New Pornographers

Nicole Rappin

The New Pornographers, an indie band from Vancouver, produces harmonically complex, danceable, pop songs. Oxymoronic for sure, the New Pornographers put on an excellent show for music dorks and awkward dancers alike. The origin of The New Pornographers’ controversial, decidedly un-PC name is under dispute. Some say they got their name from Jimmy Swaggart, a pioneering televangelist from the 80s, who famously referred to our beloved rock and roll as “the new pornography,” while others claim that band member Carl Newman came up with it after watching a Japanese film called “The Pornographers”. But whatever myth you choose to subscribe to is irrelevant. What is important is to show up to the show ready to rock out. Needless to say, the group has a highly developed sense of humor about themselves.

Spin magazine called The New Pornographers “a reason to greet the day,” and they definitely force feed you reason to love each day and every inch of their music with each song and album that they put out. This indie “super-group” is currently on the active roster of Matador Records, which also claims the reputable likes of M. Ward, Belle and Sebastian, Cat Power, and Sonic Youth. The New Pornographers are surely in good company. Some combination of their management, the undeniable talent of their membership or maybe just something in the water over there at Matador has definitely got me drinking the New Pornographer Kool-Aid.

A.C. Newman, “founder” of The New Pornographers, refers to the band as “a shit mix, a shit storm, and now, just spontaneous brain activity.” The whole idea for the band came about as some sort of musical experiment to see what would happen, what could be produced, what creativity could be sparked. It is hard to imagine that just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck could produce such a snazzy mishmash of pop masterminds who seem to know exactly how to fit all of their unique sounds and styles together into a cohesive and insanely catchy whole.

The New Pornographers’ website's subtitle boasts that the band consists of “AC Newman and a group of ridiculously talented people uniquely equipped to realize his musical ambitions,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe this pop-indie-rock consortium. Carl Newman set out to round up the best, hottest talent he could find to realize his “grand musical vision.” The band is really just a hodgepodge of artists from different walks of life and different places on the musical spectrum, all with a wide range of artistic talents to add to The New Pornographers’ impressively innovative repertoire. Unofficial front-man A.C. Newman, who is also the mastermind behind the New Pornographers and the main song writer, sings and plays guitar, piano, mandolin, percussion, and bass. John Collins, also of the punkier Canadian rock band The Evaporators, joins Newman on bass, baritone guitar, glockenspiel, mandolin, guitar, and trombone. Blain Thurier, who is actually an independent filmmaker in his non-New Pornographers life, plays a Fender Rhodes and works the sampler. Dan Bejar, who also fronts Destroyer, a Canadian chamber pop band, and Swan Lake his newest indie rock side project, sings, and plays the shakers, guitar, and piano. Kathryn Calder plays keyboards for New Pornographers and also the indie band Immaculate Machine. Kurt Dahle, who also plays with alt-rock bands Limblifter and Age of Electric, rocks out on drums, vocals, and percussion. Neko Case, also a powerful solo artist, lends her vocal skills to the group. And finally, Todd Fancey, also a solo artist and a member of Limblifter with Dahle, plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo. In addition, The New Pornographers recruit string sections, harpists, flautists, French hornists and others as needed.

With this kind of lineup you would think that The New Pornographers would suffer from an unfortunately matured case of too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome but they are surprisingly dexterous at combining and balancing there many talents and sounds into one cohesive, lush, tight sound. In fact their hodge-podge existence really defines who they are as a band. The prolificacy of “sometimes members,” and a membership which seems to boast more side projects then front projects, lend the New Pornographers to a chiller persona than we may be used to with some other artists. They are really just a group of friends from different walks of life who get together to jam in front of eager audiences, in the studio, wherever and whenever they can. This carefree love for music making is really evident in their songs.

The group formed in 1997 and almost immediately recorded and released their first smash single. If a single can really be a “smash” in the indie music universe, “Letter from an Occupant” is it. Rising almost immediately to “classic” status, “Letter from an Occupant” raised the hype on the group leading into their anticipated debut LP, “Mass Romantic” in 2000. The New Pornographers exploded on to the scene in 2000 and were immediately lauded by critics and consumers alike. Few artists can claim respect, and genuine love from critics and public alike, but just like their name and their line-up, The New Pornographers clearly have no intention of following the path of other bands that came before them. They have earned more than their fare share of rave reviews and have the money-waving audiences to back them up. The band’s first three albums (Mass Romantic – 2000, Electric Version – 2003, and Twin Cinema - 2005) all ranked in the top 40 of the Village Voice’s esteemed “Pazz & Jop” yearly album rankings. It is an undeniably respectable showing from any group.

Entertainment Weekly calls The New Pornographers “an insanely contagious concoction of new wave, Cheap Trick, and garage-glam pandemonium.” The band has grown together in a way that defies standard classifications, creating their own musical language with hints of indie, pop, synth, psychadelia, and rock thrown in ad nauseum creating an exhilarating brew of musical delights. What is great about The New Pornographers isn’t just their first album, or their second, or their third, or fourth. What is great is that they have achieved that difficult to attain balance of reinventing and refreshing their sound each time they step into the studio while still maintaining that indefinable New Pornographers quirk which distinguishes their signature sound and makes them who they are. The New Pornographers understand how pop music functions, they understand the structure in such a distinct way that they can break from our musical expectations and inspire innovation in our sentiments of popular music. They weigh down their songs with immense pop hooks so full of vitality and genuine fun that you can’t help but sing along and ask for more.

Certainly a tour de force of pop-indie-rock expression, The New Pornographers are frequent tourers but one can only hope that they pop back into the studio soon and send us some more musical gems. Get ready for a Carnival show like none we have had before. Because honestly, who is there who can better represent the spirit of Carnival than a band fronted by a guy who claims to have disappeared from Vancouver without a word only to reappear in Brooklyn four months later with crazy tales and mysterious scars? A.C. Newman might be able to credit some kick-ass musical material to his drunken adventures, but as this years’ Carnival Concert will surely demonstrate, wherever drunken revelry goes, the Carnegie Mellon Carnival party bus is not far behind.