[1 July 2003]
Some bands pop hottest in front of a live audience, with the pressure on and the stakes high. Some bands get off in the studio, endlessly tweaking and noodling and finessing. It’s rare to find a band with a complicated sound that can corral their mojo inside of the recording process. It’s even more rare to find a band that consistently delivers on the stage and in the studio. Considering all of the other matters (money, money money) that a professional musician wrestles with, considering all of those details and distractions, it’s a seemingly impossible uphill climb for the seeker of purity. But it is possible.
Artists like Wilco & the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pull it off. They get inside of their music and then translate that to a live show, and to a recording. For the audience then, the experience of the latest record and the touring jives. Even better when the band is at that blissful juncture in their career when they can play intimate venues, when stadium shows are not optional, when maximizing profit loses out to maximizing joy. This is not to say that Wilco and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the Best Bands In The World—this isn’t that riff. But those bands prove that there is a sweet spot, a magical and rare place where every dollar a fan hands over to an artist is a fair exchange.
Now, I admire the hell out of the New Pornographers’ vision, and I happily consume their shrink-wrapped product. Their sound is equally futuristic and retro, stylistic and smart, and never shallow or pompous. The New Pornographers’ dream of pop music is expansive: think of the bliss of a Bay City Rollers’ roller-skating sing-a-long, or Ringo’s drum kick on “Ticket to Ride”. Add post-modern lyricism (a complex intelligence that transmits: this band cannot afford to ignore the world around them), four-part harmonies, and a love of the Electric Light Orchestra. Just the anodyne for a post-9/11 anxiety attack.
When I first heard the band’s second album, Electric Version, my heart rose at track three, “The Laws Have Changed”. A perfect song. From the drummer’s “1-2-3” countdown, to front man Carl Newman’s first ascending melodic verse (“It was crime at the time/ but the laws we changed ‘em/ though the hero’s for hire’s forever the same one”), to Neko Case & Kurt Dahle’s vocal responses (“Introducing for the first time/ Pharoah on the microphone/ Sing all hail/ What’ll be revealed today/ When we peer to the great unknown/ From the land of the throne”). This song is not merely pop genius; it’s a fiery critique of John Ashcroft’s America. Finally, cajones. Discovering the layers inside of this song is a revelation. God bless ‘em for Neko’s bridge (“Form a line/ to the throne”) and for indulging in repetition at the end of this song. The second time around is orgasmic. It’s that good.
And yet, the New Pornographers don’t seem like a band happy to be on the road tonight. The set is perfunctory: Newman announces the title of the next song, the band flawlessly executes three minutes of pop nirvana, and then it’s onto the next one. The drummer cracks me up—his shirt is buttoned to the top and his moppy head of hair bounces to the beat like a Muppet—but the rest of the band looks kinda bored, like they’re phoning it in. The show isn’t sold out, it’s a Monday night, the place is less than half-full. Neko Case, recently dubbed Playboy.com’s Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock, fidgets with the sound guy between most songs. She never seems to get the kinks out. But I’ve seen bands shrug this kind of stuff off. And here we are, sitting in our plush velvet theater seats, in a small-ish venue—all should be right in the world. The local rock heroes—Malkmus, Brownstein, Tucker, Weiss—are in the house. The set list, culled from two brilliant records, should be impeccable. But measure the excitement from the record buying public against the lack of enthusiasm coming off the stage tonight? The inequities are glaring.
Maybe it’s that the Alladin Theater isn’t the best place for rock shows. A sit-down venue with a small area in front of the stage for kids doing the pogo, the Alladin tries to be all things to all people. The venue holds 600+ heads and books a roster of “adult contemporary” types: Gillian Welch (pre-Norah Jones tour), John Hiatt, Richard Thompson. You get the idea. Every now and again the rockers hit the Alladin, and it’s awkward. Sit? Stand? Drink and talk? Sit quietly, feigning reverence? When Neko Case played her last solo gig in Portland, she played the Alladin, and she felt a million miles away. Tonight she seems distant again. I see her staring out at the audience, most of who are sitting down, and I wonder if she’s disappointed the place isn’t sold out. Why isn’t she dancing? I wonder how much it costs for this band to tour. I wonder if it’s worth it to them. Do they like performing? Or do they just need to perform. The thing is, I don’t want to be thinking about any of this stuff. I just want to be caught up in the moment.
The band’s first record, Mass Romantic, hooked me fast. A friend of mine in New York could not stop talking about Mass Romantic. He got so excited talking about this new band from Canada, about the guy from Zumpano and the guy from Destroyer, about this red-headed torch singer who should be an indie-film star, well, the thin blue vein on his forehead emerged, like a pulsating snake. He swore that Mass Romantic would be considered one of the best records of the year, he said (and I quote): “It made me want to run up to a rooftop, tear off all my clothes, and yell at the top of my lungs.” And he’s a pretty picky guy.
But I’m walking away from the show underwhelmed. Three- and four-part harmonies are ringing in my ears, and all I can think about is what could’ve been. If tonight in Portland Oregon is any indication, stick to buying their perfect pop records. The New Pornographers are not a band you need to see live.