The New Pornographers
Tuesday, March 3
Across the last two decades the North American supergroup The New Pornographers has never really let the side down; theirs is a catalogue brimming with competence and, usually, confidence. If anything there’s a safeness that ever so slightly irks – that’s a small and very white complaint to make though. Basically: You know that sometimes dreamy, always solid power-pop you make? Guys, sometimes it’s a wee bit twee and samey.
That is the game for the New Pornographers. The world they’ve built. And for many they make the world a little bit happier to be in while their songs are happening.
So it was with their Festival performance – a showcase for their latest album (Falling Down The Stairs of Your Smile, You’ll Need A Backseat Driver) and a generous catalogue trawl for deeper cuts (Use It, Colossus of Rhodes) and those early-00s anthems (The Laws Have Changed).
It’s a dream set up for a band really; a safer pair of songwriting hands you might not find as A.C. Newman remains at the every least astonishing competent, perhaps very occasionally complacent, but by his side one of the very best ever song-deliverers in co-lead vocalist and perfect harmony accompanist and cheerleading percussionist Neko Case. She carries both the weight and authority of her own solo career and the easy charisma of a down to earth stage presence. Classically trained violinist turned punk rocker Simi Stone is a magnetic performer too – her interest in every song is palpable regardless of the size of her role in it. That’s true too of lead guitarist Todd Fancey; that’s almost the theme across this band of very talented players (drummer Joe Seiders so authoritative without ever overplaying) – obvious musicianship, the safest of bets, but also a dedication to putting the song over, to believing in it. It’s service with a smile.
And there is that dutifulness about this band. Banging out power-poppers with production-line efficiency. Always a blessing, sometimes it’s nearly a curse.
A Beach Boys hook here, a streak of Todd Rundgren there, all refashioned, reframed, cut to serve ana udience that either studies all the earnest reference points or cares not a jot for what has come before it, The New Pornographers’ newest material can’t quite hit the heights of the early 00s when the one-two of Mass Romantic (2000) and Electric Version (2003) set the band up, 2005’s Twin Cinema creating a trifecta. That they’re still at it – and still finding new ways to reinvent a hook – and still spreading the love across songs from all of their albums – is impressive enough.
And certainly that middle period of albums 2007’s Challengers, through Together (2010) and Brill Bruisers (2014) accounted for a lot magic. As part of a quick three-song victory-lap encore tonight Brill Bruisers’ opening title track is oven-warm and delicious. Another reminder of how effortless it can seem when this band hits its stride. The songs danceable (a flaw in a seated venue of course) and bursting with extra goodness, very much 3D for their stage presentations when occasionally on the record they can seem a bit flat.
Look, it was a very good show. Safe, dependable, sometimes utterly joyous even. They were never my absolute favourite band – only because there’s something brittle to me about music that is almost purposely devoid of funk. I thought at one point that I was hearing a few Talking Heads songs that had been turned on their air, drained of that funk-filled magic. But that’s starting to criticise this for what it was ‘not’. What it ‘was’ was always very good, and in a few moments close to transcendent. The big shame was that it was somewhat woefully under-attended. And an extra pang of sadness about that crept into view for me when Newman mentioned it was the final show of a solid five-week tour. You’d hope for a better final fling. But, then, almost all that were there were up on their feet at the end of a generous run-through of what is basically a cult-catalogue, a cult-career for a band that seemed to form on paper and suggest it might be around for an album or two as a quirky side-gig and then pushed on and kicked on and continues to deliver the goods.
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