The New Pornographers
Photo courtesy of Billions Corporation
Official photos only: The New Pornographers
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Sunday, Nov. 23
Lately I’ve been addicted to Canadian power pop. Brill Bruisers
, the acclaimed September release by The New Pornographers, and Sloan’s Commonwealth
have been in near constant rotation, and in the past week, both of these acts played the Cradle. Last week in the Back Room, I feasted on Sloan’s Canadian bacon
; but last night in the big room, it was more like watching the New Pornographers make sausage.
Having watched a few clips of New Pornographers live performances, I knew that the sheen of perfection that imbues their songs is not quite achievable in a live setting, so I was prepared for a rougher beast compared to the songs in my head. I was not, however, prepared to feel so disconnected from the eight musicians onstage. The performance was professional but workman-like. I couldn’t help thinking that people with half the musical skill of the New Porns could sing songs half as good as these, and be twice as transporting. On record, Carl Newman’s songs are positively joyous, so where was the joy? Maybe they were tired. Newman said it was the last show of their U.S. tour, and it showed.
Although I’ve been listening to them since their debut 15 years ago, drawn by the anthemic, singular sound of their vocal blend and Newman’s insinuating melodies, The New Pornographers are a hard band to get close to. Who they really are, what the music is saying: It’s never been really clear to me, and maybe that's by design. You don’t choose a name like theirs if you have an overarching desire to please people. Reviewers tend to use the word “inscrutable” to describe Newman’s lyrics. Not that it really matters exactly what “Sing Me Spanish Techno” means—it just sounds perfect in the context of the song. Still, going in to last night’s show, I wondered what these beautiful but elusive songs would sound like in a big room.
More than that, I wondered what is this band about?
I was contemplating these questions on the way in when I was interrupted at the door with inquiries about my camera. There was a sign saying “No flash photography,” but there were other signs too, I later learned, saying no photography at all. When Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel insisted on the photo ban last summer, he was taken to task in this paper
. I figured something about the reclusive nature of Mangum, his obvious sensitivity and the almost religious way his fans think about him had something to do with his camera-shyness. Given the personal, intimate nature of his music, it made some sense that he was asking for an unusual level of audience attention and cooperation. I can sort of buy that. But could the camera ban by the New Porns be anything more than prima donna bullshit? There’s nothing intimate or personal about their performance, no fragile mood to trample on by the untrammeled taking of pictures.
Had I been allowed to take pictures, I would have made sure to capture the keyboardist at stage left, expressionless, stealing glances at a Mac, as well as a shot of Neko Case, face upturned, staring into the indeterminate distance while waiting to step up to the mic for a "whoa-oh” or an “ooh-la” and then staring off again.
But the camera thing was not the difference here. I didn’t come to take pictures. I came to hear the songs that have been the soundtrack of my life since, you know, September. And the show wasn’t by any means without its moments. Keyboardist Kathryn Calder was ebullient and sang beautifully, especially on the truly huge “Dancehall Domine.” Some of the evening’s most compelling moments came when things got quiet, such as on “Adventures in Solitude,” where the vocal interplay had the stained-glass purity of a madrigal, and in the buildup of voices in “You Tell Me Where.” Dan Bejar, whom one imagines (rightly or wrongly) would actually talk to you if you ended up next to him at an airport bar, delivered his songs with passion.
If The New Pornographers is a name that creates distance, the Brooklyn-based foursome The Pains of Being Pure of Heart, in the opening slot, promise a level of sincerity. They delivered upon it, with an energetic set that spotlighted their gloriously rich guitar tones and youthful charm. The band owes a clear sonic debt to My Bloody Valentine’s damaged singsong melodies and hypnotic glide, but on the recent Days of Abandon
, they have embraced breezier forms of pop, even drawing on the work of the night’s headliners. The band’s final, thunderous take on “Belong,” the title track from their breakthrough 2011 release, was stirring stuff. Hey, at least that happened once.