The New Pornographers are a pop musical revelation, a breath of fresh spring air blowing in a cloudy, smoky den of alt-numetal grunge-punk. From Vancouver, The New Pornographers play supremely hummable new wave pop with harmonies rivaling those of the mid-period Beach Boys, and with sonic crunch and pop smarts befitting any of the early 1980s Hoboken, NJ guitar bands, in whose town they were playing tonight. (The band also performed the following night in Brooklyn, NY).
Led by pop music aficionado Carl Newman and his new wife Neko Case on vocals, the New Pornographers are a six-person onstage collective of fine Canadian musicians (from bands like Limblifter, Destroyer, Zumpano and others) who banded together in 1998 to record songs and play shows in Vancouver. After a slow start, the band in 2000 finally recorded their debut (and breakthrough) CD Mass Romantic, picking up loads of rave reviews and Canadian music awards along the way, and gaining the band many new fans all throughout 2001.
Without much opening fanfare, tonight’s show at the intimate Maxwell’s saw the band blasting through the first five songs without a break, kicking off with a majestic “My Slow Descent into Alcoholism”, the charging “Dreaming Automatic”, “To Wild Homes”, which puts Neko Case’s singing in lovely light, a Smith-inflected “Jackie”, and “New Face of the Millennium.”
This show was the band’s first in New Jersey, though they had played to NYC area crowds last fall at the Bowery Ballroom. “Our first time here in New Jersey, it is… any out of towners?” Newman deadpanned to the crowd, finally taking a break in between songs after the five number blitz. Newman’s new bride Case announced the duo’s October 2001 wedding, and then the pair got into a humorous (though somewhat drawn-out) push and pull dialogue about being on the road together as man and wife, ensuing in much laughter from the front row fans. Later, Case exhorted the crowd to “please boogie” during the songs, but tonight’s Maxwell’s crowd was either too polite (what’s up with that?) or too tired as a result of a long President’s Day weekend.
The NPs defacto frontman, lanky Newman, played guitar and sang with his eyes shut for nearly the entire set. I’m not a fan of closed-eye singers, feeling it minimizes a necessary closeness with the audience. And tonight, he seemed to be distancing himself with irony and sarcasm. He joked “that’s showbiz,” after one song, and added “that’s entertainment!” throwing in a Paul Weller/The Jam aside to boot. A humorous man, no doubt, Newman should rely upon his apt musical strengths, rather than his wink-and-a-nudge tactics, to build his onstage persona.
The star of the show, notwithstanding Newman’s songwriting and singing talents, was surely Kurt Dahle, the NP’s drummer. A powerhouse behind the kit, his rolls, timing, and sheer enthusiasm for the songs add a huge lift to much of the NP’s fast, catchy pop. Any other drummer would’ve reduced the band’s energy to mere pop-catchery, but Dahle brought everything up, especially on the chorus rolls of “The Body Says No” and “Mystery Hours”.
Bassist John Collins, a large, generously-coiffed man whose bass playing underscored the power of the live NPs lineup, also displayed his flair for early 1980s ska dancing, to much delight of the crowd. Keyboardists Blaine Thurier and Todd Fancey (also on second guitar) added to the sonic fray with pulsating synths and layered organs, highlighted against the soaring three-part vocals on “Execution Day”.
The band played a few new songs, with Case’s hopes “that they will test positive.” Word is they intend to record their follow-up to Mass Romantic later in the year. One number, “Magical”, did not stray far from the NPs trademark sound, adding a lilting chorus of “Did it turn out magical?” Near the end of their generous set, the NPs cranked up a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” with Newman calling it “a moderate hit in the late ‘70s,” showing his pop pedigree, his age and his cover smarts, all rolled up into one.