been warmed up at that point.

While a bit deflating, the band didn’t seem to notice all that much, fulfilling their part of the bargain at least.  With both Neko Case and Dan Bejar along for this tour, the band had the full catalog at their disposal.  The band emphasized their recent album, Brill Bruisers, playing ten of the twelve tracks in their hour-and-a-half long set, but also made sure to perform the majority of Dan’s songs, ensuring that Bejar wouldn’t remain off-stage for too long (a fact that Carl Newman joked about early in the show).  Earlier this week, we expressed our opinion about the new album, and many of the same criticisms still apply even in a live setting; “Brill Bruisers” is a decent opener and “War on the East Coast” could really pop, but otherwise we were waiting for old favorites to pop up.  It’s clear that the band however loves the new material (the mere fact that they could rope in both Dan and Neko for this tour says to this, considering that’s not always the case), with Carl mentioning that “Spidyr” is his personal favorite.

The whole gang, though believe me that they're less blurry in real-life.

The whole gang, though believe me that they’re less blurry in real-life.

The old favorites made for some killer moments–the pop of “Use It” motivated the crowd to move around, while at the other end of the scale the delicate “Adventures in Solitude” moved the audience emotionally.  But it was in the two encores that the band truly shined, with the one-two combo of the rousing “The Laws Have Changed” leading into the epic “The Bleeding Heart Show” bringing down the house, with the band’s replacement for long-time drummer Kurt Dahle stepping up to the plate and nailing that brilliant part.  I haven’t been able to find out who it was behind the kit, but he went all-out (as evidenced by his sweat-drenched shirt)  and did an excellent job all night.  This was followed by a second encore of “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” providing a perfect finale to the evening (I for one appreciated Carl taking the time to remember the chords to “Spanish Techno”).  Even if the crowd was half-dead for the most part, those songs shine through regardless.

The New Pornographers File

The New Pornographers have been one of the most reliable indie rock bands in the last fifteen years, and possibly the unlikeliest to have survived.  Those who’ve followed the band or read any of the profiles that were published during the publicity tour for their newest release Brill Bruisers would understand the latter part, considering their unusual origins and group dynamic.  The New Pornographers are a “supergroup” that outshined the work of their predecessor outfits, only to find in the wake of their success offshoot bands that have found equal or greater success.  It may be hard to grab Neko Case away from her solo work and Dan Bejar from tinkering with Destroyer, but every so often Carl Newman (who has a solo career of his own) pulls it off to give the gang another shot, and it usually pays off.

I first became a fan of the band back in college during the time that their seminal work Twin Cinema was released.  I was working in radio at the time, and because I was the kind of worker that did his due diligence, I had noticed a lot of buzz surrounding the album and was excited to find out that we were getting advance tracks from the record.  I remember being captivated by the title “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, partially because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what on earth “Spanish Techno” would sound like (as it turns out, this line of thinking was at least partially responsible for the title–an offhand comment in a conversation referring to “Spanish Techno” was the inspiration).  But I was soon captivated by all the wonderful melodies and enraptured by the sheer catchiness of the song, and in an irony of ironies, found myself constantly putting on repeat a song that excoriated the listener for “listening too long to one song”.

Soon I would pick up the album for myself and familiarize myself with the other highlights, from the bouncy “Use It”, to the mysterious “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras”, and the lilting “Falling Through Your Clothes”.  It was after a few more listens that I finally came to recognize the epic “The Bleeding Heart Show, a song whose brilliance we recognized with our very first Feats of Strength feature.  These tracks always stood out from the rest in my mind, but the rest of the album was at the level that I never felt the need to skip tracks, though I never felt the need to learn their names either.  This would be a pattern that I would find in most of their other works–a few standout tracks that are certain to make most setlists, and the rest doing just enough to keep you interested to finish the album.  Not a revolutionary analysis, I admit, but the significance of those particular tracks always made the band as much a favorite in my mind as a band whose discography I knew front-to-back.

I then worked my way back, picking up the band’s excellent debut, Mass Romantic.  It showed that the group’s knowledge of how to write a killer riff filled with sugar-sweet melodies was evident from the start, from the propulsive “The Body Says No”, to the jaunty title track, and the bouncy “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”.  The New Pornographers simply had a knack from the start for mixing big guitar chords and riffs with inventive and and playful keyboard lines, as well as simply displaying a keen ear for memorable melody lines.  During the time that I spent revisiting the band’s history, I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself humming the chorus to Neko Case’s powerhouse “Letter From An Occupant”.

Electric Version would be proof that yes, sometimes lightning can strike twice, as the band effectively copied the same formula from their debut.  While I have fond memories of the album and always am glad when it it comes up on shuffle, I have the hardest time remembering the specifics of what I love about the record.  On the whole, in many ways it’s a louder and happier take on their debut.  Any other band would be enormously proud of an album like Electric Version; it’s only problem is that it’s sandwiched between two of the great records of the 2000’s.

It was after the success of Twin Cinema where my tastes began to diverge from the consensus.  While many critics and fans were a bit disappointed with Challengers and Together, I find myself listening to these records quite often with a smile on my face.  True, the band began to write more ballads and for some it may have felt that the band couldn’t capture the right momentum on each album, but both albums offered the kind of highlights that would spur me to keep listening to these albums time after time.  It may have partially been the result of the fact that the band released a song with the lyric of “stranded at Bleecker and Broadway” while I was living at the other end of that block in New York (“Myriad Harbour”), but I always had a soft spot for Challengers.  Of course, I think that even the most disappointed critic would be hard-pressed to deny the charms of “Mutiny, I Promise You”.

Together suffered from many of the same critiques as Challengers, but has a slightly better reputation.  Again, I point to the fact that the album includes several of the group’s finest work, from “Crash Years” to “Silver Jenny Dollar” to “Up In The Dark”.  And it has one of the best openers the band has ever done, with “Moves”.

And so when Brill Bruisers was released earlier this year, it was met with the best reviews that the band had received since Twin Cinema.  But once again, I found myself disagreeing with the mainstream opinion.  As is the case with the rest of the band’s output, on the whole it’s a fine album.  However, it really lacks those two or three standout tracks that will be remembered for years to come and become an eternal part of their regular set (though that is of course assuming a lot with this band).  I enjoy the Dan Bejar-penned “War on the East Coast”, and appreciate how they merged Bejar’s more eccentric taste with the regular NP sound, but it feels like a lesser effort on the whole  The first four tracks on the whole work pretty well, but there’s nothing that leaves a lasting impression, and the momentum starts to peter out well before the record finishes.

It may be that the artificial tones used in the recording rub me the wrong way, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; I for one appreciate the much-discussed use of arpeggiators and love most of the keyboards on the album, so it’s not those 80’s-era type touches that bother me.  It may simply be that there is a simple lack of hooks that get me listening “too long to one song” or humming to myself everyday for weeks on end.  This is why when in the weeks leading up to its release we spent a lot of time around here linking to articles and reviews about the band, yet we didn’t recommend Brill Bruisers and write-up a full review of the album; in the end we pushed LOSE from Cymbals Eat Guitars, a fantastic record that may have benefited from lower expectations on our end, and not suffered like Brill Bruisers did.

Still, the band has had a fantastic career and well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.  And we’ll be there tomorrow night when the band takes the stage at the Crystal Ballroom, even if the show includes a healthy portion of new material.

Over the Weekend (Sept. 22 Edition)

Kicking off the official beginning of fall (even if it begins a day later this year) with some new music and videos…

Jeff Tweedy is set to release the album (Sukierae) he recorded with his son Spencer tomorrow, and the duo stopped by the NPR offices to perform as a part of their “Tiny Desk Concerts” series.

The Antlers have another gorgeous, dreamy video from Familiars, this time for the song “Refuge”.  Not much actually happens, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying all the pretty colors.

If you’re in the mood for a little more action in your music videos, and don’t mind handling a bit of the bizarre, then check out the video for the Suicide-inspired track “Grid” by Perfume Genius, whose new album Too Bright is also set to come out tomorrow.

King Tuff’s new album “Black Moon Spell” is also set to be released on the 23rd, and if you’re quick you can listen to a stream of the glam-rock album on NPR right now.  The title track is the best song that T. Rex never released, if you ask me.

Kele Okereke from Bloc Party will be releasing his second solo album on October 13, and today released the second single from Trick.  Listen to “Coasting” here.

On Friday we linked to Pitchfork’s extensive interview with Richard D. James, but we we wanted to make sure that you saw this video that was linked to in the article of an early performance of “Aisatsana”, featuring a piano swung across the stage as if it were a pendulum.  That should be enough of a signal for you to watch:

And finally, Carl Newman and Neko Case from the New Pornographers talked to NPR about what it takes to write a good pop song, and the piece includes video of their performance at the Brill Building which gave their new album its name.  Unfortunately, the piece also didn’t include Neko’s cover of the Squidbillies theme song, but we got you covered.