New Pornographers + Okkervil River

[11 May 2008]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Toronto is a funny place. It boasts massive numbers of music fans, a deeply committed hipster community, bohemians and artists to spare, and a multicultural identity that is the envy of big cities the world over. It’s a youthful city (there are three universities and a number of smaller colleges), vibrant, and, in its way, artsy. And yet, it’s almost impossible to get a Toronto music crowd to do anything other than act like a bunch of parked cars while you play your ass off.

This is the classic stand-still-with-arms-crossed scene, to the point where people actually look down upon you if you start to dance, cheer too loudly, or enjoy yourself too evidently. Just try jumping around at a hip new band’s show in this town. You’ll have people in ultra-trendy vintage clothes pointing at you and saying, sarcastically: “That guy’s awesome.” (To my delight, every once in a while a band will actually call out their somnambulant crowd. The most famous recent example of this was when Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, from up there on the Massey Hall stage, called the audience “fucking motherfuckers” and demanded that we stand up and give them something back, or no encore!) Hey, Toronto: bands hate this detached apathy, and many Hogtown crowds get lackluster shows as a result.

Case in point: last Wednesday at the Phoenix.

Okkervil River, fresh from the release of one of last year’s best records (the messy concept LP The Stage Names), were the openers on this dreamy double bill. A funny-looking band, Okkervil River has a wild, emotional front man in Will Sheff, and a shaggy, rock’n’roll drummer in Travis Nelsen, but they’re surrounded by some not-so-rock’n’roll-looking folks. The package just feels forced, like a business arrangement more than a band. This is a musical as well as aesthetic issue—brand-new guitarist Charles Bissell (also of the Wrens) has a tightness to his style that was utterly out of synch with his bandmates’ looseness. While Sheff sang in his curious but intimate style and Nelson swung his head around and smashed his cymbals, the other guys just sort of played their instruments.

Offering a shortened set of 60-70 minutes, Okkervil River moved through a variety of tunes, heavily favoring stuff from the past two records. The show was a series of expressive ups and downs: Sheff’s songs tend to employ a build-and-fade cycle, emphasizing his pained lyrics and sensitive vocals. His performance is hyper-emotional, nearly parodic in its intensity; he even asked the audience to be quiet so he could sing one song in a half-whisper. Thing is, it seemed that every tune found him doing some a cappella stuff before the band rejoined him for a rousing finish. On record, these songs never seem as contrived as they did here. From “A Stone” to “A Girl in Port” to “For Real”, all of which are standout tracks on their respective LPs, the band kept underlining the sentimentality of the music, milking the quiet bits, and exaggerating the swells. The result was a taint of insincerity—a huge problem for a band that expects you to not laugh when the singer tells of a stone turning into a princess in a tower in a castle and feeling forlorn as suitors come from far and wide to bring her tributes, etc.

The New Pornographers, tonight’s headliners, are among the more exciting bands at work today. Boasting no fewer than three bona fide indie heroes (in Neko Case, Carl Newman, and Dan Bejar), this is not a band that should have to work to get a capacity crowd into a lather. But work they did. And the crowd, perhaps lulled into a slumber by the lackluster opening set, gave them nothing much in return for their efforts. There was so much standing still and staring that Newman himself even implored of us, after about five songs, not to “be like those Vancouver stoners,” a half-hearted attempt to encourage us by appealing to civic pride and putting down a competing city. It was a lame effort, but lamer still was the audience’s bemused reaction. Instead of responding with a bit of invigorated energy, the crowd laughed uncomfortably, and continued to stand there. I was at the back, and judging by the amount of movement in front of me, the audience might as well have been watching an auction.

The Pornos played hard, fast, and steady for about 90 minutes. Missing Bejar (his band, Destroyer, is on tour), their set stuck to Newman’s material, and made sure to give Case a few shining moments. Everyone on stage seemed to be having fun, at first, but by the end appeared to be merely at work. It was, of course, the first night of the tour, and the rust was not a huge surprise; but there was a sameness to the songs that was new to my ears. For the first time, the New Pornos sounded predictable. Each tune hit the same level of intensity, the same level of noise, even the same tempo. The band was, in other words, excellent—but flat. Even the astoundingly talented Case, whose voice is simply thrilling, missed the high notes (twice!) on “Go Places”, Newman’s best song on last year’s underrated Challengers LP.

The reason for this flatness, apart from the jaded and boring Toronto crowd, can be chocked up to the absence of Bejar. Although I am not one to jump to his tracks first on a New Pornos record—I find his affected Britishness and lazy rhymes a bit much—he does bring a new voice and texture to the performance. Last time the Pornos came through Toronto, he was along with them. The show was rough, chaotic, rambunctious, and, above all, fun. Just when the songs might have started to sound similar, he’d come wandering onstage with his beer and his casual weirdness and shake things up. Maybe it’s time for the Pornos to start giving Todd Fancey, their other guitarist (who stood so far to the side of the stage he might as well not even have been up there), a chance to do some singing and songwriting? Or, maybe, this millennial supergroup should think about refraining from touring unless they’re at their full cohort?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/new-pornographers-okkervil-river/