Mr. Smalls has never felt as small to me as it did at last Friday’s New Pornographers show. The 650-person-capacity church-turned-venue was sold out, packed to the beams, and the former pulpit stage seemed woefully undersized for the Pornographers, a band of six or seven (secondary singer/guitarist Dan Bejar came and went throughout the night) whose sound is an overpowering wash of power pop.
“Brill Bruisers,” the opening track of the set and of the 2014 album of the same name, established the tone. It opens with a bellowing “Bo-ba-bo-ba-bo-op” and barely slows down for frontman A.C. Newman to deliver a few opaque verses with references to sirens, bangs and waves before ratcheting up again.
Though the array of songwriters in the band offers some diversity of pace, booming songs like this have provided the core of the New Pornographers’ sound since they formed in Vancouver in 1999, assembled from members of Zumpano, Destroyer, The Evaporators, and other groups you have heard of if you were a Canadian college radio DJ in the late ’90s. Their arrangements are large and lush, but the Pornographers don’t scrimp on melody; the hugeness of their sound only serves to amplify it.
Newman has called Brill Bruisers a “celebration record” and Friday’s show reflected that. The early part of their set consisted of rocket-paced scorchers, one after the other. There was the expected mix of standouts from the new-ish album (“War on the East Coast” and “Dancehall Domine,” etc.) and selections from their back catalogue. Particularly, welcome were the herky-jerky, Dandy Warhols-ish “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” from 2005’s Twin Cinema, and “Moves,” the uber-catchy opener of their excellent 2010 album, Together
. We didn’t get real breather until 13 songs in, when the band broke out “Adventures in Solitude,” a piano-and-acoustic-guitar-driven number from 2007’s Challengers
Friday’s show lacked Neko Case, the fiery-haired chanteuse and the band’s most individually famous member. Since their founding, Case has been to the Pornographers what Neil Young was to early Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young): She adds an edge and a widely recognizable voice to the group, yet separately the band retains a chemistry that allows them to function well without their famous part-timer.
In 2005, singer/keyboardist Kathryn Calder was hired for the unenviable task of standing in for Case on tour and was elevated to a full-fledged member of the band a year later. Now, she performs her own parts and Case’s on nights such as Friday – and she does a bang-up job. She generated mid-song cheers when she delivered Case’s verses in “You Tell Me Where,” an I’ll-be-there-for-you song from Brill Bruisers
that required much confidence.
Into the night, there were a few shouts from the crowd of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” the high-octane song that got the band their first notice on stations like WYEP. Has ever a band shunned its most famous song only to reconsider due to the heckling of a few bros? I think not, and it’s ironic in this case, given the song’s refrain about “listening to one song for too long.” But, as the middle song of the encore, the New Pornographers broke out “Spanish Techno” and its monstrous riff to much jumping up and down.
I hoped the encore would provide a break from the jubilant tone of the set list and we’d hear a few more nuanced numbers, like “My Shepard,” and “Valkyrie of the Roller Disco,” two of the weirder, more haunting tracks from Together. But for the closer, the group went with “The Bleeding Heart Show,” a blockbuster from Twin Cinema and a song with some serious emotional build-up. With its climax of potentially drumstick-breaking percussion parts and a tsunami of vocal harmonies, the Pornographers ended the show as they began it, as a beacon to the sheer sonic power of well-arranged indie rock.