17 Nov 2001: The Middle East Cambridge, Massachusetts
Read the next sentence twice, and try not to laugh. The New Pornographers are a Canadian Super-Group! You probably let out a little chuckle, right? Maybe you even had some fun with the concept: Let’s see, a Canadian Super-Group . . . well we could start off with Bryan Adams or the weird-looking dude from The Barenaked Ladies on male vocals, Celine Dion or Alanis Morissette on female vocals. Throw in the two guitarists from The Tragically Hip? Hmm . . . I guess we’d have to use the rhythm section from Rush: Geddy Lee and Neil Peart. At least if their live show got dull, Neil Peart could rotate his revolving 80-piece drum kit and kill about twenty minutes with a chimes and triangle solo. . . .
Well it turns out the joke’s on us. At least, the joke is on most of us Americans who have probably heard very little about the six Canadians that comprise this band.
The New Pornographers is the brainchild of singer, songwriter and arranger Carl Newman, whose most famous work is with Zumpano (another great Canadian band that we’ll probably never see tour the States). Perhaps retreating a bit from Zumpano’s occasionally overwrought musical stylings, Newman zipped through his Rolodex to assemble a dream pop lineup, enlisting boy wonder and Bowie-wannabe Daniel Bejar (aka Destroyer), golden-throated alt-country singer Neko Case, bassist and producer John Collins, from The Evaporators, plus a drummer with a three-octave vocal range and a keyboardist most famous for his cartoon and film work. The result was the 2000 Mint Records release Mass Romantic, a blissful, power-pop-rock record to stand alongside Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight and The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde.
And as it turns out, these Pornographers aren’t too shabby in person, either. Carl and company hit the downstairs room at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a mini-tour of the Northeast, and it’s fair to say that audience got their ten dollars’ worth. Opening up with the chugging, sing-along tune “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”, off Mass Romantic, the New Pornographers had the room bouncing on their feet by the song’s first chorus. And as soon as Neko Case belted out the harmony on the song’s second verse, The New Pornographers had made a speedy ascent into the inebriated hearts of everyone in the room. That woman can sing . . . and then some.
To listen to Neko Case recorded is an incredible experience, but to actually watch her sing is breathtaking. While the audience (and sometimes the rest of the band) gasps in awe, struggling to draw enough air to yell into a friend’s ear “can you believe her voice”?!, Neko simply opens her mouth and lets loose an auditory assault. In a good way. The English language needs a new verb to describe the manner in which Neko produces sound. It is not singing. It is some peculiar form of channeling, in which her vocal chords become conduit for a blend of Linda Ronstadt’s, Patsy Cline’s and Ozzy Osbourne’s voices, driven through a Marshall amp with all the knobs turned to 10.
As the applause from the opening tune rang out, the band offered a new song, “The Electric Version”. Another jangly Big Star-esque product of the Carl Newman Songwriting School, this new song was a quick hit with the crowd and bodes well for the next Pornographers release. Although guitarist/songwriter Dan Bejar left the band earlier this year and is neither recording nor touring with them, the Pornographers have found a stellar replacement in keyboardist/guitarist Todd Fancey, and they’ve turned over some of Dan’s vocal parts to drummer Kurt Dahle (who is an absolute rock force, both in timekeeping and vocals).
In between tunes, Carl and Neko flirted and joked with the crowd, each other, and members of opening band Kingsbury Manx. Carl accused Neko of making a play for the soundman: “She does that to every soundman, wherever we play”, he told the crowd (about half of which suddenly wished they were working the controls of the soundboard). Neko responded by calling Carl a lush, which he didn’t seem to mind. Six-string Danelectro slung around his neck, the lead singer struck a pouty, Jagger-like pose and asked the crowd to bring him some drinks. Well, he may have had a few too many because about halfway through the set he made some bizarre pronouncements: “It’s nice to be back at the Middle East! We played upstairs last time we were here, but the downstairs is a lot better because it doesn’t smell like a toilet”! And I thought Canadians were respected worldwide for their social graces and easy charm. . . .
Truth is, The New Pornographers could have done or said whatever they wanted, since the audience was just about drooling over them. With a few new songs interspersed, the band played all of the twelve songs on Mass Romantic, and I think most of the crowd wouldn’t have minded hearing some of those more than once. The opening set breezed by in an instant. Only after feeling their vocal chords throb from roaring “this boy’s life under the electrical lights” what seemed like a few hundred times during the glorious refrain of set closer “Mass Romantic” did the crowd realize that they’d been swaying and singing for over an hour.
The band had barely completed the obligatory stroll offstage when Neko Case quickly returned, claiming, “the Canadians just beat Kingsbury Manx in a tickle fight”. Carl Newman hopped back on stage to lead the encore, teasing the crowd with the opening riffs of Stooges’ anthem “1969” and Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”. But instead of those rock chestnuts, the band turned in a passionate, emotive version of “Send Me a Postcard”, by late-‘60s bubble-gum band Shocking Blue. This may have been the night’s highlight, featuring Neko singing the first verse in the twangy, country style that’s earned her a living, before being joined by Carl on low harmony for the refrain and remainder of the song. The band finished off the show with “Centre for Holy Wars” and the Nick Lowe classic “Cruel to Be Kind”, showing off four-part harmonies as a parting shot.
So for those who think Canadian rock music hasn’t given us much except Neil Young, Robbie Robertson and maybe a few Sloan tunes, check out The New Pornographers. While American boy bands and teen pop stars focus on dance steps and magazine covers, some of our neighbors to the North are working on the next Pet Sounds. . . .