Unlike the three rapturously received long players that came before it, the New Pornographers’ latest release, Challengers, has seen a slightly muted response. The main criticism seems to be that the album trades the band’s expertly executed hooks in for subdued, melodic balladry. In other words, where previous albums were nonstop sugar-rush explosions, this new one is—so say the naysayers—like totally boring, man.
In this respect, Carl “A.C.” Newman and his cast of indie stars (which includes Neko Case and Destoyer’s Dan Bejar) are victims of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. Had Challengers been a full-throttle, Mass Romantic-style pop-rock extravaganza, many critics would have yawned: “Ho-hum, more of the same from the New Pornographers.” Granted, the new album isn’t perfect, but at least it proves once and for all that the indie-rock super-group is not a one-trick pony.
Live, Challengers’s songs make more sense, enriching and diversifying the New Pornos’ set immeasurably. At the Boulder Theater on an uncharacteristically drizzly Monday evening in late September, the Neko Case showcase “Go Places” provided a gravitas that the band has previously lacked in concert. It’s a power ballad—there’s no other term for it—but in the best way possible. Placed between the propulsive, smart-ass fun of Dan Bejar’s “Jackie Dressed in Cobras” and the glammy, cluttered “Twin Cinema”, “Go Places” sounded wide open and lovely—a much-needed emotional breather in the midst of the trademark New Pornographers power-pop workouts.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of those throughout the band’s 90-minute set: From their four albums, they cherry-picked the best tracks. This was the “supercharged” lineup of the band—meaning that both Bejar and Case donated their singular talents to the mix. Bejar was a particularly entertaining presence, slithering out snake-like every three or four songs to the strains of Herb Alpert’s “Little Spanish Flea” to sing his own gleefully twisted tunes. Where the rest of the band appeared to be genial guys and girls, the bird’s nest-haired Bejar—guzzling beer and munching on a slice of cheese in between verses—gave the stage a welcome shot of weirdness. Case, meanwhile, had only to stand there and sing to make a difference. In some ways, it’s curious that she still plays with the New Pornos since she’s sold out the Boulder Theater by herself a couple of times in the last few years. But judging from the grins Case traded with her bandmates throughout the set, she enjoys being a Pornographer.
At the center of it all, Newman (reluctantly?) led the New Pornographers. He’s definitely not a born frontman, that’s for sure. While he seemed more comfortable in the spotlight tonight than in years past, his between-song banter remained resolutely self-deprecating. “Thanks for coming out on a Monday night and being so enthusiastic,” he deadpanned towards the end of the show. “We thought this would be the night where everyone hated us.” Not at all.