In praise of the lesser-known New Pornographers
Cranking up an album from Canadian indie pop supergroup the New Pornographers pick any one of the five, from debut "Mass Romantic" to this year's "Together" is roughly similar to listening to several albums at the same time.
A half-dozen vocalists pile on one another during choruses. Synthesizers collide with pianos collide with Wurlitzers. Mandolins meet banjos and guitars both electric and acoustic. Seemingly discontent with their already expansive palette after 2003's "Electric Version," the band brought more players onto the field on their follow-up albums: a xylophone, a pump organ, a glockenspiel, strings and, on "Together," horns on loan from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
From the cacophony of the thunderous, synth-saturated "Centre For Holy Wars" to the waves of whistles and strings on "Crash Years," a good New Pornographers song explodes with colorful, disparate elements that shouldn't work together but somehow find a way. Think of it as the aural equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting — messy, bold and beautiful.
You don't get a sound like that without an awful lot of cooks in the kitchen. Which makes it a shame that the majority of the praise routinely showered on the best pop act to ever emerge from our neighbors to the north is focused on three of the band's eight full-time members: lead songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist and visionary A.C. Newman, eccentric pop personality and contributing songwriter Dan Bejar and the full-throated, flame-haired Neko Case. As the stars of the New Pornographers' big three have risen, comparatively little attention has been paid to the other five-eighths of the band — an astonishingly expansive, talented group of players, each with their own irons in the fire, that together form something of a Vancouver, British Columbia, A-Team.
So if you pay a visit to Stubb's on Friday night to catch the band in its element, take a moment to savor the skills of the less-heralded New Pornographers. Divert your eyes from the holy trinity — admittedly difficult in the case of indie rock objet de crush Case — and make note of the propulsive powerhouse drumming of Kurt Dahle. Or the giddy-yet-vulnerable vocals of Kathryn Calder. Or the furious guitar of Todd Fancey.
That "supergroup" tag rang a little false when first applied to the New Pornographers after the release of debut "Mass Romantic" in 2000. The album, three years in the making, was assembled by a handful of musicians that had a cult following in Canada and little fame elsewhere. Newman, formerly the front man of power pop act Zumpano, led the way, roping in other players from the Vancouver scene. Case's dark, throaty alternative country had a few fans, and Bejar had developed a small following under the name Destroyer, crafting Pavement-circa-"Wowee Zowee"-esque pop oddities.
"Mass Romantic" sold modestly but collected ample accolades from the rock press, a Juno award and placement on multiple best-of lists in 2001.
Each of the group's following albums sold better and crested a larger wave of hype — and by now, that "supergroup" descriptor feels more accurate. Newman and Bejar's solo work has risen in popularity.
And Case has veritably exploded, eclipsing the New Pornographers' own fame — last year's "Middle Cyclone" debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 3, amply beating the Pornographers' best performance (No. 18, for "Together").
All of which makes it understandable that the New Pornographers' lesser-known members don't get the ink they deserve. But despite Newman, Bejar and Case's considerable talents, the New Pornographers' pop collage sound would never succeed without the extraordinary ability of Dahle, Calder, Fancey, bassist John Collins and synthesizer jockey Blaine Thurier.
Dahle, for instance, is the band's secret weapon — maybe the best drummer in indie rock today, he brings a widescreen crash and thunder, especially since "Twin Cinema," which brought his animated pounding to the front of the mix on highlights like "Use It." Calder, originally brought in to substitute for Case on the road, has found an impressive voice of her own, and made a smashing vocal debut on "Failsafe" off 2007's "Challengers." (She has a solo record due out later this year and also plays with Immaculate Machine.)
Collins has the unenviable task of setting the rhythm for a band with a sound that's all over the map — and pulls it off. And though Newman and Bejar both play the guitar, it's expert shredder Fancey who truly gives the New Pornographers their guitar crunch; without him, the explosive rocker and pseudo-title track off the band's latest, "Your Hands (Together)," would limp rather than gallop.
The annals of supergroup history are littered with supporting players whose names might not have resonated with mass audiences —it's the rare Traveling Wilburys that can load an entire band with ringers — but who acted as the glue holding more famous personalities together. Think Family bassist Ric Grech anchoring Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood in Blind Faith. Or unsung guitar hero and soundtrack composer Dave Kushner keeping it real as the least visible member of Velvet Revolver.
But in the New Pornographers, it's the marginal names who make up the majority — and when the rarely seen full lineup takes the stage at Stubb's, it's the lesser-known players who will truly make the show sing.
So, in short: Sure, come for the names you know. Stay for those you probably don't.
The New Pornographers at Stubb's
With the Dodos and Imaad Wasif
When:Doors open at 7 p.m. Friday
Where:Stubb's, 801 Red River St.