The New Pornographers Bring Siren Songs and a Monkey's Paw to Oakland's Fox Theater
Their siren sound draws indie rock fans like the sailors who would shipwreck after being enchanted by the sirens’ voices of mythological lore.
Spring finds the New Pornographers launching a national tour behind their new album Whiteout Conditions, their first in three years. The album’s infectious lead single “High Ticket Attractions” has been all over tastemaking indie rock radio stations like KCRW in Los Angeles and KUTX in Austin, making this tour feel like one of the season’s top attractions for the indie rock crowd. The album is packed with the shimmery melodic songcraft the Gen-X band is known for and so the tour is a welcome high ticket attraction in its own right here in the early stages of the foul Trump era.
Ringleader and primary songwriter A.C. Newman has gone on record in recent interviews about how anxiety concerning Trump was, in fact, a key element in his creative output, exemplified in “High Ticket Attractions”, which he said was directly inspired by the topic. Lyrics such as “This thing could go two ways / Won’t be another exit for days / So pack a small suitcase / Anything else can be easily replaced” allude to such socio-political teeth gnashing. The album however still focuses more on the band’s inimitable power pop sound rather than penetrating lyrics.
The fabulous Neko Case remains the star of the show as she has been throughout most of the band’s career, generating siren-like harmonies with bandmate Kathryn Calder to propel the songs to a higher sonic realm. Calder was originally brought in as a stand-in of sorts for Case who was busy with her solo career in 2005, but the band has been at its best and brightest with the two of them starring together as a dynamic duo. Their siren sound draws indie rock fans like the sailors who would shipwreck after being enchanted by the sirens’ voices of mythological lore.
A sonic shipwreck of sorts unfortunately takes place here at the Fox though in frustrating fashion when the band hits the stage with “High Ticket Attractions” as the opener. The volume is soft and the mix is flat. Here’s the band rocking their infectious lead single and their dynamic sound just isn’t coming across like it should. Case’s voice is too low in the mix and the instruments don’t sound as bright as they should. The Fox is known for having a great sound system and crisp acoustics, perhaps not quite as clear as at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco but still pretty close. Something is amiss.
It’s only the second show of the tour following the preceding night’s opener at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, so perhaps the band’s sound man is still working on dialing things in. Surely the mix will improve fans tell themselves, but it sadly never does even after exploring around the venue. From the front rail above the pit to the side bar, from the soundboard to the balcony, it seems there’s no sweet spot to be found. It’s a disappointment for Bay Area fans who don’t get to hear the full multi-dimensional sound of the band as it should be. Eventually, one can only grab another beer and try to make the best of it.
Case shakes her tambourine and sings of peering “into the great unknown” on 2003’s “The Laws Have Changed”, an apt tune for this tour with the current political mood. The band’s full harmonic power shines through as best it can on “Moves” from 2010’s Together album, with the ladies including touring violinist Simi Stone harmonizing behind Newman as they all sing of things getting louder (if only the volume actually did.). The title track of the new album is a highlight with bright synths from Calder and Blaine Thurier over an up-tempo groove from drummer Joe Seiders, bassist John Collins and guitarist Todd Fancey as the band generates a rippling wave of sound. Newman’s verses give way to choruses from the sirens in a dynamic, melodic exchange as they sing of “Suffering whiteout conditions, forget the mission, just get out alive.” This seems to be a theme for the Trump era. 2007’s “All the Old Showstoppers” even references the band’s siren-like qualities literally, on a bouncy number where the band’s sparse yet vivid neon stage lights provide some extra glow.
“Our new album’s like a monkey’s paw,” Newman says sardonically at one point, referencing the classic supernatural short story in which three wishes are granted to the owner of a monkey’s hand but at a price for interfering with fate. Featuring a moral of “Be careful what you wish for”, it seems Newman is suggesting he inadvertently helped invoke Trump’s presidency as some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But he shouldn’t be so hard on himself. The world can always use more musicians who are willing to sing out about the fear and loathing they feel due to the corruption and greed that plagues global politics, especially now. The band follows this comment with “Play Money”, where Case charms on lead vocal with lyrics such as “For a fee I'll right any wrong, For a fee, I'll fight any foe, For a fee, I'll stop any show.”
The set steams toward a finish with upbeat shimmery synths on “Avalanche Alley”, as Newman’s verses again alternate with the female vocalists as they sing of “Blues from the last world, News from the future.” It seems like another zeitgeist kind of tune with the current 21st century blues calling out urgently for some better news from the future. Until then, the music world can use all the optimistic energy and spiritual truth it can get from bands like the New Pornographers to combat the lies and greedy power plays coming from Donald Trump’s dastardly crew of corporate raiders and robber barons.