The New Pornographers
Portland, OR • September 16, 2007
When listening to any of the New Pornographers’ four albums, it is obvious from the get go that you are in the hands of master pop songsmiths. Both Carl Newman and Dan Bejar, the two men who write the songs for the band, plaster each song with the perfect elements – keyboard lines, percussion jabs, harmonica melodies, etc. As well, the vocal harmonies and guitar lines lock in almost too perfectly, turning what could be halfway decent songs into stone cold classics.
So, for a band this precise to be stuck into a venue notorious for its unforgiving and cavernous sound, the question immediately becomes: can they overcome those issues and still put on a sparkling show? The answer for The New Pornographers is a solid maybe.
The excitement of seeing the band at full strength, with both Neko Case and Dan Bejar on stage, was quickly superseded by how ugly everything sounded in the Crystal Ballroom. Vocals – especially Carl Newman’s – were lost in the wash of midrange white noise, the guitars sounded mushy, and the keyboards were practically nonexistent. For all the energy they poured into their performance, the crystalline songs splashed into the walls and were absorbed away.
What wasn’t lost was the obvious joy this band has when they are playing music together. Even fill-in drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) had a giddy grin throughout the set, especially when he caught the eye of one of the other band members. This was especially evident when all eight members of the touring band were on stage at the same time, which unfortunately only happened a handful of times during Bejar’s lead vocals. Those made for some of the best moments of the night, especially the ripping encore version of “A Testament To Youth In Verse” (from Electric Version) and a perfectly shuffling “Entering White Cecilia” (from the band’s latest album Challengers), with Case and Bejar mugging for one another and gleefully bouncing around the stage.
Not surprisingly, the cleanest, most easily understood moments came with the quieter songs from the band’s catalog. The band’s first ever live performance of the epic “Unguided”, with four vocalists (Newman, Case, guitarist Todd Fancey, and keyboardist Kathryn Calder) sending chills through the audience with their sharp harmonies. As well, Case was given a perfect spotlight moment, breaking hearts with her indelible voice on arguably the finest song on Challengers, the moving “Go Places”.
Those moments of clarity were infrequent, however, and what could have been a shudderingly brilliant show was, through no fault of the band’s, demoted to simply pretty good status. But, as any right-minded music fan will tell you, I’d rather take a pretty good New Pornographers show over no show at all.